Make your voices heard, transportation professionals: that’s the message of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) when he addressed a gathering of more than 1,100 at the Oct. 15 Opening Plenary Session of Rail~Volution in Los Angeles.
As he urged the attendees to become more involved with nationwide discussions of transportation issues, Blumenauer spoke about the hurdles public transit projects face on the national level, such as outspoken critics, the slowly recovering economy, and strife between the two political parties.
“These [are] examples of why your engagement at the front line has never been more critical,” Blumenauer said. “You are going to be necessary to make sure the federal government does not abandon its critical role to provide resources, to make a framework that makes everybody play by the same rules.”
He continued: “We need to focus on the power of what works, what actually improves traffic flow, what reduces pollution and vulnerability to economic and environmental challenges. You know the project that you’re involved with creates more jobs per million dollars invested…than simply dropping down concrete in remote areas of the state or even in suburban areas.”
Arthur T. Leahy, chief executive officer, Los Angeles Metro, served as one of the two masters of ceremonies during the plenary and spoke after the session. “From our perspective, what [Rail~Volution] does is help crystallize…attention on all the exciting things that are happening in Los Angeles,” he said. “What I noticed is that—20 years ago, 25 years ago—nobody thought rail was appropriate in Los Angeles…Today that’s long gone.”
Other speakers during the plenary session detailed the strides Los Angeles has made in its public transportation system. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa detailed his city’s efforts to become more public transit-centered: in 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved a half-cent sales tax that has raised billions to fund transportation projects.
“It wasn’t easy to shake our image as the home of the freeway and the land of the Range Rover,” he said. “That story would not be possible without the faith of the people of L.A.”
Hasan Ikhrata, executive director, Southern California Association of Governments, discussed what he called the changing nature of the transportation landscape in Los Angeles County and Metro’s overall regional strategy.
“L.A. is truly the place to be in the next 10 to 15 years,” Ikhrata said. “In 1990, we had no rail of any kind; today we enjoy commuter rail, subways, light rail, and more is to come. So the future is here, the future is now, and we are going to sustain ourselves in the future.”
Los Angeles Metro Board Chairman Michael D. Antonovich detailed the history of public transit in the city as well as recent projects. For example, the area now offers more than 144 miles of bicycle lanes, with another 831 miles projected over the coming 20 years.
Dan Bartholomay, chief executive officer, Rail~Volution, emphasized the diversity of people attending the conference and interacting with each other: policy makers, activists, public transit professionals, and city employees.
“The benefit of transit is not just for a certain group of people; it’s for the whole community, and it helps create vitality and economic prosperity for everyone,” Bartholomay said.
Building Livable Communities
Representatives from across the business, social, political, and planning spectrum presented their views during “The Introduction to Building Livable Communities with Transit,” an Oct. 15 panel session moderated by Diana C. Mendes, senior vice president of strategy development for North America, AECOM, Arlington, VA.
APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy made the case that public transportation benefits everyone, creating three main economic benefits in particular: public transportation supports and creates jobs while providing access to those very jobs; it saves taxpayers money; and it provides more efficient and effective utilization of scarce resources in communities.
“[Public] transit is no longer the choice of last resort,” he continued. “It’s often the preferred alternative—and in some cases it actually looks sexy.”
Melaniphy added: “As everyone in this room can tell you, it takes a multitude of products and services to operate a transit system. These systems are driving the economics of thousands and thousands of cities across this nation.”
G.B. Arrington, vice president, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Placemaking Group, Portland, OR, urged transportation officials to switch their mindset from “old fundamentals … of auto-oriented development” to a development centered on multiple modes of transportation.
He cited myths surrounding transit-oriented development (TOD): that TOD projects always need less parking than traditional development; that an area needs rail before it can implement TOD; and that an easily walkable area is half a mile rather than 400 feet.
“Please unlearn the ‘half-mile circle,’” Arrington said. “Distance matters a lot. We want small blocks [and we want to] be able to walk around the block in five minutes.”
Scott Bernstein, president, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Chicago, talked about trends in transportation developments and asked people to consider national and local economic trends when designing future developments. “We were able to show that where transportation costs were lower, foreclosures rates were lower, all things being equal,” he said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker presented the efforts of his city council and local groups to promote the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX light rail system, which he called “a remarkable success story in transit.”
“In the last dozen years, it’s been the largest urban rail effort in the country,” he continued. “Salt Lake City…is in a period of renaissance unlike anything we’ve seen since the pioneers first settled in 1847.”
Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Baltimore, asked planners to make sure their proposals do not exclude lower-income residents or focus on specific populations. “There might be detours, delays, and fear of the unknown,” he said, “but if we’re all clear that our destination is the opportunity of a lifetime [and] is in service to the people for whom place and vehicles matter, we just might get there.”
Christopher Leinberger, president, LOCUS, Smart Growth America, and senior fellow, Brookings Institution, Washington, discussed a new trend in regional living: people moving back from the suburbs into cities. “The numbers are in: the market wants high-density, walkable urban development ideally transit served,” he stressed.
Before the panel wrapped, Blumenauer spoke about the importance of giving residents transportation options beyond the automobile, such as light rail, commuter rail, and bike paths.
“One of the things that has made a huge difference in my community is having those choices that kind of fit together,” he said. “It means that people take advantage of it. When people are given choices that work, they take advantage of them.”
Rail~Volution photos by John Crandall
Panelists at the “Building Livable Communities” session include, from left, Scot Spencer, Ralph Becker, Scott Bernstein, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Diana Mendes, G.B. Arrington, and Michael Melaniphy.