Give the neighbors a say–but how much?

In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, they’re looking at expanding the light rail they have by providing what would seem to an outside observer (me) a link between the two cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Obviously, the two cities have grown up without the rail infrastructure, so lots of homes and businesses will be affected, and a group of the affected folks evidently sued to stop the project, saying planners didn’t pay them enough heed.

The judge seems to be saying, “You could have paid them more heed, but your sin wasn’t egregious enough to make me want to stop the project.”  To me, this raises a couple of important considerations for transit planners and advocates, AND people who do the same day job as me–public participation/community engagement.

In theory, it would be great if the people who would be using a new transit system or line had a substantial say in where it went, and maybe even how it got built.  In practice, it would be hard to please anyone.  I would love, though, to see us try.  I would love to see us create tools–both online and in-person–for people to use to plot out transit lines and understand the costs, both financial and otherwise, associated with their preferences.  If someone wanted a stop near their home or business, but was concerned about how long construction would disrupt things, theoretically, they could toggle the amount of time spent on construction, speeding things up–which would cost more overall (labor overtime, etc.) but might seem less costly to those most immediately affected.

The mantra that “transit must pay for itself” (repeated recently by a an anti-transit-sounding member of Congress) means that the people for whom it is being built have to use it and pay for it.  So, as a practical matter, those people should have a significant say in how it will run and work.  While I am not suggesting that transit planners can ever prevent disruption during the construction phase and should not, therefore, stop a project because it will cause some disruption, I think we would be wise to think of ways to involve the public so that they both approve the concept AND its execution, and they understand the choices associated with a particular route or construction schedule.

Return to me

I am finally returning to this strange passion of mine–the world of transit.  In the coming weeks, I intend to post pictures and commentary from recent trips to Chile, New York, San Francisco, and Dallas, where I rode transit and made observations.

Before getting into the specifics of those transit systems and my trips on them, I would make a few general observations, both about those systems and about transit in general.  My perception, backed by some data, suggests that we have something of a paradox in public transportation today.  More people than ever want to use it, and more of it, in their daily lives and for special trips (i.e., high speed rail out of town), but funding lags.  But to me, if a city like Dallas, one of the more sprawling and “transit-unfriendly” I have seen, can add three light rail lines and a commuter rail line to Fort Worth, that says something about the bright future of transit nationally, if not worldwide.  Whether for financial, environmental, moral, logistical, or other reasons, people want alternatives to driving themselves where they want to go.  What’s important is for people to accept the need for upfront investments in public transportation that lead to a tremendous amount of additional value in their cities and states, that put money back into their pockets, time back into their days (in the ideal scenario), and the like.

I’ll say more about all of this later.  For now, here’s a quick update from South Florida, which I visit frequently.  While at first it might not seem so significant that a bus is dropping stops and running express, the report claims that this change in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area is significant: “The service was launched last January as the first true regional cross-county bus service that allows riders to take a single bus deep into the heart of the adjacent county without having to switch to another bus after they cross the county line.”

And returning to the idea of money in people’s pockets, “”I am looking forward to experiencing a shortened ride to and from the downtown area,” said Marc Cohen of Pembroke Pines. “Even in a gas efficient vehicle, a round trip in and out of Miami will run about $6 in gas. If you want that express lane, add another $4. There is an obvious saving of time, money and gas here. Who can complain?”‘

Beyond taking away reason to complain, my hope is that South Floridians begin thinking more about a reason to switch.  In all my visits to South Florida, it is obvious that much of the region does not lend itself nicely to transit.  You have limited walkability and long stretches of major roadways with lots of traffic signals.  So, to make transit competitive with driving, at least on the basis of how long it takes, is not easy.  I applaud the South Floridian initiative, in this case, to recognize the need to connect the cities of the region and to put in place measures to enhance the riding experience–dedicated lanes, sensors to change traffic lights for buses, etc.  I hope it helps ridership and changes the way South Floridians view transit.

