Thinking Regionally about Transportation

Affordable housing, transportation options, pedestrian mobility, and easy-to-access jobs are key drivers of sustainable urban development. If these forces combine to create a regional approach to urban development, they can have powerful results, argued panelists at the National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities forum. Take for example Portland, Oregon, where political will, public involvement, and a general enthusiasm for pro-environmental policies have combined to generate a successful regional approach to building viable local communities. According to Carolyn Young, executive director, Communications and Technology, Oregon’s TriMet transportation agency, one indicator of this is the success and popularity of Portland’s public transit. As proof, TriMet’s homepage, which features a trip planner, is one of the city’s most frequented sites. Portland, however, is an exception to the general rule for large metropolitan areas. 

Viewed holistically in a regional context, public transit systems can shape urban development. For public transit systems, accessibility, efficiency, and affordability, along with public awareness and positive perception about services, are important indicators of success. Now, new technologies are enabling better data collection on these key indicators. For example, new data sources can inform decisions about intelligent land use. Information about where people live, work, and recreate helps experts recommend strategic locations for housing, job centers, and public transit stops. In addition, data on roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, and safe crossings inform experts not only where people are and where they want to go, but how effectively they get from place to place.

The success of public transit systems are generally evaluated in terms of location accessibility and frequency of use. However, Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, co-author of a recent report on public transit and job accessibility, says knowing how effectively transit connects people and jobs within and across metropolitan areas is what’s crucial. Brookings recently developed a comprehensive database providing detailed information about transit coverage and connectivity in major metropolitan areas. The findings describe the accessibility of transit not only in terms of where it’s available, but also in terms of how effectively it connects people to where they need to go. For example, around 60 percent of those in Honolulu have easy access to job locations but just 7 percent in Palm Bay do. The data generating these findings can help transportation experts understand the most important factors affecting ridership in different metropolitan areas, including transit coverage, service frequencies, and levels of employment and population decentralization.

Data can then be used to generate trip planning Web sites, which are a key component in increasing ridership on public transportation systems. These information systems are important because they help build positive perceptions and awareness, which Scott Bernstein, president and founder, Center for Neighborhood Technology, says is crucial to improving public transit. Also, he emphasized that connectivity alone will not solve the problem, and that effective regional management of public transit must be supported by public education about the benefits of alternatives to automobiles in terms of personal health and well-being. According to Bernstein, this effort could also include a radical revamping of the education system so young people learn about living in sustainable communities rather than how to drive or borrow money to purchase cars.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Research Intern.

Image credit: Oregon TriMet Max Light Rail Car / Gary Halvorson. Oregon State Archives  

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