So, what to make of transit in the United States compared to our good friends across the pond in Europe? No matter what country you are in, except perhaps the ever-punctual Switzerland, there will always be complaints about thetimeliness of public transportation. There will always be an issue with the design of the train, and there will always be someone who had a bad experience somewhere. So, when you hear naysayers for transit, remember that they have a knee-jerk reaction against transit not because it runs poorly even because they actually had a real bad experience, people are generally stating that they feel their life is more convenient and they have more control in a car. In the United States, that is quite probably true.
That having been said, I joined a panel on “Society and Environment: Green Economies,” a business, society and policy approach at the International Geographic Congress in Cologne, Germany. What has the panel explored that came together in Germany?
The panel was formed of four people and a chair, from four very different lands: France, Sweden, Germany and the United States. The focus was on the various levels of green decision making, and what the incentive to do so is, and the means of analysis for that form of decision.
The panelist from France focused on corporate-level decisions that favored green goods carriage. The two from Sweden focused on the new knowledge dynamics of the green economy and the developments of what are termed eco-networks that drive innovation in the environment. The German representative chaired the panel and I focused on what design and development has wrought here in America and how utilizing GIS and data can improve the delivery of mass transit. The conclusions were surprisingly similar, but come from entirely different approaches.
Incentives for Green Decisions
In France, it was shown that the companies choose more sustainable cargo carriage because either it is better marketing (looking green equals more green in the wallet) or because it improves the bottom line due to efficiency. In other words, business is still business everywhere. That has a natural parallel to mass transit and transit in general: a greater awareness of the environmental utility of mass transit, a form of psychic income (that is, income derived from feeling better about the results of work rather than profit or wage) will produce greater choice of transit. It is therefore incumbent upon mass transit authorities and agencies, in concert with planning organizations and local leadership, to introduce the concept to the potentially riding citizens.
One of the Swedes presented fairly new research into what she termed knowledge dynamics for the green economy, or groups of colleagues that informally think green and focus new business or newsocial policy on delivering environmentally sound decisions within economically sound policy. This is a developing field, according to her. However, we have a parallel here in the United States: Silicon Valley, or the Route 128 loop outside of Boston. These are technical hubs whose members, in competition or not, often exchange information.
In economic geography, we call this scale economies of agglomeration or specialization, in other words, the more smart people focusing on a subject that you have in a close area, the more you develop that specialty and the more competitive your products become on the world market, thus driving up profit. So, how can public transportation and mass transit take advantage of these eco-networks? Participate outside of the transit and planning “world” and get involved in the broader environmental and economically friendly movements.
In the same vein, the other presentation focused on “eco-networks” that drive “ecologically friendly” innovation. This is a formalization, possibly with a degree of governmental blessing but without governmental control or legal sanction, of the concept of knowledge dynamics. While we often talk about urban or rural planning, or smart growth, it isn’t always done with a degree of synergy with economic goals, or is often done with a political slant. While no governmental participation can occur without some degree of politics, it is incumbent upon the United States to assist in developing these ecological/economical synergies. This rounds back to the point my paper casts: There are many reasons to not take transit, but what can induce non-density-driven transit to greater efficiency?
Sustainable Transit Planning
First, we have 62 federal programs that spend money on transit in some form, from elderbus services to rural transit to fixed-route public transit. This creates a crazy quilt of specialty buses which rarely share or coordinate, despite a limited mandate to do so. Such waste shouldn’t occur when a logical system of transit can be reached — fewer programs means tax dollars used more efficiently. This would free up capital dollars by coordinating several operations under one umbrella, and then delivering more capital (buses, trains, and stations or shelters) and better transit build-out, such as fixed-guideway trams or bus rapid transit where none exists, or rail where it is feasible. In rural areas, there will be the right amount of buses to get people to critical rural area services by focusing on what is needed: elders, people with disabilities, and getting economically hard-hit rural areas back to work in nearby cities. Work with employers that need people at a regular time, or services that need people safely transported.
Second, focus on finding populations via Census and business location data to locate areas that should be serviced by transit if they are not, or if they are, but are not achieving logical capacities, develop education programs to increase awareness (environmental or economic) and decrease stigma of lack of car use (how often have we heard a bus called a “loser cruiser”, by presuming income of the rider?).
Riders might include areas with high densities of limited English proficient populations or aging suburbs. Destination agglomerations could include: hospitals, universities, dense commercial areas or large shift-work factories or even whole industrial areas, such as industrial parks. Work with the local population and work with businesses, develop a transit plan that benefits both and increases ridership based on environmental and economic choice. Let the employer, whether public, private or university, be the advocate of mass transit.
Third, focus design over the long term to greater multi-modalism. Fill the suburbs with not just density, but better, greener, cleaner density. Multi-use buildings, which favor dense clusters, should be part of the village center of our current suburbs. Keep a lane or priority signalization for buses that take these commuters downtown. Construct better sidewalks and wider bike paths. These amenities attract young professionals looking for convenience, nice places to live and a chance to be environmentally friendly.
In conclusion, mass transit isn’t simply a public service. It can be part of an environmentally sustainable, economically productive future. However, the stigma and utility of transit has been diminished by years of car-oriented construction. It is time for mass transit to join the broader environmental and economic “green growth” movements and take a lead in getting a better image for itself by being not just “at the table” but helping local employers and local leaders understand that transit works. In so doing, it can change society broadly to favor more inclusive multi-modal design. MT
Richard D. Quodomine is a geographer and public transportation specialist.
This is not the opinion of the Public Transportation Bureau nor the Department of Transportation of the State of New York, and Quodomine is doing this on his own time and the State of New York didn’t spend any of its tax dollars on his trip; it was sponsored in part by the Association of American Geographers.