The time is now. With one-third of the United States' carbon footprint auto-related, there has never been a greater need for transportation methods to augment the automobile. And there has never been a greater drive to secure those alternatives in municipalities throughout America. More than 850 American cities have made carbon-neutral commitments, with the number growing every day. Even more cities have applied for funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in categories like Community Development Block Grants and Energy Efficiency Category that have set aside billions in potential funds for alternative transportation infrastructure. Transportation authorities have an opportunity to overcome problems that have plagued cities for decades — traffic congestion, dependence on foreign oil, air and noise pollution and their impact on efficiency, economics and health. Just as the decisions made about automobiles and highway systems in the 1950s have determined the infrastructure of the United States ever since, the decisions made today about alternative transportation will affect the American way of life for years to come. What’s required is the will — and a plan.
Picture the new American lifestyle. A businessman leaves his home in the morning on his bicycle or electric scooter for the nearby transit station. He leaves his cycle in a secure parking facility that he accesses with a universal fare card. He puts his bike helmet in his locker, asks the repairman to take a look at his rear tire, and gets on the light rail using the same fare card.
At his stop he walks to his office. But later for a client visit, he secures an electric vehicle using his fare card and returns it to the closest transit facility at the end of the day. Then he gets on the train, picks up his repaired bike at his transit stop (open 24 hours) and pedals home. No emissions, little congestion, an easy, pleasant commute getting work done on the way. This is a vision nearly realized in some parts of the world — and it’s within reach of all of us.
This article is about how to develop a transportation infrastructure with choices that can work for everyone. The suggestions and recommendations are drawn from a decade of experience planning, building and operating multimodal transportation centers across America.
The Multimodal Vision
The growth of mass transit plays a huge part in the vision of the new American lifestyle described above. A commitment to development, improvement and maintenance of mass transit systems is at the heart of any plan to reduce our dependence on automobiles — especially in auto meccas like California and Texas. But mass transit will not succeed unless we can overcome the challenge of the “first and last mile.” As desirable as it is to move more and more people from place to place in buses, light rail and trains, not much is accomplished if those people have to drive from their homes to the transit station, park in huge, expensive lots where each space costs between $10,000 and $75,000 depending on the facility, and then take a cab or another car to get to their place of work or recreation when they arrive at their destination. There needs to be viable choices in mobility that create a seamless end-to-end infrastructure allowing people to move around easily, efficiently, safely and economically.
With science fiction concepts like air cars and teleportation still a distance off, our best present options for solving the first and last mile dilemma are small electric vehicles like scooters and carts, shared cars and, perhaps most important, bicycles. All of these can play a part in multimodal transit centers created today.
The Bicycle Fix
Bicycles are the no-brainer of American mobility, one of our great underutilized resources. There are more bicycles in the United States than there are households but most of those bikes sit in garages except for an occasional recreational outing. And yet they are the perfect transportation choice for a short one- to three-mile trip to and from a transit station. Why doesn’t it occur to more people to put those bicycle wheels to use as transportation? Studies show the primary reason is fear of bicycle theft, and with good reason. One San Francisco Bay Area transit agency reports that more than 50 percent of bicycles parked at its stations are stolen every year with a very small rate of recovery. Bicycle locks break easily and bike racks are open and vulnerable. Even much-publicized European bicycle programs often experience very high rates of loss and theft.
Potential bike users also worry about convenience – where to change, freshen up and keep their clothes. People may be proud of riding their bike to work but they don’t want to spend their day in bicycle shoes. And there is the issue of personal safety, not only while riding the bike, but also when retrieving it from its parking place. If transit planners can find ways to overcome these objections, the first and last mile dilemma can be largely solved.
Solving all these problems involves a lot of different people in different positions making important decisions that change long established rules — none of which is easy. But one important step is well within reach — the creation of a multimodal transit facility at virtually every transit stop now existing or about to be built. Such a step, if done correctly, solves problems of bicycle security, convenience and even takes a big step toward improving personal safety for users. At the same time, it sends an important message — alternative transportation is welcomed, supported, even expected in this city, at this transit station. And the surprising part is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, many Americans will make the choice to bicycle and take transit if given the realistic choice.
Creating a multimodal mobility center doesn’t have to be hard. There are services within reach of every city that can get a transit facility well underway in a matter of weeks. And with new sources of federal, state and local funds available, the steps are there to be taken.
What Kind of Multimodal Transit Center Do You Need?
The first step in developing multimodal transit centers for your transit system is determining what kinds of facilities each transit stop requires. The most common alternative transportation facilities in use today are bike racks, which allow users to lock their own bikes for free. Bike racks are inexpensive and come in a wide variety of styles but they don’t solve problems of security or convenience and are mainly used as temporary parking where only a small amount of security is needed. They do not tend to expand the user public because they don’t overcome user fears.
