Transit planners and lovers wax romantic about the virtues of transit oriented development as well as the potential of current and future urban areas to support successful public transportation.  However, as Yonah Freemark at the Next American City points out, such development is only successful for cities that have sufficient urban density.  Freemark discussed the early 20th century idea and development of streetcar suburbs and why they no longer have their streetcars and whether we will make the same mistakes again with current light rail developments.  (My partner shared this column with me)

Aaron Renn argued last week on the Urbanophile that metropolitan areas with populations of less than about two million inhabitants don’t necessitate the kind of high densities urbanists often promote. Citing the example of Columbus, Ohio, Renn suggested that because these regions are small enough in area to make commuting from one end to the other by car possible within a short amount of time, creating dense, walkable neighborhoods focused around a “huge, packed, downtown core” is not absolutely necessary.

In some ways, his argument rings true: for those driving private automobiles, neighborhoods like the former streetcar suburbs may be ideal. For businesspeople hopping from one side of the region to the other (“to lunch”), driving in medium-sized cities works fine.

On the other hand, for everyone else—the young, the old, the poor, the sick—such neighborhoods provide no alternatives. You can’t easily walk to school or to the store or to the senior center when you live in a streetcar suburb. Nor can transit operators provide adequate service, since densities are too low to make frequent buses possible.

This discussion plays on something conceptually obvious, that to have successful transit there must be a critical mass of people relying on the service or else it is bound to fail.  No government can afford to run buses or trolleys down thoroughfares on a frequent basis when they will be largely empty most of the time. Moreover, with insufficient density and a lack of commercial destinations for residents transit will be underutilized.

However, that idea may not be as obvious as it seems. I cannot count how many times I have been waiting for the Green Line trolley in Boston when I have heard fellow riders complain and wonder out loud why the MBTA is not more like New York’s MTA.  The simple answer is that New York City subways are large, convenient and frequently running because they service a lot of people in a small area in densely populated Manhattan.  Clearly, boarding a trolley with 12 other people in Brookline is incredibly dissimilar from joining hundreds at Columbus Circle.

Therefore, there are many cities that may have large populations that are insufficiently dense to provide the kind of transit service that gives people reason to give up their cars.  In my mind for these borderline and unqualified urban areas there are at least three solutions if transit is to be developed.

1) Local, state and federal policy can encourage zoning changes to allow for greater density before building transit systems.

2) Communities can simultaneously adopt policies restricting the presence of cars per household and/or parking spaces to emphasize transit usage and car sharing.  In this fashion only households which desire to utilize transit will move into these communities, rendering both density and transit-dependent density.

3) Perhaps the least feasible of the ideas, but I will continue to push for pod transit in the suburbs.  I still believe a linkable pod system that utilizes public thoroughfares but simultaneously allows for the malleability of personal motor transit in suburban locations has a reasonable future.

As oil prices go up and American population continues to escalate we will want to develop successful transit systems.  In order to do so we must develop the housing and parking policies that correspond to make both viable.

Today I would like to connect infrastructure improvements to both jobs and social interactions.

With all the talk of the thus-far jobless recovery, investment in transportation and other infrastructure may never be more important.  We have shipped so many of many of our manufacturing jobs overseas, and that has dramatic consequences because the people who used to have those jobs are not trained to suddenly take desk or service jobs.  However, construction and its related needs–such as concrete production–cannot be shipped overseas.

Bob Herbert noted the tremendous importance of infrastructure in America historically and the incredibly important role it will play in the American future.  He stated the obvious, that we have neglected our infrastructure for too long and that if America is to thrive once again it will be on the back of dependable infrastructure:

We used to be so much smarter about this stuff. A recent publication from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution reminds us that:

“Since the beginning of our republic, transportation and infrastructure have played a central role in advancing the American economy — from the canals of upstate New York to the railroads that linked the heartland to industrial centers and finally the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

“In each of those periods, there was a sharp focus on how infrastructure investments could be used as catalysts for economic expansion and evolution.”

Policy makers all but gave up on that kind of thinking years ago. America’s infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows. Felix Rohatyn’s book on the subject, “Bold Endeavors,” opens with: “The nation is falling apart — literally.”

