Monday, May 27, 2013

AATA Board, What is AATA Here For?

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) had its Board of Directors annual retreat today (May 22). During the four hours of discussion lots of topics were brought up, as you can imagine. I'd like to comment on a few issues that I feel are fundamental, and offer this blog post as a substitute for what I would have said during the end-of-meeting comment period, had we not been limited to two minutes.

In this post, I'll be looking at how transit fits in to communities. Beyond just getting people from point A to point B, transit can play a very important role in the economy - in fact, in the very shape of our community and what it feels like to live here. In the next post, I'll try to answer the question, "Who are We, the Ann Arbor Community?"

The Mission of Transit

OK, maybe not THE mission of transit, but here's why transit is critical in Southeast Michigan now. (I should point out that AATA has an excellent statement of is mission, vision, and values on its Web site. No quarrel with that.)

AATA aims to provide a "prefered" way for people to move around the community in an efficient, timely way. They do a fairly good job at that. But it's important for a Board of Directors to keep in mind the larger role of transit in a community. Besides providing efficient mobility, a good transit system exerts a planning role, a livability role, and fills a public health role in ways that no other entity can.

Planning, in the sense that transportation has always influenced how communities grow and develop. When people began to build cities, they chose sites that offered security, water, and good connections for trade with other cities. The shapes of these cities varied according to how people could defend them, and efficiently get around in them and between them. That was about 4,500 years ago. In the 21st century, security is no longer provided by strategically locating our cities and building high walls around them. Water is still critical, but we now build cities where we like and pipe the water in from distant sources. That means modern communities a primarily shaped by how people get around - by transportation.
The second half of the 20th century saw private cars and highways encouraging communities to spread out over large areas, to provide privacy and a feeling of "country living" to large numbers of people. But with the coming of the 21st century, the tide has turned as people realize that living in spread-out communities has many unforeseen drawbacks. The most obvious is the cost of "care and feeding" for multiple vehicles, but lots more problems are becoming apparent as time goes by. That's where a transit system comes in.

Transit can provide much less costly, more efficient transportation - but not when communities are spread thinly over large areas. Conversely, transit increases the value of communities that are more compact - of housing and business that is closer to transit lines. This makes the communities more sustainable, in the sense that people can continue to live in them without the excessive cost of owning and operating multiple vehicles. So if transit routes are planned in such a way that they reinforce compact development, over time communities will become more sustainable. (Of course, rail-based transit exerts the strongest economic pressure towards sustainable development, but even buses are effective to some extent.)

By Livability I mean the "cool factor" of a community. (Some call it "vibrancy" or "quality of life".) It's about whether a community is fun to be in. I sensed that quality in some of the cities I visited last month in Spain, especially in Barcelona. It's the ability of a community to put people first, offering beauty, entertainment, chances to meet people or just watch them go by. (I confess: I love to watch people!)

A good transit system makes it possible for people get to a variety of places and then enjoy being there. Cars make it possible to get to lots of places, but then you have to find someplace to park them. Space for cars takes away space for people. Parking lots and structures take up prime real estate in the places where people most want to go. Car-space pushes apart the people-space, making it farther to walk from one interesting place to another. That, in turn, makes more people want to drive in their cars from one place to another, leading to a "need" for even more parking spaces. Anyone should be able to see that's an unsustainable downward spiral, but most of us prefer not to look at it too closely.
So a good transit system allows the places people want to be in, to be closer together. The proximity of interesting places makes a community more fun to live in. Cool!

Public health is increased by transit as well. When people have no alternative but to use cars for transportation, they are much less likely to get the gentle but effective exercise of walking to the bus or train (or more strenuously running!). Along with diet, over-dependance on personal vehicles is a major factor in the American obesity "epidemic". I mentioned in my recent blog about Spain and Madrid how trim the people riding trains looked. Of course, transit is not "the cure" for obesity - I've seen plenty of obese transit riders in the U.S. - but it helps.

In addition to obesity, transit is a public health tool because it's so much safer than driving. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone dies every 15 minutes in a motor vehicle crash on US roads; crashes kill more people ages 5 to 34 than any other cause of death, and in one year motor vehicle crashes cost Americans $99 billion in medical care, rehab, and lost wages. Transit bus crashes represent only 0.2% of traffic crashes.

So the Board and staff of our transit agencies should be saying to themselves, "We have the power to make our communities healthier, more sustainable, and better places to live and work. How can we best shape our service to do that?"

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