Monday, March 31, 2014

Editorial: Build more public transit and all road users will be happier

Image courtesy of Inhabitat.com
For most Americans, when we think of transportation, we start by thinking about cars first. That is how most of us have grown up and most Gen Y and Millennials have spent countless hours in their family's cars, traveling to and from school or extracurricular activities. Oftentimes what we grow up with has a major impact on how we perceive situations as adults. With transportation, it is no exception as most Americans still get up in the morning and drive to work every day. Yet, things are beginning to change.

In 2013, American public transit use reached its highest level in 57 years. The report, compiled by the America Public Transportation Association (APTA), noted that the 10.7 billion (yes, that's billion with a "B") trips are composed of largely mass transit options, such as buses and trains, which have made a comeback as uncertain economic times have discouraged many American's from spending the funds on a personal vehicle. Combine that with the increase in cycling in urban environs, and Americans seem to be making a conscious shift away from personal vehicles.

Image courtesy of usastreetsblog.org
This is not a bad thing. In fact, the more people utilize public transportation, the fewer cars there will be clogging the roads. The fewer cars clogging the roads means that those of us who like driving will get the chance to enjoy them more. Think about it this way: most people who commute by car each day probably do not actually want to have to commute by car and would much rather be doing something else with their time. The fact that they are behind the wheel of a 2-ton vehicle doesn't necessarily discourage them from doing that other thing, which divides their attention. Usually, the reason that commuter has chosen to drive is because they do not have good public transit options near enough to them, the public transit options balloon the amount of time required for the commute, or they simply need greater flexibility than public transit is able to offer.

But if we invested more public funds into our mass transit infrastructure and made it more readily accessible from more places, as quick or quicker than driving, and increasingly flexible, we could take many more drivers off the road. As the APTA report shows, when good public transit options are make available, more and more Americans are happy to rely on them in place of personal vehicles. Part of that is going to be increasing what we traditionally think of as public transit in the form of high-speed light rail and buses, but also must in part be things such as car sharing and bike sharing to fill the gaps in flexibility and access. Most importantly of all, the systems must be well integrated so that you can almost seamlessly transition from one form of transit to another without having to worry about extra payments or availability.

Image courtesy of Boston University
In fact, imagine if all of the various public transit options in a metropolitan area were consolidated into a single smartphone app that allowed you easily see and manage all of your commute options. In the morning. the app would provide real time tracking of bus routes to take you to the subway station, arrival times of subway trains, and availability of shared bikes. On top of this, it serves as your payment vehicle for each mode of transportation along the way, allowing you an efficient and road-rage free trip to work. After work, use the app to book a shared car to get to that early evening hiking spot just outside the city for a little exercise before returning to the city and reversing your commute home. This sort of seamless experience is what modern urban dwellers want and would likely further increase public transit use.

And every person who takes public transit is a person who is not driving. For those of use who are road users, taking those inattentive people off the street is always a good thing as it reduces accidents and road wear and makes it easier to justify additional infrastructure improvements, such as dedicated cycles tracks for bicycles, to help make driving or biking in cities safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

So fellow enthusiasts, regardless of whether you are a fan of cars, motorcycles, or bicycles, the next time an initiative appears supporting increased public mass transit options, throw your support behind it. It is in our own best interest, after all.

Tags: APTA, automotive, bicycle, commuting, mass transit, motorcycle, public transit