It’s almost as if we no longer understand the crucial links between infrastructure and the health of the American economy, the state of the environment and the viability of the nation as a whole. We’ve become stupid about this.

While it is a tangential connection, I would like to suggest that building improved transportation infrastructure is also important for the social capital of this country.  We are becoming increasingly disjointed and independent, living in digital social realms and within cubicles that frequently separate us from each other, getting to work individually in cars.  It is rare outside the sporting event and church that we feel immersed in communal space and the larger venture that we acknowledge as society.

Slate recently wrote about social interactions on the subway and how people react to certain requests, such as the ability to take a seat.  There is a certain etiquette to traveling on public transportation, and admittedly different rules for different modes in different places.  However, it is amazing how the little things of seeing people of different socio-economic status, age and ability is of great value to our sense of place and understanding.  Moreover, transportation is the great uniter.  Working for the MBTA this past summer, everyone always reacted to my experience with a story or notion about public transit.

Getting people out of their cars and into shared spaces is an important element of reuniting a divided society and to do it we need to invest in infrastructure, one of the keys to jobs for people of all talents and classes, going forward.

MBTA near miss

Last week’s SEPTA strike was deeply unsettling to me and momentarily made me rethink my approach toward transit workers.  However, even if the SEPTA workers were greedy and stubborn, I still believe we should appreciate those who get us from here to there and back.

In particular, we should all be thanking Charice Lewis who operates an Orange Line train for the MBTA in Boston.  On Friday night Lewis managed to pull her emergency break in time to save the life of a passenger who drunkenly stumbled onto the track (the picture above has a link to more photos and the article linked to has video).

The fact that this train stopped is a minor miracle.  The passenger fell off at the front of the platform such that the train had the least amount of time to stop.  Of course the woman who fell off the platform had been drinking for several hours prior.  She managed to survive with just scraped knees.  While the operator should be heralded, the passengers who took care to wave down the train should also be congratulated.  Though it is not quite as impressive as the man who jumped into the NYC subway in 2007 to save another man’s life.

So, thank your public transportation drivers, they are critical to your movement and routine, and just might save your life.  Oh, and please stand behind the yellow line!

portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

Red LIne to Alewife

Boston media and popular conversation within the city loves to pick on the transportation workhorse of the region, the MBTA.   The T always seems to be held to a very high standard and praise is hard to come upon, especially in the Boston Globe or Boston Herald.

Sunday, the Globe “investigated” why it costs so much to operate the MBTA.  It was far from a positive article, focusing on the costs of the silver line and all-too-briefly discussing the value of per-mile costs versus per-passenger costs.  The data was haphazardly taken from the National Transit Database run by the FTA.

The federal data reviewed by the Globe focus on operating costs and do not take into account debt, the system’s unmet maintenance needs, or chronic problems finishing projects on time and on budget.

But conclusions based on day-to-day operating costs are controversial in transportation circles. The T can look efficient or expensive compared with other agencies, depending on the type of transportation analyzed and how costs are broken down.

Calculating what it costs to run an hour of bus service, for example, yields a different ranking than calculating the cost of running that bus for a mile. Other variables include differences in trip length, size of train cars, and regional cost of living.

Comparisons between transit agencies are “anecdotal at best,’’ said Jonathan Davis, deputy director and chief financial officer at the MBTA. “Our numbers are certainly in line with our peers for operating in an urban environment.’’

This particular article, while critical, seemed to at least cut the T some slack given all the monetary, upkeep, and transit pressures in moving 1.2 million people a day.

While the issues of debt, choices in vehicles used, services provided and cost of maintenance are beyond my knowledge I do wonder how much of any transit system’s economic and service success is based based on the landscape.

Anne Whiston Spirn, currently a professor at Harvard Business School, has emphasized landscape literacy throughout her urban planning career.  So much of the landscape determines how we build and how we design successfully.  Moreover, when we spurn the will of the land, we frequently pay the price.  Much of that landscape determined in Boston how the roads were laid out and where.  That landscape and those roads define the transit system.  I am convinced that the MBTA is less efficient than it could be because the roads are not straight and there are very few easy ways to get from one part of the city to the other.

