Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Public Transportation Access: Access Isn't Enough

The object of LEED Sustainable Sites credit 4.4 - Alternative Transportation: Public Transportation Access is to build or renovate in areas where existing (or planned and financially backed) infrastructure supports access to public transportation. But how is "access" defined? Is it all about location? And does "access" equate "usage"?

Access, in the simplest terms, means ability to use. Having access is a green light, but it does not necessarily = go. We may have access, but we also have a choice. We may have clearance to enter a building, but what is it that compels us to go in?
If we're talking about people, we say they are "accessible". Accessible people are approachable. They're friendly and they encourage interaction. Having access to public transportation isn't enough to generate a significant shift from personal transportation. Public transportation needs to be accessible.

Perhaps proximity most obviously defines "access". LEED says (in NC 2.2) that public transit within a 1/2 mile that has pedestrian access is "accessible". But let's look at pedestrian access. We could say it is simply a sidewalk, but I think it has to be more than that. A side walk is great, but who wants to walk along a busy road with all of the noise and fumes that entails? Pedestrian friendly should mean not only the infrastructure, but safety and freedom from excessive noise and pollution.

LEED addresses public transportation usage with a nice, neat formula. Basically, LEED says that in order to double ridership, the frequency must be quadrupled. So, if the bus stops four times a day, as opposed to twice a day, four times as many people will ride it. I think this equation does have merit. A transit system is not accessible if it never runs, or if it runs at weird hours, or if you miss one bus another one doesn't come for two hours. So, frequency is a valid factor for usage.
At the same time, I drive past multiple bus stops every day. I drive under the light rail system. Why aren't I, and others like me, riding? Personally, I have several excuses lined up. I don't know the schedule; I don't know how it works. There's a fear factor. I don't want to walk down Manchester from the bus stop to work. There's a sidewalk, but it's a busy street - traffic flies by and consists of not only passenger vehicles but semis, dumpsters, trailers - you name it. Plus the shoulder space between sidewalk and street is nervously small. Then there is my "American" aversion to being in close proximity with strangers, i.e. I might have to sit next to someone I don't know! What if they smell? What if they have a rash? What if I smell!?

But then I think back. Not that long ago, I was a student at the University of Illinois, and I road the bus everywhere...to class, to Dr. appointments, to the mall and the movies. I didn't have a car, because I knew I didn't need one. I didn't need one because there was a great student/public transit system in place.

So what's the difference? At the U of I, we were initiated into the transportation system. We were handed schedules and routes. Everyone knew "how" to ride the bus. It was part of the lifestyle.
So what will it take for a city (like St. Louis) to operate on mass transit? I would argue it will take a shift in attitude. Public transit will have to be a lifestyle choice - and an appealing one at that.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I agree "accessible" transit can have many different connotations. I think the deeper rooted problem is how we construct citys and suburbs. The construction industry has a very set way of building suburban citys, sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. This narrow minded city planning (although "traditional") has lead us to the inevitable dependence on independent motoring. Furthermore, in these the suburban citys the low population density doesn't justify increased public transportation. Lets slow down the ever growing population of McMansions and work towards city planning that imparts a more walkable, multi-use zoning ideal. The kind of which they used to build in our grandparents days! Cheers good blog! (see NewUrbanism.org)