The next step after racks is bicycle lockers. Lockers help overcome bike security issues since they are difficult for thieves to access, but they have a number of traditional problems. They require a fairly large amount of square footage — customarily about 270 square feet to accommodate 10 bikes. They are often unattractive and inflexible in that users leave their bike in the locker in one location only. Each locker facility often has only a single user even if they don’t use it, and so often lockers are inefficient and may not be cost-effective.
The benefits of lockers can’t be denied, however, and consequently in the near future facilities will be available that combine the best of the locker concept and avoid its pitfalls. These new-style modules will be more compact, more attractive and will be multi-user, allowing many users to share a single location. They will be created in a network allowing users to access the new modules at multiple transit stations. Each one can be built to accommodate 36 bikes in a space only 10 feet x 20 feet (but can be ordered 10 x 20, 10 x 30 or 10 x 40). And the new modules will be well-lit and positioned for optimum security and visibility, since they are attractive and iconic. They are hyper-efficient in the land use and attractively designed to be placed prominently, close to the cyclists’ intended destination(s).
An expanded network of modules will work cost-effectively for many transit stops, but it doesn’t address the full range of concerns that keep people using their cars. For a complete solution, a bike and/or multimodal transit center is required. A transit center provides a minimum of 20 fee-based, secure bicycle parking spaces operated by access control systems. Transit centers are generally staffed and offer a variety of services such as restrooms, lockers, bicycle repairs, sales and rentals. Multimodal transit sites will also include parking and rental for electric vehicles, bike-sharing and, in some cases, car-sharing facilities. Such sites make alternative transportation methods available to even the most reticent of users. While full multimodal sites aren’t a cost-effective (or “universal”) solution for every transit stop, when combined with the new non-staffed modules, they can create a full-scale multi-access network that works for everyone from students to grandmothers.
Site and Location Analysis
The vision is to offer a bike or multimodal facility at every transit stop, metropolitan center, shopping and entertainment area, corporate and college campus in America. But walking before we run (or bike) requires that initial locations be optimal so some selections must be made. The location of a bike or multimodal transit facility within a community may be a parking lot, intersection, or most pertinently, any existing or planned transit station. Requirements for the location include:
• Access to transit • Demand
• Land ownership • Zoning
Recommendations for the location include:
• Access • Employment
• Connectivity • Demand
• Proximity to residences, educational facilities, etc.
Either after or during selection of a location for the multimodal facility, a specific site must also be identified. Some criteria for site selection include:
• Safety and security
• Development potential
The first bike-transit facility in the United States is the Bikestation located in Long Beach, Calif. The full-service facility, opened in March of 1996 and expanded in 2005, is located at the Transit Mall Hub on the Promenade and occupies 1,580 square feet of highly visible, well-lit and secure space. It is being expanded again to include e-bikes, e-scooters, bike- and car-sharing, and showers, and will be the first truly multimodal hub in the United States
One of the best ways to predict multimodal transit center demand is to evaluate existing facilities that share similar characteristics. In an urban hub such as Long Beach, Calif., for example, users represent all age groups, are 70 percent male, and 38 percent are accessing their place of employment from the multimodal transit site. In retirement-oriented Santa Barbara, Calif., 68 percent of the users are accessing recreational facilities, 58 percent are over 40, and 45 percent of the users are female. A bike-friendly location like Münster, Germany, regularly uses most of its 3,300 parking spaces, while Berkeley, Calif., is doubling its 77 spaces to accommodate user demand.
Usage growth at bike and multimodal transit centers, if based on existing facilities, is relatively predictable. During the first 12 months of operation, usage tends to be limited as users gradually find the facilities and make the switch from their cars. As the idea begins to take hold, supported by concentrated marketing efforts, the second 12-month pattern is one of rapid growth. As years go by, marketing and incentive campaigns need to be regularly updated to assure conversion of new users on an ongoing basis. Strong marketing efforts are required to support its growth. Local culture and location, of course, also play a strong role in growth of demand. For example, the Berkeley facility reached capacity after one year due to its central location within a BART station and its support by the transit-minded population.
Seasons also determine multimodal transit usage. As would be expected, usership increases in the spring and summer and drops off in late fall and winter. This is partly due to weather patterns, but more particularly to hours of available daylight.
Does the availability of a multimodal transit center change patterns of behavior? Sixty-four percent of users of a Seattle bike-transit facility said they would have used their cars if the facility was not available! It’s interesting to note that the users of full-service bike-transit centers (such as the one in Seattle) are often those who desire lockers, secure facilities and amenities.
These may be called “discretionary” transit customers in that they can choose to drive or bike. Most live or work up to three miles from a transit station/hub and traditionally drive to the hub or to their destination but choose to use their bicycle due to the availability of the multimodal facility. Of course, multimodal centers also attract many “non-discretionary” customers who do not have access to automobiles or have chosen to use mass transit and their bicycles as their primary form of transportation.
