Tag Archives: public transportation

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.


More Dallas..and change is in Austin’s air

Capital Metro is going to interview two external candidates to be CEO.  It seemed inevitable that the leadership would need to change–given all the negative publicity surrounding the agency and its launch of commuter rail.

I’ll be curious to see how the public responds to these two candidates.  Orlando, where one of the candidates comes from, has significant challenges related to transit planning–Orlando’s land use is planned in such a way to make transit very difficult.  Each time we’ve gone there, I’ve looked ahead of time at the possibility of getting around via transit, and each time, it’s seemed impractical even for me–90 or more minutes on buses, plus long walks, for a 15 minute drive.  That said, Austin is no picnic when it comes to linking our existing land use patterns to sensible transit, so the Orlando candidate could bring some valuable experience.

The candidate with more rail experience would obviously bring a lot of value to a city desperately in need of additional rail linking key nodes of density and going closer to where people currently are.  That said, I’d be curious how she (and the Orlando candidate) would deal with Austin’s transportation politics–apart from the need for expertise in the subject area, there’s a need for rock-solid communication and public leadership and diplomacy skills.  We shall see.

Meanwhile, Dallas continues pushing forward, and it’s making me red with envy.  Granted, streetcars are not the world’s most efficient transportation mode–as folks in San Francisco will tell you, people seem to ride more for the experience than for getting quickly from A to B.  But I think it engenders lots of enthusiasm for transit as a whole, which feeds into the health of the broader system, which is important.  So, kudos (gulp) to Dallas.


The train has left the station

Today is a great day for Austin as commuter rail service launches.  As Ben Wear in the Statesman  correctly points out, this is just the beginning.  Capital Metro has to prove it’s up to the task of maintaining this existing line, and multiple agencies have to tackle the hard work of building new rail to connect to population and activity centers.

The tough thing about rail is that it both attracts much more excitement/attention AND requires much more money than bus service.  So, we’re faced with the challenge of leveraging the excitement surrounding this morning’s commuter rail launch towards building political and financial capital for a full-fledged rail system.  But having seen full light-rail park and ride lots in Dallas (!) (stay tuned for pictures and an account in a future entry), and knowing the will so many Austinites have to ride (and pay to ride) transit, I think we’re positioned well to have the system we want, and need, for the future.

Stay tuned.

Fares and fuel

I thought this account of protests on public transportation fares in Pakistan is interesting–the argument is that since the price of the natural gas that fuels many public transport vehicles hasn’t changed, neither should most fares for rides on those vehicles.  I’m not sure that’s the only criterion that should govern fare increases, but I certainly believe the more we can wean public transportation vehicles onto the cleanest-burning fuels, the better.  But it seems to me that hybrid and other similarly alternative-fuel vehicles cost more, so fares may need to reflect that greater cost, at least for the time being.

I hear a train a comin’…

This may be one of the more important moments for a transit geek like me.  My hometown, Austin, has rescheduled the launch of its commuter rail “Red Line” in next couple of weeks.  Viewed out of the context of a larger system, the line has limited appeal.  It represents the transit agency’s plan to utilize track it already owned to start the system and build upon initial successes.  But it doesn’t go to many of the City’s hot spots (or areas of high density).

Nevertheless, it’s been five and a half years since Austin voters approved this line, and I firmly believe it prove to be quite popular.  That, in turn, will give city leaders needed momentum headed into a potential transportation bond referendum this November that would, in theory, fund additional rail in the future.

Having said all that, I am just as interested in sustained improvements to bus service as I am in the build-out of rail.  It is undeniable that rail provides benefits to communities like ours that buses cannot–namely, the more permanent nature of rail lines stimulates economic development at levels far greater than a new bus line can.  In a time when budgets like ours are barely hanging on, any boost to the city’s property tax base would be a welcome one.  But the upfront costs for rail are obviously much higher, and the timelines much longer, than improvements for bus service.

Capital Metro has wisely undertaken master planning for bus service, and I hope that the “less sexy” changes associated with that effort go into effect quickly.  The more frequently buses arrive, and the more efficiently they take passengers to their destination, the more people will get out of their cars and onto transit more permanently.  That will, in turn, spur greater investment in a more robust multi-modal transportation system.

I certainly don’t expect Austin to become anything close to car-free anytime soon, but I do believe a set of minor and major changes to the transit system could make a significant dent on car congestion.  That, of course, means Austin could avoid sanctions from the Environmental Protection Agency for poor air quality, and we would be able to function better with our existing road system, which experts say is about as built out as can be.

Mumbai Monorail?

Interesting to see where Mumbai’s budgetary priorities are–more for public transportation than anything else.  It is exciting for a city as enormous as Mumbai (16.4 million people by one estimate) to make transit a #1 priority, and it will provide a very meaningful case study for cities around the world, particularly the developing world, to see what transit can do–both in terms of mobility, air quality, and economic development.