By Craig Raphael & Renee Espiau
On Election Day 2008, American voters made an impressive commitment toward the future vitality of our economy and society, supporting measures that will enhance public health and public transit. From Honolulu to Milwaukee, tax levies and bond measures supporting new and existing public transit systems were approved by local voters. Nearly three-quarters of all transportation initiatives on ballots nationwide were approved 1, resulting in $75 billion towards future transportation investment.
The significance and timing of this overwhelming support for a new transportation policy cannot be underestimated. The impact of rising congestion levels, volatile gas prices and climate change—direct results of decades of car-oriented transportation planning—have never been more apparent. With an administration coming to Washington in January that is sensitive to the importance of transportation alternatives and the potential of a major reauthorization of the federal transportation bill scheduled for next fall, now is the time to push for wise transportation decisions that will affect our quality of life for years to come.
There is still a lot of work to be done. Only fifty percent of Americans have access to public transit, and for many it is not a convenient option. Zoning and planning practices in most areas still favor low-density, single-use development that renders transit use impractical and discourages the kind of high-quality gathering places that create a strong sense of community.
Current planning policies prevent many communities from enjoying the benefits that come from transit and mixed-use developments On the other hand, investment in public transit saves people money, which is more critical than ever in these economically troubled times. The average American family spends 19 percent of household income on transportation, while those who live near public transit spend only 9 percent on transportation.
But equally important is the fact that investment in transit spurs other investment in the community.2 Charlotte, North Carolina (where PPS is involved in plans to create a more livable downtown) has seen major financial returns on their investment in light rail transit, as well as ridership figures that far exceed initial projections. Developers are flocking to the areas around the new stations. In addition to already-built residential, office and retail space along the lines, plans call for 7,000 new housing units.3 New transit lines in cities as diverse as Portland, Dallas, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City are experiencing similar increases in local property tax rolls.
These experiences show that transit investments are effective in revitalizing communities and encouraging economic development when stations and transit stops are comfortable, welcoming places that are well connected to the surrounding neighborhoods and offer a variety of uses and activities. Project for Public Spaces runs a comprehensive program devoted to making that happen, Thinking Beyond the Station . We worked closely on the “Transit Friendly Communities for New Jersey” initiative, a partnership between New Jersey Transit, various state agencies, and non-profit organizations. PPS provided technical assistance to municipalities on promoting walking, biking, the concept of traffic calming, new types of developments, new zoning strategies, the revitalization of shopping districts adjacent to transit stations, the creation of an effective community visioning process and other changes that could transform transit stations into important community places and stimulate the development around them.
PPS launched our national “Thinking Beyond the Station” initiative, in conjunction with the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, to popularize this approach to transit planning. The work includes training of transit service providers, establishing pilot projects that showcase station improvements, and advocating for policy changes that support the funding and construction of community-friendly transit facilities.
PPS is also a major supporting partner in the Transportation for American campaign (www.t4america.org) , a broad coalition of groups that seek to link national, state, and local transportation policies with efforts to improve economic opportunity, energy security, public health, climate change, housing and community development. Transportation for America publicizes the fact that a shift in our transportation priorities to build new transit infrastructure (much of which has already been planned) would create 6.7 million jobs in 78 metro areas throughout the country.4 These new jobs are producing significant and immediate benefits for local economies.
Federal and state allocation to highway infrastructure spending will certainly continue, but these projects should be carried out in a way that respects local communities, encourages walking, biking and transit, and supports opportunities for Placemaking. Rather than constructing new roads and highway lanes, which only serve to reinforce our overdependence on the automobile, we should focus on making existing roads more conducive to multiple modes of transportation. This strategy will also aid efforts to revive the economy, since road maintenance and repair create an estimated nine percent more jobs than construction of new road capacity.5
The facts are impossible to ignore: focusing on places, health and walkability requires increased public transit infrastructure, which creates new jobs, enlivens neighborhoods, creates local business opportunities and connects communities, both vulnerable and thriving, to vital amenities and resources.
Click here to donate to PPS’s Building Community through Transportation campaign, to help bring vital transportation training and research to communities and leaders around the world.