The roads do not define the debt crisis but I will be intrigued to look at whether systems that have an easier time hewing to straight lines, such as the Manhattan portion of the MTA, are more efficient due to the layout of the system.  The lessons of older systems that impose transit upon existing landscapes have much to teach us about building new transportation systems where cities are still flexible and imagined.

MTA fare vending

Jarret Walker at Human Transit posted a 5 point list of how to make a transit system friendly to strangers.  His list, with the assistance of one of his readers, is posted below:

1. Figure out what the point(s) of access are for visitors to your city (i.e. train station, airport) and optimize customer service at those locations. If you can only focus your efforts on improving the experience in one place, start with the downtown train station.

2. Make sure every transit officer everywhere has maps. A transit officer without maps is like a waiter without menus.

3. Color code the bus lines on the route maps by level of frequency. … [JW:  I would say color-code all lines by frequency regardless of whether they're bus, rail or ferry.  Many good European systems do this.]

4. Make change. Or make the fare structure or fare collection method (machines that take credit cards) such that you don’t have to.  [JW:  I would disagree with this only if drivers are collecting fares while their bus or streetcar/tram is waiting.  Historic practice in both Europe and Australasia is for drivers to make change.  It causes a lot of delay.  But of course off-board systems should make change.  Most claim to, but machines often run out of change quickly.]

5. Make the fare zones easy to understand, and make it such that most places visitors to the city would be going are all within one fare zone.

I think Jarret and his commenter are spot on.  I would add that every stop with a turnstile should have working vending machines for fares (something Philadelphia, for example, lacks).  I would also clarify his maps to say that as many signs and maps as possible should be in multiple major world languages and symbols should be used to avoid language when possible.

I really like the idea of focusing on certain central locations.  While visitors will certainly visit and sometimes start their transit trips at non-central locations, such as if they are first picked up by family or hosts, certain stations certainly are more trafficked than others by visitors.

The one addition that is necessary, is to have a visitor-friendly website.  Many tourists will surely check out the website of a transit agency either while in or before visiting a city, especially in the era of the iphone. Websites must be able to be read in multiple languages, like the MBTA’s, and the website must be able to correlate transit stops with popular and important city landmarks.

The added benefit of course is that if a transit system is accessible to a visitor it will sure be accessible to a city resident and perhaps make riding public transportation less formidable to the metropolitan citizen.

cellphone_driving_poka0059-325x294This one is just too easy.  The New York Times published a story on Sunday about how truck drivers are lobbying not to have texting laws apply to them.  I fully understand the need for drivers to get to locations on time and the demands of a driver to get their trailers from place to place quickly and efficiently.  However, this is not an excuse for hurting safety.

According to the Times, rather than chatting on cell phones or texting on Blackberrys, truckers are communicating with their dispatch centers via computers in their cabs.  These computer feature screens and often keyboards right in the laps of drivers.  Here is a snippet from the article:

After videotaping truckers behind the wheel, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that those who used on-board computers faced a 10 times greater risk of crashing, nearly crashing or wandering from their lane than truckers who did not use those devices.

That figure is lower than the 23 times greater risk when truckers texted, compared with drivers simply focused on the road, according to the same study. However, the Virginia researchers said that truckers tend to use on-board computers more often than they text.

The study found that truckers using on-board computers take their eyes off the road for an average of four seconds, enough time at highway speeds to cover roughly the length of a football field.

Given all the hype present currently on texting (e.g. this summer’s MBTA crash) and distracted driving in general, the position of the truckers is unacceptable.  If only truck drivers were in danger from their actions, then so be it.  But truck drivers occupy the roads with millions of other Americans, and reckless driving by a driver in a multi-ton 18-wheeler puts the lives of other drivers (truck and automobile) at tremendous risk.

I really have very low tolerance for such action, if we cannot transport our goods effectively and safely on the roads it is all the more reason to invest more in our freight railroads where drivers rarely intersect with the trains.

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