#snappatx

BP and transit

This interesting piece in the Guardian illuminates a disturbing irony in light of the BP oil spill–at a time when more folks might want to use transit to reduce our demand for oil, transit agencies are making cuts.

Community rail vs. streetcar

Cincinnati appears locked in a tense battle over competing visions for future transit expansion–urban streetcar on one hand, regional commuter rail on the other.  The issue appears to be which project should earn federal funding, and part of the issue appears to be process–elected officials and/or staffs from the city and county don’t seem to have communicated clearly enough to avoid the crisis of confusion that seems to have occurred there.

But beyond that, the debate raises important questions about what a community’s transportation priorities should be.  In my community, we frequently find ourselves wrestling with how best to plan not just for the city of Austin but for the Central Texas region–given how many people need to travel from outside the city limits to inside of it and beyond it on a daily basis.  Clearly, a commuter rail line speaks more to those needs than an urban streetcar does.  But a streetcar has a certain added “cachet” with riders–both tourists and residents–who like the quieter, lighter feeling of streetcars with more places to board.  A commuter rail seems more well-suited to take cars off the roads by enabling people to get to work without one, but it’s often hard to function without urban light rail by riding the commuter rail into town but then needing to go somewhere else for an appointment, event, meeting, etc.  Some might argue a streetcar, with its more compact urban routes, might also encourage a certain kind of land use/growth pattern that is more compact and environmentally sustainable, limiting the overall carbon and cement footprint of growth, while commuter rail may at least prolong the existence of more spread out development, if not encourage it.

In the end, the question in the Cincinnati area could be much more practical–the streetcar project appears more “shovel ready” than the commuter rail project, and sometimes it takes getting a project done, even if it does not meet everyone’s needs, to stimulate future construction.  At the very least, this incident points to the need for robust dialogue and consensus-building among various entities within a given region.  From a transit fan’s perspective, this is also the kind of problem I’d like to have–two competing proposals to enhance the transportation landscape in Cincinnati, without building more roads. #snappatx

Amtrak and downtown–a winning combo?

This post from Jacksonville highlights an interesting aspect of the “transit-oriented development” discussion–how Amtrak, or out of town rail, can bolster a city’s urban core.  It’s also notable that there can be more affordable, though perhaps less aesthetically pleasing, interim solutions for bringing Amtrak downtown that would help catalyze high speed rail’s arrival to the area.  It’s critically important to think about the co-location of multiple transportation modes near services, attractions, and the like to make them more appealing to the traveling public–particularly when airports are (of necessity) typically located some distance from a city’s downtown. #snappatx

Data is power

This post and this site help illustrate the power of arming people with data to make it much easier for them to master a transit system.  For me, it is incredibly easy for me to find a bus through Dadnab or Google Transit, but I think both the transit community and the web/tech community can do more to make people aware of this and to make the data more available.  No one has anything to lose by making the data more available. #snappatx

Let’s face it–we’re following China

Public radio’s Here and Now did an interesting piece on high speed rail expansion in China, including a video I think I had seen before showing how some Chinese trains don’t even have to stop at stations to let passengers off.  It’s pretty cool.

Suffice it to say, the Obama administration’s investment in high speed rail service for the U.S. is very helpful from a job creation, sustainability, and transportation efficiency standpoint.  In theory, high speed rail can actually be competitive with the airlines on certain journeys.  For instance, consider a trip from Austin to Dallas, a roughly 200 mile journey on major roads.  Some of China’s high speed rail lines are believed to exceed 200 miles per hour in speed, so that journey could take as little as one hour, the same amount of time a flight would take, and flights would require early arrival and a journey from the airport to the destination.  High speed rail is rightly being explored for both interstae and intrastate travel, and it’s within the intrastate itineraries that I think it can have the greatest impact (California and Florida are particularly active in exploring this). #snappatx