December 9, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 15Comment

Yesterday I mentioned sewer systems as an indispensable part of urban infrastructure, and today I want to focus on the more visible issue of transportation. The efficiency with which people and goods move into and within cities has a huge impact on both energy use and air quality. And the availability of non-driving modes of transportation can improve people’s lives in a lot of ways.

I read a few blogs that address transportation issues (Greater Greater Washington is indispensible for DC-area transportation nerds), and I’d like to address an assumption that I see a lot of commenters making: Just because I advocate for public transportation doesn’t mean I want to take anyone’s car away. Personal vehicles make sense in a lot of situations. My husband and I don’t own a car, but we rent one – usually on an hourly basis through Zipcar – when we’re planning a big shopping trip or going to visit friends out in the suburbs. If I have to go anywhere that would require waiting for two infrequent buses, I’ll usually hail a cab instead. And I appreciate the fact that riding a bus as a lone adult is far, far easier than boarding one with multiple small children and a stroller that has to be folded up.

In other words, there are plenty of times when driving a personal vehicle is an understandable choice. The problem is, when too many people drive at once, we get traffic jams, which increase pollution and frustration levels. If some of the people currently driving could use a different mode of transportation instead, the remaining drivers – and the bus riders – could spend less time stuck in traffic.

Cities that invest in non-driving forms of transportation can also help reduce inequality. There are many people who can’t drive for a variety of reasons:

  • Cost: Owning and maintaining a car is expensive: According to AAA’s latest estimate, it costs an average of between $6,496 (for a small sedan) and $11,085 (for an SUV) per year to own a car and drive it 15,000 total miles annually. The small sedan figure is the equivalent of 83 DC bus rides ($1.50 each) or 55 New York subway rides ($2.25 each) per week – and the bus system won’t ask you to shell out $500 unexpectedly because there’s a sudden need for transmission repairs.
  • Age: Kids and young teens can’t legally drive, and since teens ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash (per mile driven), it’s in everyone’s interest to give them non-driving options for getting around. At the other end of the age spectrum, many people have to drive less as they age because of declining vision, reaction times, and strength. If we want people at every age to remain engaged in their communities and able to get where they need to go (school, work, doctor’s appointments, etc.), we need public transportation.
  • Temporary Reductions in Driving Ability: Driving safely requires paying constant attention to one’s surroundings and being able to react quickly. Fatigue, alcohol, and cell phone use all impair people’s driving ability. I’d rather have a drunk person sitting next to me on the bus (and I do know what that’s like) than driving a car.

Laying tracks for transit can also drive economic development. Portland’s streetcar line, which opened in 2001, is credited with transforming a “dicey warehouse area” into a lively neighborhood boasting a mix of residences, restaurants, and retail. A 2008 city-funded study found that the streetcar system had generated $3.5 billion in investments and driven more than 10,000 housing units to be built within two blocks of the line. Here in DC, the city has embarked on a new streetcar system, and the first two lines will be in high-poverty parts of the city that have been underserved by public transportation.

I’m particularly glad to see DC investing in streetcars because they’ll run on electricity. Given that oil’s a finite resource and the global rate of oil extraction will inevitably slow, we can expect to see oil prices climb. (See Sharon Astyk’s Peak Oil 101 for more on this.) Having a transportation system that uses non-oil sources of energy will make cities better able to weather oil price increases and scarcity. Ideally, the electricity will be generated by renewable forms of energy rather than fossil fuels. (Dan Malouff offers more reasons why streetcars are better than buses in places where high ridership volume is expected.)

There are places where the population density just isn’t sufficient to support a good network of bus lines or a light-rail system. Even in those places, there are some lower-cost improvements that can make it easier for people to get around without a car. Walking and biking are both great options for shorter trips – and even if people aren’t commuting by foot or bike, these are good forms of exercise to encourage for health reasons. Departments of Transportation should include sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike paths in their transportation planning. Other improvements that can improve pedestrian and cyclist safety include signage to remind drivers to yield to pedestrians and share the road with cyclists, “lead pedestrian intervals” at signalized intersections, and timing traffic signals so pedestrians have enough time to cross streets safely. These may not be the kinds of things that first spring to mind when discussing transportation infrastructure, but they can make a difference in how safely and conveniently people can get where they’re going.

