Transit for Everyone

For the daily subway, rail, or bus rider, accessibility is a huge issue. A public transit system is detested if it’s difficult to use, then people simply stop using it (unless they have no other options). This is equally true for those walking or biking to mass transit. Given some $50-60 billion is spent each year in the U.S. on transportation infrastructure, getting access right makes smart economic sense, too. In a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, transportation planners Daniel Goodman and Roswell Eldridge, Toole Design Group, Adrienne Smith-Reiman, City of Boston, and Matthew Zych, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA), explained how to create better systems for people accessing on foot or bike and overcome the obstacles that can undermine a transit system.

With gas costing more, Americans are driving less. According to research cited by Goodman, in 2009, there were 24 percent more bike trips than in 2001. Similarly, people walked to their destination 16 percent more frequently. Public transit ridership is up a whopping 40 percent over the same period.

While all these trends are positive, there are also some growing challenges. Using North Carolina as example, Goodman said baby boomers are aging and soon masses of “older people will need alternative forms of transportation,” taxing already strained systems. Obesity rates are skyrocketing, especially among children who don’t walk to school in the same numbers as before, perhaps a sign that too many car-centric communities lack adequate sidewalks. There are also social justice issues: Many communities focus on improving access to rail and subways, but fail to do the same for buses. Different demographics use different types of transit. Finally, while many communities see public transit as a way to “catalyze economic development” and create places, there are new fiscal realities. Budgets are tight almost everywhere.

In a few different cities, the presenters outlined how smart planning and design can truly make a difference though, maximizing existing investments in transit systems by improving how pedestrians and bicyclists access these networks.

In Boston, explained Smith-Reiman, Connect Historic Boston, a program in its early planning stages, aims to make all the historic National Park Service sites in downtown Boston and Charlestown more easily accessible to tourists and locals. Downtown Boston can be intimidating, with its mess of tiny streets and lack of signage. “Tourists are terrified they’ll get lost.” To encourage navigation and “discovery” of the area, the National Park Service, City of Boston, and an array of local organizations are trying to understand the current problems and deal with them. Tourists can get around via the T, ferries, water taxis, trolleys, or Hubway, the local bikeshare system, so there are lots of options. However, a tourist can get out of the T line one block from Faneuil Hall and not know they are anywhere near it and totally miss it. One project will “reactivate” the spaces around the station, making transit to historic sites easier.

The goal for the team is a set of “tear sheets,” or guidelines that can guide preliminary design improvements. Also in the works is a “comprehensive physical and digital wayfinding plan,” that can result in a “kit of parts” that can be distributed to all the different city agencies involved. Beyond these projects, Connect Historic Boston will use street art, a transportation quest (a kind of game), along with transportation-related curricula for kids (a kind of urban design 101), and web sites to show people how to access the area.

In  Durham, North Carolina, a pilot study for the department of transportation yielded new guidelines and design for bus stops. Eldridge at Toole Design explained that many bus stops don’t have adequate sidewalk connections, offer shelter or any amenities, or “address passengers’ needs.” He said far too many bus stops have no sidewalks, forcing riders into the street, or seating, which is why you see garbage cans turned upside down (they’ve been turned into benches). In this pilot, the goal was to improve three bus corridors — targeting the conditions at bus stops, access to stops, and the crossings near stops.


While designing a new approach is central to these fixes, getting all the different government agencies that deal with aspects of the system is also important. One agency is in charge of plotting where stops are, while another deals with the streets, and yet another is in charge of sidewalks. With all these different groups involved, there were “conflicting standards and policies” that had to be addressed. With a shared vision, the different agencies were able to reconcile all the conflicting approaches.

With revised policies and aligned organizations in place, the team then conducted a user survey, getting the best data out of “on-board intercepts.” Eldridge said rich input from riders is key if you are going to create a “customer-oriented system.” (We wish all public transit systems would take his sage advice). Through the survey, they found that 74 percent were using the bus to go to work or home, 16 percent were going shopping, and 10 percent were going to school. Some 84 percent of riders didn’t own a car. Their issues were safety, access, and comfort. To improve safety, riders wanted more lighting at bus stops and shelters. To  improve access, they wanted sidewalks they could use and stops free of utility poles and other impediments. To make waiting more comfortable, riders wanted shelters with seating.

Once the issues had been identified, the next step was surveying the system to identify where fixes could be made. Problem stops and crossings were identified and prioritized for revamps. Given budgets are tight, only $5 million could be spent on access improvements. But still, now there’s a model in place that all vendors building bus stops must replicate for new stops.

To improve pedestrian and bicycle access for D.C.’s Metro system, which is the second largest subway system in the U.S. with more than 80 stations, it’s important to understand capacity, said Zych. “Is there enough capacity? Are stations too crowded? Is there enough bicycle parking? Are there sidewalks?” As important as capacity is convenience. “Are there buildings, rivers, or freeways in the way?” Stations have to be in people’s sight lines as well.

D.C.’s Metro has some 750,000 trips a day. The city’s 1,500 buses get 450,000 trips daily. Paratransit gets another 8,000 trips. During the AM peak where some 250,000 trips happen, 37 percent walk to the Metro, 26 percent park and ride, 24 percent take the bus to a station, and only 1 percent bike to a station. Given D.C. wants to get the share of bicycle commuters up to 2 percent by 2020 — meaning some 7,000 trips — the system needs to improve its bicycle access while also making it still easier for pedestrians.

Zych said there are system-wide goals but stations have different issues. A bicycle census in the district found that bike riders live in certain neighborhoods, so some stations will need ample bicycle parking while others won’t at all. Then, there’s the issue of where to put bicycle parking racks? Metro had to go out and “personally survey” stations to find spots.

Some $25 million in pedestrian and bicycle access improvements were identified, but only $7 million in financing was available, so again, tough decisions had to be made about priorities. Asking a set of stakeholders what their priorities were, the Metro team found that “60 percent want improved safety and security.” So safer crossings were created for some stations, separating vehicles from pedestrians. In other projects, new raised sidewalks were created to further improve safety. For bicycle security, one station created a new “bike & ride,” an enclosed, limited access space for “members only.” Bicyclists would have to sign up and become members to gain access to the secure space at the Metro station, which includes cameras and lighting. Also worth noting: the Metro team found that the upside-down U-shaped bicycle racks were the “most secure.”


Another innovation: some stairs were retrofitted so there was a bike channel along the side. This means no more lugging bicycles up stairs. Bicyclists can simply roll it up the incline while walking up the stairs.

Eldridge encouraged planners and designers in other communities to “piggyback” on existing transportation projects and get in early to add in pedestrian and bicycle access improvements. Given the Federal government only requires that 1 percent of transportation project funds go to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, those interested in access clearly have to get creative — in creating access and finding money to do it.

Image credit: (1) D.C. Metro bicycle parking / Urban Indy, (2) Durham bus stop / Toole Design Group, (3) D.C. Metro bicycle parking / Urban Indy

One thought on “Transit for Everyone

  1. Shane Phillips 04/15/2013 / 5:10 pm

    I would just note that your $50-60 billion spent on infrastructure every year is just the federal contribution. I believe it’s closer to 150-$200 billion when you include state, regional, county, and municipal spending.

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