The Next Generation of Transit Development: Obstacles We Still Face

It’s a complaint I often hear from my peers in construction-related fields: school makes you an idealist, but the industry wears you down. As optimistic young people, we often dream of an America that’s easy to navigate by bus, train, or bike, but the actual industry seems to be unwilling to change. For example, when developing a transportation and parking proposal for my capstone design project a few months ago, my group wanted to minimize parking spaces to encourage the use of transit, but our professors told us that while our plan might be feasible in “ten to fifteen years, the existing infrastructure doesn’t support it.”

Silver Line stop in Reston, Virginia. Not quite yet, suburbia. Image from reston.patch.com
Silver Line stop in Reston, Virginia. Not quite yet, suburbia. Image from reston.patch.com

Even those who aren’t invested in minimizing the environmental impacts of transportation are interested in alternatives to wasting hours in traffic congestion. If time spent stuck on a major highway can be diverted to more meaningful activities while also improving environmental health, everyone wins. Especially with a growing population, an alternative to vehicle-centered transportation will be necessary for a healthy nation—but if transitioning is so expensive and inconvenient in the short term, when will we begin to make that shift?

That question cropped up on my mind again when listening to a recent presentation in my transportation planning class. Jessica Dimmick, a graduate student in urban planning with a background in transportation engineering, researched recent trends in automobile ownership in the U.S. She cited that until the economic recession in 2008, there had been a steady increase in auto ownership rates in the U.S., but rates started to decline after the economy tanked. Curiously, her research found that although the decline became pronounced around the time of the recession, financial health might not have been the driving factor behind the shift—rather, even as more millennials become eligible to drive, more and more prefer to use public transit and non-motorized modes of transportation. If the next generation of decision-makers doesn’t want to drive, will our roads finally change?

The amount of vehicle miles traveled per capita appears to be dropping. Image from theatlanticcities.com
The amount of vehicle miles traveled per capita appears to be dropping. Image from theatlanticcities.com

I had the opportunity to chat with Jess this past Saturday about her opinion on the future of multimodal transportation development. Our chat was enlightening, and perhaps most importantly, underscored the complexity inherent in the issue of reorganizing America’s transportation networks. Moving away from car-centric systems and towards multimodal approaches will take time and involve coordination from several agencies, but ultimately, we both have faith in the optimism of the new generation. Here’s what Jess had to say about specific obstacles to future development.

Evidence for change: what do we really know?

I started off by mentioning that I was excited to see fewer young people choosing to drive, but Jess immediately warned me to be cautious when reading about travel choices. It’s really hard, she explained, to find credible information on transportation preferences. Beyond the American Community Survey, the fact that surveys can be difficult and expensive to put together results in information which is often biased or drawn from an incomplete sample. For example, she mentioned that while the survey she cited in her paper claimed that millennials prefer transit over travel by car, the survey was specifically directed towards urban millennials—therefore, it was likely incredibly self-biased.

Even of the few credible surveys that exist, most focus on how people actually move around today—not on what preferences might be if people could live in their ideal built environment. As a result, it’s very difficult to predict which modes of transportation might be more popular in a few years. Jess mentioned that when she was beginning her career in New York City, much of her work involved research in trip generation and traffic analysis using methods common in the industry—methods that are focused on the behavior of car drivers. Jess herself usually traveled by foot or by subway, and the contrast between her experience and her formal work seemed particularly jarring. This demonstrates the transportation industry’s unwillingness to shift towards potentially changing preferences, perhaps because of incomplete information. The only existing concrete data is based on preferences in the past, but building to accommodate past behavior is, in Jess’s words, “like driving by looking in your rearview mirror.”

Growing pains: building urban systems in suburban networks

Perhaps a bigger problem—and certainly a more visible one—is the inconvenience caused by changes to transportation and parking that happen in isolation. For example, Meredyth mentioned that when we visited the Farmers’ Market a few weeks ago, finding a place to park took us over ten minutes. The lack of free parking spaces along the Downtown Mall is supported by the nearby dense development—including nearby apartments and houses—and the ease of access by bus and trolley. Access to the new Stonefield Shopping Center, however, isn’t as fully developed—but the plaza still seems to be designed to discourage car use.

Stonefield Shopping Center along Route 29. Image from www.c-ville.com
Stonefield Shopping Center along Route 29. Image from http://www.c-ville.com

Jess mentioned that the few times she has been to that plaza to the shop, the parking lot has been almost completely full. “From the perspective of an urban planner, I understand why it’s designed that way—but it’s a pain in the butt!” Especially as someone who lives close to the University, traveling to the plaza by bus can take over three times as long as driving a car and the high speed limit and number of lanes along Route 29 make the road unsafe for cycling. Driving, therefore, is by far the most convenient transportation option, except perhaps for residents of the newly built nearby apartment complexes.

Transit functions better in areas where population and development are dense—but moving towards a more urban environment when so much suburban development already exists will be extremely difficult. Even through surveys suggest that millennials want to live in high-density areas, building around the current spread-out sprawl makes retrofitting suburbs costly and time-consuming. The result is that while some pockets of suburbia function well with transit, more often development occurs in disparate areas which are difficult to link together without accommodating car traffic.

Working together: coordinating separate disciplines

Another key problem with existing design practices is the lack of coordination between people in power. Many “green” transportation systems—bus, metro, train, and especially bike and pedestrian networks—are more sensible to develop around particular land use patterns. As such, proper coordination of land use more easily facilitates the development of these systems. When the people who make decisions concerning land use are not the same people who design transportation improvements, the two don’t always perfectly link together.

The interdisciplinary nature of transportation planning adds a layer of complexity to creating a solution. Each agency, Jess explained, has a very defined role—the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) wants to reduce traffic congestion and improve roadway safety, while local governments want to build business-friendly environments that attract economic development. In focusing on these small, well-defined tasks, these agencies lose the opportunity to create solutions at a more holistic level.

I asked Jess how she thought this problem could be fixed. “Maybe it’s just a matter of framing the problem,” she mused.  The outcomes which arise from changes to transportation planning are broad and can affect several regions and industries at once. To create an optimal transportation plan, engineers need to broaden their perspective away from quantitative numerical problems, while planners need to be reminded that it’s necessary to build from an existing urban or suburban fabric. The two disciplines could form a brilliant dynamic, but not enough projects take full advantage of both disciplines and the potential of better coordination.

Envisioning a better future

Despite recognizing the several underlying problems with how transportation planning is currently approached, both Jess and I have a lot of optimism and excitement for seeing how future development unfolds. Better transportation planning has the potential to vastly change the quality of life in America. As central cities grow more popular and existing suburbs grow denser, it’s possible that moving away from a heavy dependence on automobiles will become significantly easier.

It’s all about asking people to envision what sort of environment they’d prefer to live in, and asking them to prioritize the steps that must be taken to get there. Do we stick with the safety and convenience of car-centered transportation, or do we bear with growing pains until we have a better framework for greener transportation options? There are several benefits of choosing the latter, but ultimately, ending the reliance on automobiles means that we have more space to work, play, and live—more of our environment will be centered on the human experience. Perhaps an understanding of how changing transportation practices can affect several urban issues will give the movement the momentum it really needs to charge forward.

Renderings of Times Square before and after taking cars off the road. Image from nymag.com
Renderings of Times Square before and after taking cars off the road. Image from nymag.com

If you’re interested in how other cities are moving towards transit development, you can read more at:

San Francisco to Explore Boosting Late-Night Transit Options
Focus on Your Existing Transit, Toronto

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