January 19, 2009
Moving Transit Ahead to an Even Better Future
By Jonathan McDonald, PE
Chair, APTA Research & Technology Committee
San Francisco, CA
Last year will always be remembered as the year that the “old” economy crashed. While it is too early to tell, 2009 is certainly shaping up to be the year the “phoenix of the new economy” rose up out of the ashes. We have the unprecedented opportunity and challenge to help rebuild our society for the better by developing public transit that is integrated, attractive, and valued in our communities.
In the old economy, Americans spent 18 percent of their income on transportation, only to spend 2.5 hours per day in their cars, and waste more than $100 billion annually in traffic jams. Transit, however, can change this equation because those of us who use public transit only spend 8 percent of our income on transportation, thus improving the quality of life for those few who can use it today.
The challenge to all of us in the transit field is how to provide this advantage more widely: to provide, say, 25 to 30 percent of the 1.3 billion personal trips taken by Americans each day vs. the 1.6 percent currently taken. Is such a massive transformation of society even possible? Is America capable of building and financing such massive infrastructure?
The answer to both questions is most definitely yes, because we did it before with the interstate highway system and the development of suburban America just 60 years ago. But how would we go about building it and what would transit look like?
Because of the vast amount of financing needed for such an endeavor, it is unlikely that the old way of funding transit through raising taxes would be sufficient or even acceptable to the extent needed to build the hundreds of billions of dollars of new infrastructure needed. As such, we must look outside the box for opportunities to partner with users and benefactors alike to come up with a creative and economically efficient and attractive way to build systems.
This process will include more than just public-private partnerships. It will be a union of common interests between labor, employers, commerce, and government to deliver transportation that serves the majority of the population’s daily trips in urban areas and provides viable transportation, not only within cities, but also between urban areas. Public transit developed in this way, by and for the entire community, is likely to look different from transit today. Whether or not any particular community votes for space-age monorails or historic streetcars is not the point here. The point is that transit will begin to take on more of the following characteristics of an overall transportation system because the community will depend on transit for its overall transportation needs.
Clean, comfortable, safe, and secure: Transit needs to be clean, comfortable, and safe enough to send your kids to school on it or your grandmother to the store on it.
Integrated: Transit needs to be integrated—not only among modes, but also within our communities and lives. This means that travel from one end of a metro area to the other must be seamless, although not in the sense of a single trip or mode as is common today. Rather, seamless in this context refers to an integrated transit system that minimizes delays between agencies and modes. Common transit coordination issues such as trip planning, payments, policies, and access are worked out so passengers barely notice changes in agency or mode. More importantly, though, transit must be integrated into our communities.
Dependable: Transit needs to be famous for its frequency and punctuality.
Easy to use: Transit must be simple and easy to use so that both young schoolchildren and the elderly who use walkers can ride flawlessly.
Availability: One of the most prevalent reasons why transit is not used more today is lack of availability. Transit will need to provide service nearly everywhere whenever passengers need to be there.
Cost-effective: Transit will be an economical choice that is right for the majority, so it will need to be less expensive than an automobile—but this does not mean absolutely cheap. Transit agencies will be able to pay for operations and system upgrades through monies earned on fares or other sources of revenue generation.
Time-competitive: Transit will need to be as fast as other forms of transportation. This is more than trip time as we measure it today. Transit must be time-competitive for passengers from the time they leave their point of origin until they reach their destination.
Supports social and economic development: Transit will be woven into the fabric of society so transit planning becomes an integral part of land use and economic development.
Environmentally sound: Unlike the automobile culture of today, the transit centric culture of tomorrow will be clean and green.
One thing about the future is relatively certain: if transit does nothing to help change the future, the economic phoenix of 2009 will mean a poorer standard of living for Americans. But if we are creative and build transit to its capability, developing a system that takes care of most of people’s average 4.3 trips per day, the public will now be free to choose to have only one car in a two-income family. Americans will be able to choose to send their children to school on transit available in the neighborhood. The elderly will be able to get around without waiting for family to drive them.
And, most importantly, the vast majority of Americans will have a higher standard of living and quality of life now that they are not tied to an automobile that costs a good percentage of the wages they earn.