While new facilities attract new customers, it’s important to note that the main deterrent to the use of multimodal facilities is the availability of large quantities of free auto parking near transit centers. Continuing to offer this type of parking creates a vicious cycle of increased lot use hence increased demand for parking at staggeringly escalating costs per car space. Rethinking the free parking approach will do more to increase demand for multimodal centers than any other single step. Enabling many customers to reach the transit station in other ways will free up valuable car parking space for those who truly need it.
A Few Words on Design
While designs of multimodal facilities will be determined by each individual transit authority and/or municipality, certain ideas should be paramount. Alternative transportation sites have usually been unattractive — think bike racks with jumbles of bicycles wired and locked in some confusion, or big, bulky industrial-looking lockers. Such approaches do not attract users, heighten a sense of security or encourage discretionary transit customers. Successful multimodal facilities are bright, airy, often made largely of glass and even displayed as pieces of urban art as the new facility under construction at Union Station in Washington, D.C., so aptly demonstrates.
The new multimodal transit facility is an opportunity for a city and transit authority to reflect the significance they place on alternative modes of mobility and become a source of pride and promotion for their agencies and cyclists alike.
Access Control and Membership Management
Selecting an access control system for a multimodal transportation facility starts with questions of membership status. While the use of transit lockers has historically required some form of registration, the use of the train and car parks does not. Therefore, it’s appropriate to ask if the multimodal transit site should be membership-based and/or single use. If parking spaces, lockers and other facilities are shared, usage can be increased over a reserved system and there is less potential for inappropriate use of the facilities. Of course, a shared-use system requires an access control system that can track usage and relay information to a membership system to debit the user’s account or generate a bill.
Technologies for access control systems are developing rapidly and could be an article of their own. When selecting a system, first ask how will the pricing be structured? Per use or flat fee? Shared or reserved parking? How will the data transmission from the bike transit to the membership center be accomplished — wireless, local area network or manually? Evaluate the reliability of the system carefully as this is an important factor to users. They don’t want system failures that prevent them from parking or accessing their bikes or electric vehicles.
Understand the capital costs. Most important, realize that the security of the system is paramount. This is the user’s main concern and if the system is secure, increased usage will likely offset the additional investment in technology. Access control systems are, ultimately, a convenience to users and maintain flexibility and lower costs in the operations of the facility.
Three primary options are available for management of the multimodal transit center — public agency operation, private operation or a combination of both in public/private partnership.
Before choosing, the transit authority needs to understand and evaluate the responsibilities of such operation. These include:
Marketing — Changing people’s minds is not an easy task, therefore getting people to switch from their autos to bikes or electric vehicles and public transportation requires consistent, persistent marketing.
Membership Management — This is the process of registering users, collecting fees, dealing with inquiries and complaints, tracking facility usage and educating members on facility services.
Facility Maintenance and Cleaning — It is very important that customers feel that the facility is clean and well-maintained, including removal of airborne pollutants, graffiti and trash. Mechanical and electrical devices must be well maintained.
Staffing of Facilities — For full-service facilities, on-site staff with a knowledge of the available vehicles is required involving customer service, hiring, work schedules, budgeting and financial acumen, etc.
Fully private multimodal transportation centers are currently nonexistent due to land costs and the need for connection to public transit. Fully public operation can certainly work but does require multi-departmental cooperation, the institutionalization of program management and coordination of maintenance and procurement. Often the most feasible management approach is public/private partnership. Such a partnership, in which each partner is responsible for their areas of competence, can reduce costs, share risks and enhance the operation of the facilities day-to-day.
As was stated earlier, the biggest deterrent to the use of multimodal transit centers is the availability of large amounts of free auto parking. This factor also affects attitudes about pricing. Customers feel they shouldn’t have to pay to park their bicycle if they can park their car for free. If encouraging use of alternative transportation is a goal then reducing the desirability of car parking must also be a priority.
With that said, it’s important to note that even in programs where increasing multimodal use is a top priority, it is not necessary to make the multimodal transit center free. Studies show that people value what they pay for and bike and electric vehicle parking is no exception. While membership fees in such systems today seldom exceed $100 per year, this will be a moving target. As transit networks become more seamless and sophisticated, demand and consequently prices will increase. The future is bright.
Higher system use, reduced emissions, lower infrastructure costs, improved quality of life and health — these are goals that can be directly impacted by every transit authority in America. And in a sea of possibility, one clear, concrete, achievable step is the creation of multimodal transit facilities to solve the problem of the first and last mile. How a transit customer gets to and from the station should not be an afterthought or a one-size-fits-all approach. Planning for such facilities can be well underway in weeks and funding is available. Truly, the time is now.
Andréa White-Kjoss is president and CEO of Mobis Transportation/Bikestation.
For more information on secure bike modules, check out the Secure Bike Modules — the New Choice in Transit Networks Online Exclusive on MassTransitmag.com.