Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

How to get transit to 10%, 20%, then 30% market share

on 2009 July 16

Our metro region essentially does not do long range transportation planning. We react to conditions, we allocate funds, and do studies, but we don’t plan in the sense of thinking through alternatives and crafting a plan whose parts work together towards some greater effect. Highways, transit, land uses, water, and schools are all planned separately. Fundamental questions, like what is the optimal highway network for the next few decades, are never asked and never answered. Yes, we do detailed traffic models and we can predict with some accuracy that we will have worsening traffic conditions, but we fail to take the results of those predictions to heart and design the system differently to improve conditions. People are dying every year in accidents and families are shattered, and we know that how we plan the future has the potential to save lives, yet we don’t follow through and find the future scenario that saves the most lives. Our failed politics is literally killing us. We define highway expansion in terms of “need” for capacity, which is circular logic because it is precisely the way we design our auto-dependent future that creates the “need”. Transit plods along serving 1% of regional trips, with no long term vision for improving that dismal performance record. The most “visionary” idea in the last few years is to add 8-mph streetcar service to Central Ave, a project that will have no effect on system wide ridership due to its insignificant speed. We should be discussing high speed backbone services that will attract major ridership gains, but that discussion is not on the table. The fact that a few 100+ M$ interchanges might not be needed if we had higher transit ridership in not on the table either, because remember: the people who plan highway interchanges don’t work with the people who plan transit. The fact that zoning and other details that shape developments have major impacts on transportation demand is well known, but again those things are not planned together.

The whole model is self-bankrupting, toxic and deadly, but the situation is not at all hopeless. Here is the good news. This region already spends a few billion dollars annually on transportation, so we have plenty of money to work with. (A poverty mentality is not polite, so I’m not going there.) We spend privately on our cars about ten times what we spend publicly via taxes on roads and transit. A lot of that private money is wasted, in the sense that cars are a very wasteful way to travel. The money that we need to do the major infrastructure projects needs to come from efficiency gains in that vast river of private money; we can’t raise enough from new taxes. The other good news is that we have a vast amount of underdeveloped land and rights of way that can be retooled and redesigned for efficient habitats and connections.

So we have the space and the money; all we need is a vision and a system of organization that is capable of achieving results. My vision is that we should incrementally and aggressively increase transit share to 10%, then 20% then 30%. That puts transit in the league of serving a million trips per day. This will save many lives, lower our carbon emissions, and reduce the overall system costs, resulting in profits that can be recycled back into education and other priorities. It’s a wealth creation scheme. It cannot be done by empty encouragement. It has to be done by providing transit service that is time-competitive with driving. For example, a grid of ten North-South routes and ten East-West routes of RapidRide-type service or better (with signal priority and infrequent stops, 18 hours a day every 8 minutes) would only cost in the tens of millions per year to build and operate, and could get us to the 10% ridership mark. Brace yourself for two astounding results of this simple and instantly achievable plan: (1) 10% of the trips are not by car any more, meaning we are saving hundreds of millions of dollars annually – far more than the cost of the system. (2) 10% fewer cars at rush hour translates to far less congestion at choke points, which means we can defer or cancel major highway reconstruction, allowing another billion or so dollars to be diverted into reaching the 20% and 30% marks.

Envisioning the 30% transit future is not as easy but would likely include high capacity rail or ultralight rail networks, a greater use of compact mixed use development styles, pedestrian friendly design in commercial areas, and the use of electric scooters, wheelchairs and other personal mobility devices to make the “last mile” connection between home and transit. We could also afford to restrict speed on arterials, and even narrow them, which will again save many more lives and permit neighborhood electric vehicles and cybercar (driverless) taxis.

The way we organize government is incapable of achieving this vision, however. We need to pass a state planning law that changes the way regions plan, so that it is done regionally, with all the parts together (transit, roads, water, schools), and it is binding. Nonbinding plans get shelved, so there is not much point in going through that exercise. Planning has to be binding and goal oriented, so that it forces governments to compare various courses of action and do the ones that contribute the most to the fundamental goals. Albuquerque already has a goal setting process that sets all kinds of social, economic, and environmental goals such as safety, carbon emissions, and congestion – the dominant ones relating to transportation infrastructure. What we need now is a legal requirement to allocate federal and other funds in ways that best achieve those goals.

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