We’re strangers who know very little about each other, but we greet each other much like friends. What passes between us is a familiarity gained from a few moments every day on the 74 bus in Saint Paul. Yeah, I know that guy, howyadoin’? That is ultimately the best description of the key characteristic of any good urban transit system – dependability. It is the best possible description of it because it is on terms that are in the hearts of the people who ride it. But what else does a transit system need, in these terms?
President Obama has promised a lot more money for transit, which means we can reasonably expect there will be more of it in the future. I find that to be a good thing, assuming we spend the money wisely. Like any product, transit has to first and foremost serve the customers if it is to be considered successful. It also needs to be careful with its money for the simple reason that a transit dollar stretched further is a transit dollar that serves more people and has a stronger political support base. Add into the equation the need for stable public funding, and it quickly becomes obvious that money isn’t the only thing that transit needs – it needs good politics.
As Obama’s example shows, transit money and politics are always intimately intertwined. As a result, these two always get the headlines. The details of a good system are often mired in jargon and acronyms. Still, what really counts are people.
Why do we need transit systems at all? Since cities are often under-served by transit in the USofA, there is no reason why we can’t start with the places where operating a car is expensive or dangerous. Any urban area that daily encounters gridlock or where people have to spend a fortune to park in structured garages is an obvious target. Why is that? We can simply compare the cost per passenger of a parking space and related urban infrastructure, and compare it to the cost of transit. You don’t have to talk about the environment or civic pride or any of the other reasons commonly given for transit to make sense of it in many places – it makes simple dollars and sense. The best way to get past bad politics is to start in these places.
Once the need is defined, it’s easy to see who the people are that you are looking to serve. Where do they come from? Why are they on this patch of street at this time? Where are they going? It’s called an “Origin and Destination Study” in the biz, and it can tell you a lot about your customers. A smooth commute is a product people are eager to give their opinions on.
This may seem very basic, and it is, but it needs to be stated clearly because this often gets lost in the shuffle. Understanding your population leads you to know where a rail line might have to go and what kind of technology it should be based on. The Modern Streetcar is a smaller, slower system that holds few people than a big, fast LRT line – but costs about 1/3 as much to install. I’ll leave it to the City of Albuquerque to explain why they chose this technology. As of this year, it also qualifies for Federal Funding, up to half the cost, if the project is less than $250M.
These streetcars, fun as they are, are only part of the potential solution. Any good transit system has to be … (wait for it) a system. The technical term is “multi-modal”, which is to say made up of a lot of different ways of getting from one place to another. Cars don’t have this problem, since they take you more or less from your home to your place of work in one step, but transit has connections. Any transit system is going to have walking as part of the path, and you might ditch a slow streetcar for a faster train. All of those connections require some civic furniture, but most important of all they have to operate as a unit. Good sidewalks with places that feel safe to pedestrians are going to be the heart of any transit design that’s going to be used heavily.
Yes, you might think, that’s all great, but what about the money? The point is that stretching the money to include as many people as possible in your transit system isn’t just good politics, it’s good design. Sidewalks and bike lanes are cheap, but essential. Small lines built on buses or streetcars can feed into larger lines, with the scale at each step easily justified compared to other ways of getting around.
In the end, the reason we have less transit in many parts of the USofA has little to do with money. We always seem to find plenty of money lying around when sports teams threaten to relocate, and that’s only one example of civic piracy. Transit is about people, and if people aren’t the basis of transit planning it will ultimately become a political football. That’s utterly unnecessary. Anyone who rides a train or a bus together with familiar strangers knows that politics is just about the last thing that fills the spaces inbetween people when they are sharing a bit of the ride together.