Sunday, February 3, 2008

Getting our Goals Straight

It's nice to see people coming together in support of transit, but often there's a lot of misunderstanding. Some people come up with a particular "pro-transit" campaign and are suprised when not all the other transit advocates get behind it. Sometimes everyone agrees that the project is worthy, but they just differ as to the priority. Other people have deeper objections.

In the short term, better transit has very simple, tangible benefits: the ability to get from one place to another easier and quicker. Most people are in favor of improvements to the transit lines they use, or that their friends use, or that they could imagine using some day. People who don't use that line might want the resources used somewhere else.

It gets murkier when you take a longer-term look. How do I know how long I'll be around to enjoy my subway line? How do I know that my kid will live in this neighborhood when he grows up? Or my grandchildren? Similarly with the transit system in San Francisco: if I'm not planning to live there, why should I care what they have? It gets to be more philosophical, and transit becomes more of a means to an end.

In this post, I'm going to mention a few larger goals that people can have when they think about transit. I'm also going to mention how I feel about those goals. I think it's important for people to articulate feelings like these and to understand that everyone has different priorities.

  • Economic revitalization: If people can get to and from an area easier, they are more likely to live there (raising rents and property values), and work and shop there (raising revenue for stores nearby, and tax revenue). Fron a local perspective, transit is as good for this as any other form of transportation, but from a global perspective, transit is more efficient and thus puts less of a burden on the economy when resources are scarce. This is dependent on the quality of transit.

  • Revising transportation priorities: Transportation investment requires limited resources: land, money, publicity. In some cases, more land, money or publicity going to transit means less land, money or publicity going to roads.

  • Influencing land use: Transit can encourage developers to build denser and more walkable neighborhoods, and can encourage people to build denser and more walkable buildings in existing neighborhoods. This is dependent on the quality of transit and transit-oriented development (which also includes pedestrian and cycling facilities, zoning, tax policies and subsidies).

  • Influencing transportation choice: To the extent that transit, walking and cycling are more convenient and affordable than driving, people tend to choose them. This also depends on transportation priorities and land use (above) and reducing fear of death and injury from walking (see below). It is also dependent on marketing, and on the quality of transit.

  • Serving non-drivers: Many people do not drive, because they are too young, too old, physically or mentally disabled, unable to afford the cost of driving, unable or unlikely to drive safely (due to alcohol or drug addiction, or cognitive competence), because they think it's bad (for any number of reasons), or because they simply don't like it. The more transit there is, the better this population is served. And that's just a matter of fairness.

  • Reducing deaths, injuries and sickness, and fear thereof: Cars kill and injure vastly larger numbers of people than transit or walking, whether measured per passenger-mile, per passenger-minute, or in almost any other way. They require drivers and passengers to sit, virtually immobilized, for long periods of time, reducing physical fitness and contributing to obesity and disease. They also pollute the air, land and water, causing asthma and other diseases.
    The more people choose to take transit instead of driving, and the more land devoted to transit instead of cars, the longer-lived and healthier people will be. One example of this is when the Tramway des Maréchaux in Paris was built in the middle of a series of wide, dangerous boulevards, reducing speeds and making it safer for pedestrians to cross the boulevard.

  • Reducing pollution and global warming: Transit produces lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger trip than car use. This is dependent on transportation choice.

  • Using resources more efficiently: Transit uses less energy per passenger trip, which in turn can lead to less drag on the economy and less dependence on foreign resources. This is dependent on transportation choice.

  • Promoting better social interaction: Many have argued that lifestyles oriented towards walking, cycling or transit promote higher quality social interaction than car-oriented lifestyles. This is hotly disputed and difficult to prove one way or another. This is dependent on land use and transportation choice.

If I'm missing any goals that are important to you, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Okay, now here's where it gets fun: notice how the last four goals (reducing deaths, injuries, sickness and fear; reducing pollution and global warming; using resources more efficiently; and promoting better social interaction) are all dependent on transportation choice? In other words, if in 2058 the transit-using population in the US is a million more but the car-driving population is three million more, we've failed. If we build or revitalize 1000 walkable neighborhoods, but other people build 5000 car-oriented subdivisions, we lose. That means that for those goals, it's not enough to build transit. We have to do the dreaded thing that motorists are always accusing us of: we have to change the choices people make. We have to get people out of their cars.

What does it take to get people out of their cars? Well, I wrote it right there above: transportation priorities, land use, marketing, the quality of transit, and reducing fear of death and injury from walking. And of course many of these are dependent on transportation choice, so it can be a "virtuous cycle."

More importantly, in the other direction it can be a vicious cycle. Every dollar spent on car facilities (roads, bridges, "free" parking), every unwalkable home, store or workplace, every positive mention of cars in the media encourages people to drive. This is why it's not enough to fight for transit. We need to be against road-building, against parking, against unwalkable land use, against positive depictions of cars. We need to go negative.

Even more importantly, we need to take the fight to the motorists. We need to show them that transit can be fun, exciting and prestigious. We need to take over the roads, bridges and parking, and convert them to transit and pedestrian use. We need to infill the unwalkable land so that it's walkable again. And if we can't convert the car facilities and unwalkable land, we need to destroy it. We need to tear down highways and garages, narrow roads, build over parking lots, and turn office parks, strip malls and subdivisions back into farmland or parkland.

I used to think that it was enough for me to just take care of my own transit needs, and my family's. But it's not. Our future, and the planet's, means that we have to get people out of their cars and onto the buses and trains.

Obviously I'm not suggesting using Great Leap Forward-style totalitarian tactics to force people to stop driving or to live, work and shop in transit-oriented places. I think it can be done without physical force. At the very minimum, our government should stop subsidizing car use as soon as possible. I know, it's like turning a battleship. But you can't even begin to turn the battleship if you don't convince the captain to give the order, and you can't convince the captain without talking about it.

I think that this factor of influencing transit choice is an extremely important one, and it has massive implications for transportation policy worldwide, nationwide and in the region. I'll be referring back to this in the future.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

What about reduction in transportation costs for working families? Many families if able, would do well with one less car.

Alon Levy said...

I'd add that car maintenance costs can be astronomical, especially if you're too poor to afford a new car.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Pan and Alon. I think that the benefit/goal of saving money for working families is very important. I would put it in under "efficiency," though, and reword efficiency to reflect it.