15 thoughts on “Investing in Urban Infrastructure: Transportation

  1. Part of the problem is some transit advocates really do want to take your car and everyone else’s car away. They are few, but they are loud and really I think it only take hearing on person call driving “immoral” to get people to shut down.

    I’ve been amazed at how much less using Zipcar (even at pretty heavy rates) is costing me than owning a car did. Even with one pretty long cab ride with a sick cat because I needed to go to the vet right then and no cars close by were available.

  2. It seems to me that a change in the North American zoning tradition could reduce a lot of driving. At present there are large tracts devoted to housing, others devoted to business and yet other areas that are purely industrial. This results in long daily commutes. I see no major reason why some industry (e.g. garment making) is not compatible with housing provided there is no problem with the accessibility.

  3. katydid – I’m sure there are people with extreme transit positions just like there are people with extreme positions on just about any issue. But you’re right, I think people are particularly sensitive if they hear even one transit advocate suggesting that people stop driving.

    Richard – zoning laws are indeed a driver of sprawl and the long commutes it causes. And people who’ve lived for a long time in spread-out areas don’t tend to want to see them become more dense. There are also things like DC’s building height limit, which causes housing that could be built in the city to go up in the suburbs instead.

  4. convience is the problem. obviously you pointed out that it is not always possible to opt for public transport, but for those lone adults why do they chose to drive when they can get a bus, walk or cycle? It is because of convience and comfort, awareness needs to be raised and change needs to occur, but how much of an impact would it actually have? People are willing to spend hundreds of pounds to fly 1st class to improve their comfort but when their daily comfort is challenged, will they really be prepared to change for the undoubtable benefits?

  5. Katydid, have you heard of Peak Oil? It’s real, not a joke, not a game.

    “Taking away people’s cars.” Nobody is saying that, as you ought to know.

    The question at hand is whether we in the USA are going to face the facts about cars-first transportation. If we don’t do that soon, the energy supply is going to “take away our cars” all on its own.

  6. Caoimhe, I agree that comfort and convenience are a big factor in transportation decisions, and there are things transit systems can do to improve in both areas. Over the past couple of years, DC’s bus system has introduced some limited-stop buses on heavily used lines at rush hour and launched a “NextBus” system that lets you get predictions of when a bus will arrive at your stop (it’s accessible online and through a phone system). These kinds of things can make people more willing to take the bus.

    Also, streetcars can be more comfortable than buses and seem to attract people who wouldn’t ordinarily ride a bus. There just seems to be an anti-bus bias – maybe because there tend to be dozens of bus lines vs. only a few streetcar lines, or because buses can be slow if they’re stopping at every …. single … block.

  7. This subject has lots of dimensions.

    First, I’d like to say that as a child my family lived for several years in a large European city, and the public transport was what people here in America dream about. They had bus, lightrail, and subways all very well integrated. No need to take a car anywhere in the city if you were healthy enough to walk a few blocks to the nearest station.

    But most places don’t have the dream solutions. In my current location in a mid-sized American city, I am forced to drive. I don’t like it. My company even gives me a free all-year pass that works on the bus, the commuter train, and the ferry system. But I can’t use it because the routes between my home and my job are so indirect it would add 2 hours per day to my commute time to make a trip that is 20 minutes each way by car. Plus I work a swing shift, so the commute back would put me home after midnight, and would include a period of hanging around downtown late at night on the street waiting my transfer (yuck).

    The other thing is my avocation – music. I have to haul around my music equipment to go to gigs or rehearsals. The bus is out.

    So I am in the awkward position of having absolutely free transport provided by my company, and I can’t use it! Aaarrrgh!

    I said that just to give a real-world example. I drive a small more-or-less gas efficient car, but I can’t afford a new Chevy Volt or similar, which is what I’d rather be driving.

    Of course, if you go electric, as you stated, the problem still needs to be solved of how the electricity is generated. If it’s coming from a coal-powered electric plant, how much you’re changing anything by driving electric is highly questionable.

    I think these issues can be overcome by improving public transport systems.

    Also, one huge difference I noticed between Europe and America are status issues. In Europe, everyone took the bus. Over here, in my city, people seem to think that buses are only for poor people. So a lot of middle-class people avoid the bus just because they don’t want to share the experience with less well-off people. They won’t admit to this openly of course, but I can tell you that level of class-consciousness is real.

