Some Simple Ideas For Improving Urban Transportation 

These fixes won’t take years and millions of dollars to implement.

Video via Fast Company

I could watch that video of Copenhagen on a loop for hours. It’s like witnessing an urban ballet. But there isn’t a city in the United States that is on a par with Copenhagen when it comes to transportation.

In researching this piece, it was infuriating how awful mass transit in the United States compared to the rest of the world. It’s embarrassing to try to put even our best transit cities in the same league as mediocre ones in Europe and Asia.

Before any American city becomes the next Copenhagen, there’s a ton of work to be done and a host of countervailing forces working against progress.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Funding for public transit improvements is at the mercy of the federal government and state legislatures, which at this point in time are mostly pretty hostile to anything that doesn’t involve automobiles. There are also regional interests (i.e. suburbs) that advocate only for getting people into and out of the urban core as quickly and efficiently as possible. The United States continues to pump money into roads and highways while choking off funding for alternative modes.

The Transport Politic found, in researching its annual update, that “Overall, American cities added more than 1,200 miles of new and expanded transit lines between 2010 and 2019, spending more than $47 billion in 2019 dollars to do so.” 

That figure is laughable compared to the rest of the developed world.

But the car is king in the United States, which “added an estimated 28,500 new lane-miles of arterials — roadways like Interstates, highways, and the four-plus-lane “stroads” that constitute many of our cities and suburban areas…That’s roughly 24 times as many new roadway miles as improved transit miles.”

Image via StreetsBlog USA

Until state and federal policies get on the right side of history, and until regions prioritize options beyond cars, cities, planners, and activists will have to make simple, strategic changes to begin the process of redesigning our transportation systems to be more accessible, equitable, robust, and environmentally-friendly.

As David Zipper of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government recently suggested to local leaders in an article for CityLab, “Before buying a hyperloop, maybe fix your sidewalk?”

We must walk before we run, so to speak, instead of chasing pie-in-the-sky ideas. Sweeping changes are sorely needed, of course, but a foundation must be laid before any of them can be effective.

So how can we get started? What simple steps can any city undertake in the immediate future to start itself down the path towards Copenhagen?

The perfect should not be the enemy of good, fast transit now

When we think of mass transit in the United States, the first image that pops into our minds is likely that of a subway or a streetcar. It’s a romantic vision, formed out of nostalgia for a time when such things were found in most American cities.

But that vision is far from reality. For the U.S., we ought to be focused on buses. Buses are low-hanging fruit in the transportation system hierarchy. They are highly adaptable, requiring no tracks in the ground, working with the infrastructure already in place.

Small improvements to buses have the ability to yield enormous gains, yet the bus is treated strictly a second-class citizen.

As Clevelanders for Public Transit, an organization that advocates for affordable, reliable, and equitable public transit in the city, recently tweeted, “Transit service drives demand. Period. RTA fares have doubled while service has been slashed nearly 30% in the last 15 years. No wonder ridership is low.” 

The group also provided a graph illustrating the rise of fares in the face of slashed service:

“There’s a cycle between culture and reality,” Steven Higashide, author of the book Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit, told CityLab in a recent interview. “We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.”

The bottom line is that buses have the potential to be much more efficient, environmentally-friendly, and equitable to any and all city dwellers than automobiles. But to do so, the negative stigma must be eradicated, and bus services must be given much higher priority among competing transportation options.

“One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around,” Higashide continued. “You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing…Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

“In our congested urban core, it’s almost all about transit priority,” Higashide said. “When the bus doesn’t have priority on the streets, it’s very slow but also very unreliable. You get incredible bunching issues, and the promise of frequent service starts to become a lie, because buses can’t adhere to the schedule. A lot of it really is about giving buses the space that they and their riders deserve on the street.”

Photo by Antonio Resendiz on Unsplash

Expanding service and frequency is a small measure that can bring about vast improvements within a city’s transportation ecosystem. So, too, is building, maintaining, and improving bus shelters.

“[T]he price of such a bus shelter is only around $15,000,” Zipper shares. “That makes them a cost-effective way of making bus trips seem faster, even if a transit agency lacks the resources to increase service frequency. And it is perception that drives human behavior.”

Zipper points to a study from the University of Minnesota that found that “a five-minute wait at an exposed, ‘pole-in-the-ground’ bus stop will seem like a 13-minute wait. If the transit agency simply offers a bench and some kind of roof, perceived wait time falls to 7.5 minutes.” 

Aaron Short, writing for StreetsBlog USA, laments the lack of tactical urbanism methods being employed by cities, saying, “Few places have followed the rubric of tactical urbanism, or making low-cost temporary changes that give residents a taste of what a radical street redesign could look like and planners the ability to scrap something if it isn’t working.

“That involves painting asphalt red, pilot programs, or other methods that don’t stretch across a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he continues. “[T]he perfect should not be the enemy of good, fast transit now.”

Here in the Rust Belt, Short mentions, Cincinnati tried out a tactical approach, introducing “a six-month pilot last year for a dedicated bus lane on Main Street, a project that was so successful the city made it permanent and advocates are suggesting locations for another one.”

All it takes is slapping down some paint to seed the beginnings of an arterial bus rapid transit. Paired with other tweaks, such as signal priority for bus lanes and proof-of-payment for fares, bus systems can see improved efficiency and speed, and increased ridership, relatively quickly.

