February 2, 2009
Working to Move Public Transit Forward
By RON KILCOYNE
This is certainly the most exciting time to be in transit in at least the 28 years I have been employed in the field. As many have noted, a perfect storm for transit has been brewing with fluctuating fuel prices, demands to significantly reduce carbon emissions, demographic trends favoring denser transit-supportive communities, and economic trends that do not favor low-density sprawl.
Will the growth in ridership that the transit industry has experienced over the past few years be sustained or accelerate? I refuse to make predictions; I have no crystal ball. However, it is incumbent on all of us in the transit industry, both providers and suppliers, to take advantage of the circumstances to advocate, making the strongest case for growing public transportation.
It is up to us to make it happen.
Transit has two Achilles’ heels that, if not addressed, will inhibit its ability to sustain and accelerate growth:
* We simply do not provide enough service, and even where we do, access to transit (i.e., the ability to easily walk or bike to a transit stop) is often inferior, if not impossible. If service isn’t frequent enough, does not operate early or late enough, or is not direct enough to meet customer needs, or even if it is but accessing it is difficult, unpleasant, or unsafe, customers will not ride.
* If we must cut back on service, as many agencies are now forced to do, ridership losses are sure to follow.
To some, these issues may seem intractable: the federal government no longer provides direct operating assistance (and to reinstate it would likely mean less needed capital investment), and transit agencies have no control over the built environment in which they operate. But federal policy could make a difference with carrots and sticks to the state and local governments that fund transit operations.
During previous authorization years, the likelihood of obtaining meaningful incentives or requirements was dim. While I have no illusion that acquiring substantive changes this time will be easy, the external circumstances mentioned above provide us with a much better opportunity. In fact, language supporting both issues is contained in APTA’s Recommendations of Federal Public Transportation Authorization Law.
While addressing operating investment, access, and many other issues needed to grow transit will require hard work and smart thinking on the part of the industry and its partners, I can’t help but fantasize that President Obama will build a world-class National Transit System (NTS), giving it the same prominence and investment support that the Interstate Highway System received 50 years ago.
The NTS—the missing leg in the three-legged stool—should be equal to technological research and development in addressing climate, energy, economic, and other environmental goals as well as helping improve the nation’s health. While our highway and aviation systems need increased investment to bring both to a state of good repair, the NTS (which should include urban or intra-regional systems as well as intercity rail and bus) would provide most needed new capacity.
Over the past year we have seen the development of APTA’s TransitVision 2050 and its recommendations for the next surface transportation law. Currently a committee chaired by Diana Mendes is developing the Metropolitan Mobility Concept—designed to provide guidance should more radical changes to the surface transportation law gain traction.
It is incumbent upon all of us to seize the opportunities available and draw on the hard work of many individuals to bring about sustainable growth for transit.