    So America has to get serious about public transport (caveat: the biggest cities such as NYC, Boston, LA, etc do have serious public transport systems, albeit still not as efficient as in Europe).

    It’s a tough issue also because of expense. Although admittedly cheaper in the long run, public transport is costly to implement for cities currently facing debt and big budget-slashing over the next few years. These days the political atmosphere is heavily skewed against citizens agreeing to any new taxes to help fund public transport improvements.

    It seems basic for me for citizens to realize if you want a good bus/subway/rail system you have to shell out a little bit for it, but the current atmosphere is so hysterically and dogmatically anti-tax for anything, even including life-saving 911 operations, that it becomes difficult for politicians to bring serious proposals to city councils because they know that nobody wants to pay for them.

  8. Actually I think we need to seriously enhance public transit systems throughout the country.

    Here in Providence, RI there’s talk of Bus Rapid Transit, streetcars and commuter rail.

    As it stand commuter rail is moving along. There are now stations in Providence, Warwick and next year this time Wickford, RI.

    However one thing irritates me, the streetcar. I want streetcars all over the city. Replace bus lines if you have to but build it out!

    I think that:
    a) We’re moving much too slowy
    b) We’re not being bold enough about beating up our legislative representatives and senators
    c) That the current system planned for Providence connects Brown University to the hospital complex on the south side. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Instead we have Olneyville languishing and it would IDEAL and EASY to build a line into that area from downtown and even the East Side. It’s a straight line along broad expanses of roadway.

    As to the financing here’s my proposal:

    I call it my one fifth rule. For every project using federal dollars, a full 20% has to go to public transit projects.

    I think we need these systems because we are approaching or at peak oil production now. And it isn’t going to get any better.

  9. In my city, Starkville, MS, our young mayor has promoted the addition of many miles of bike paths over the last couple of years. It is now much safer for the cyclist and for the auto driver.
    Due to increasing age and my husband’s poor eyesight, however, we will someday need to move to a city with a good public transportation system. We love the South, but find that only the largest cities seem to have bus routes and many of these areas are unsafe.
    If cities want to grow, they need to invest in public transportation systems. I believe that there are many “oldsters” just like us who would buy a home and support the economy in a city that would provide them with a reliable, efficient way to get from place to place.

  10. Yogi-one: Yours is a great example of why it can be hard to do anything other than drive – some combinations of locations, timing, and the need to haul gear just don’t lend themselves well to public transportation, at least in its current form.
    Also, I’ve heard the stereotype that buses are only for poor people; it’s certainly not true in DC, but I imagine that in places where the bus system is skeletal and infrequent, people who can’t afford to drive end up being the only ones who put up with the inconvenience and frustration. This may be why streetcars have been successful in some places where the transit system hasn’t been expensive – they’re not fighting to get people to overcome their stereotypes.

    Tony P: I agree that the funding formula should change, whether it’s by requiring a set percentage of funds for public transit or some other mechanism. Right now, it’s much harder to get federal funding for transit than for highway construction, so it’s not surprising we’ve got more highways than streetcar lines.

    Sue: An aging population is definitely an argument in favor of public transportation investment. I’d love to see senior citizens pressuring politicians as much about transit as they do about Medicare! Then we really might see some improvements.

  11. That the current system planned for Providence connects Brown University to the hospital complex on the south side. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Instead we have Olneyville languishing and it would IDEAL and EASY to build a line into that area from downtown and even the East Side. It’s a straight line along broad expanses of roadway.

  12. I also think the pricing structure of public transport leaves much to be desired. Flat fees discourage its use for short trips. The total cost of owning an average car is a lot more than an annual bus pass, but if you have to keep a car anyway (for example, for hauling gear or avoiding an unsafe commute, as with Yogi-one, or for fairly regular trips somewhere busses simply don’t go, as with me) it becomes cheaper to take the car than the bus for short distances. I once did the math and figured that by gas prices alone, I’d have to be going at least twenty-seven miles to make bus fare worthwhile! It would be less if I had a less fuel-efficient car, or were accounting for other costs, but even then I expect that once you own a car anyway, it’s cheaper just to drive to, say, the grocery store three miles away – and it’s certainly faster.

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