Safer for bikes, safer for everyone

Bicycle infrastructure in most American cities is severely lacking, and is another piece of low-hanging fruit that cities can address to improve their transportation systems.

“Compared to most roadway infrastructure projects, bikeways are already very, very inexpensive and have benefits that far outweigh their cost,” said Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative in a 2016 interview with Strong Towns. “That said, many towns still need to showcase that it’s possible and desirable to invest in cycling for political reasons.”

Lydon recommends that city’s develop demonstration or pilot projects that improve cycling conditions, if only for a day or a week. If done well, he says, “these low cost efforts help communities get over the hump of ‘why’ so that they can focus their energy on ‘where.’”

Much like bus lanes, dedicated bike lanes require, at the bare minimum, no more than slapping down some paint. However, given the safety issues cyclists face when competing against automobile traffic, cities would be wise to further their efforts beyond the bare minimum.

Photo by Jorik Kleen on Unsplash

Separated, protected bike lanes are a way for cities to increase bikeability and safety, particularly along higher volume, wider thoroughfares and critical links such as bridges, waterways, schools, and areas of employment.

A study from researchers at University of Colorado Denver and the University of New Mexico discovered cities with protected and separated bike lanes had 44 percent fewer deaths and 50 percent fewer serious injuries than the average city. The same study found that painted bike lanes provided no improvement on road safety. 

If building a truly separate bike lane, such as that pictured above, is cost-prohibitive for a city, a similar effect can be sought using concrete planters or plastic bollards. These methods are much cheaper, though their efficacy can’t be compared to the real thing.

Another cheap fix for bicycles that Zipper offers is to allow bikes on trains and buses.

“North American transit agencies have been slow to embrace the idea that their riders might use a bike to reach the rails,” he writes. “[T]he Bay Area’s Caltrain offers onboard bike storage, and Washington, D.C’.s Metro began allowing bikes on all trains a year ago, around when Maryland’s MARC commuter rail system opened the door to full-sized bikes on the Penn Line connecting D.C. and Baltimore. Pulling this off required installing bike racks in some cars, shaving off a handful of seats, but it has made a big difference for plenty of commuters.”

If allowing bikes on transit vehicles is something a city is unwilling to accommodate, however, Zipper suggests “they might at least offer enough secure parking near rail stations, as the Dutch do.”

Walk it off

Pedestrian infrastructure may be the lowest-hanging fruit of all for cities to improve their transportation systems. It can be as simple as keeping sidewalks in good repair.

“Why do we expect sidewalks to be the responsibility of private homeowners?” Higashide asked in his interview. “Why do we expect sidewalks to be something that’s optional, while at the same time there’s this huge spigot of funding for state and federal roadways? We design that inequity right into the street, and it’s reinforced by law and regulations and policy.”

Zipper points to a program in Denver that made $4 million available to low-income homeowners to subsidize sidewalk repairs, particularly in “locations with a history of automobile-pedestrian collisions. As the sidewalks improve, they make walking more attractive — and also provide a funnel to other modes of transportation.”

“…[A]ll you have to do is cancel one or two highway projects, and you’d have all the money you need to build sidewalks in cities,” Higashide offered. “We think of sidewalks as something that’s so parochial, but they’re something that can equalize the transportation experience for people, and they shouldn’t be relegated to the side.”

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Another simple step that can be taken to improve pedestrian safety is “daylighting” intersections.

“Drivers often park as close to an intersection as they can without blocking the crosswalk,” Zipper explains. “When they do, the parked vehicles limit visibility of pedestrians or bicyclists at the curb. The intersection then feels — and is — less safe, compelling people to avoid it. The fix: “daylighting” the intersection, preventing cars from parking too close. (The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends 20 to 25 feet of clearance.)”

He also points out that daylighting an intersection makes room for further creativity and improvements to the pedestrian experience. “[R]rather than simply blocking off the curb adjacent to the intersection, why not turn it into something useful, like parking corrals for bikes and scooters? The corrals will physically prevent drivers from illegally parking close to the intersection, reducing unlawful behavior and improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. Better yet, the city will expand the availability of bike/micromobility parking, making it a little easier to take a ride.”

The most dramatic step a city can initiate, though, and one that several across the world have undertaken, is to close off main roads within the urban core to cars altogether, creating pedestrian oases. We’ve seen this in New York City (Times Square) and, most recently, San Francisco (Market Street). Across the pond in Europe, closing the central business district in Madrid led to a nearly 10 percent increase in retail spending

In other words, walking is good for a person’s health, and an increase in walking citizens is good for the business interests of the city.

Closing off roads to vehicular traffic is an extreme step that is certain to meet with vocal opposition. This is another area where temporary experiments lasting a day or a week can be employed to illustrate the benefits and to identify any unforeseen issues of such closures.

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

Like many urban planners, I would personally love to see a proliferation of car-free streets, mixed-use transit-oriented development clustered around light rail lines, and a plethora of interesting meeting and recreation spots throughout our cities. I close my eyes and can almost picture what my hometown of Cleveland could look and feel like with greater human-scale development.

But, urban planners must often temper such dreams with the reality they face. There are constraints of public opinion, funding sources, and monied interests that will sabotage progress in order to make more profits. Incrementalism, though frustrating, seems for the time being to be the most effective way — really the only way — to begin the process of change.

Starting small and simple, as in the examples laid out above, our cities can take steps in the right direction. Over time, perhaps, we can take enough of those steps to begin resembling Copenhagen, and build a transportation system that works for everyone.

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