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The Power (and Necessity) of Sustainable Public Transit Design


How many earths do you think it would take to sustain our current global natural resource consumption levels? A hint: It’s more than the number we have.According to the Global Footprint Network (an international think tank that provides accounting tools to inform policy decisions), humans are using the resources of 1.5 earths. This means we are now using up natural resources 50 percent faster than they can be renewed. Europe would need three earths to sustain current consumption. The U.S. would need 4.5.

Clearly, something has to change.

While sustainability can mean many different things to different people, the common theme is considering the future—the unknown—while at the same time caring for the present. The beauty of sustainability is that it can be understood and utilized as a unifying idea by communities, agencies or individuals in a multitude of ways, any number of which can fit their larger ideas about life and society in general. Sustainability should be an idea that crosses party, gender, racial and socioeconomic lines.So why are public transit systems such an important part of a sustainable future for communities worldwide?

The very idea of public transit is ­sustainable at its core. It moves more people and uses fewer resources. Public transit influences how communities are built, created or remodeled through economic development opportunities, place making and even revenue generation (transit agencies often rely on or take advantage of the tax revenue generated from the spaces they help to create).

Good public transit systems create a circular economy, bringing economic health, vitality and reinvestment opportunities to communities and regions, setting them up for future growth and resilience. Robust multimodal public transit systems decrease the number of single-occupant vehicles on our roadways, which decreases fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and the need for more and larger roadway systems. Fewer roads mean more available land for both development and natural/native open spaces.

It can be argued that there are some negative economic effects of sustainable design and practices. However, a much stronger argument can be made about the positive impact, particularly when considering the potential to improve health and mobility for all. Transit improves access to jobs, education, health care, public services and leisure opportunities, which is especially impactful for underserved and affordable housing communities. Better and increased access to public transit allows for a more efficient commute, meaning less time away from work and more time at home.

Going forward, we see an increase in the desire of transit and governmental agencies to create better working environments for their employees. Designing facilities with wellness in mind is proving to benefit agencies through decreased absenteeism, decreased workforce disability claims and increased productivity. In the design of new public transit facility workplaces, we are seeing the positive impacts from combining the natural environment with the workplace through daylight and views to the outdoors, clean ventilation, eliminating the use of volatile organic compound products and using warmer natural materials.

Why is the discussion around sustainability and public transit so important for us today? For one, it turns attention to the role the human population plays in the bigger picture of global, regional and local ecosystems. We, as designers and professionals in the public transit industry, have the power to affect real change for the long-term good of our communities.

As ridership numbers increase globally, so does the demand for updated, efficient public transit infrastructure. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between supply and demand as funding at a national level continues to decrease.

There are several examples of how beneficial and influential public transportation infrastructure investment can be to communities. For example, in November 2004, voters in Denver approved FasTracks, a multibillion-dollar comprehensive public transportation expansion plan to build 122 miles of commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of BRT, 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations and enhance bus service for easy, convenient bus/rail connections across the eight-county district. Since that time, FasTracks has helped fuel an economic impact that totals more than $4.5 billion. Regionally, every dollar invested in FasTracks translates into a $4 return over 20 years.

Similarly, Valley Metro in Arizona opened its inaugural light rail system in 2008, a 20-mile starter line connecting people from downtown Tempe to downtown Phoenix, with stations at major university campuses, employment districts and beyond. This initial $1.4 billion investment has since generated $8 billion of new public and private investment within a half-mile of the line, and voters have just passed a new $30 billion transit fund to support, among other things, expansion of the system into Mesa, Glendale and other areas over the next 30 years. The measure passed and is already seeing new investment occur.

Despite the difficulties of the past decade in public transportation funding, the national demand for (as well as the results of recent) multimodal infrastructure investment is making its way into national headlines. Informal conversations about high-speed rail, BRT, LRV and even circulators are occurring in coffee shops across America. This interest and demand for improved and connected multimodal public transit systems are sustainable to the core, both for the near future and also as a long-term investment in the communities we all call home.

RNL is a multi-disciplinary architectural design firm ­specializing in planning and designing bus and rail facilities. The firm has completed more than 100 such projects for U.S. public transit agencies and 50-plus similar works for cities, counties and special districts. ­Anderson, the firm’s eastern region transit director and an associate principal, is the studio lead for RNL’s Washington, DC office. Maley is the firm’s western region transit director and an associate principal, based in Denver.

For More

For details on getting involved in APTA’s sustainability programs, including the Sustainability Commitment and Sustainability Committee, contact Mark Teschauer or click here

“Commentary” features points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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