Monday, August 25, 2008

The Strategic Connection between Transportation, Public Policy, Land-Use, Energy, and the Environment

Transportation policy expert, Dr. Karla Karash Senior Vice President at TranSystems, provided a terrific set of practitioner insights into the intersection of transit policy and organizational strategy at her ASP Networking Coffee talk last month. Referring to her current work and research in places such as Cleveland, Rio, Harford, Portland OR, Atlanta, Zurich, New York City, Chicago, Cairo, Boston etc., Karla emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to transportation in cities that integrates structural forces such as crime rates, designing urban parks that bring people close to nature, insuring water supplies by reducing run off created by asphalt, and reusing gray water on community gardens. As described in seminal and inspiring works such as Sustainability of Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence understanding how these various ingredients are related systemically will lead to the comprehensive, planful accumulation of resources needed for success in the future.

"Good transit helps cities be more environmentally sustainable. Transportation is providing 30% of our greenhouse gases; we have to change this to win the fight against global warming. However, our mental models about cities create the context for our transportation policies. Are cities a good or bad place to be? Many Americans have a rural ideal. Being in densely populated areas isn't part of the American dream. This way of thinking doesn't characterize the Asian world. You can see that in the statistics: Tokyo has captured 50% of the folks taking public transit to work versus NYC where it was only 27% in 1999. But, in 1992 the Rio Earth Summit concluded that cities may be environmentally positive places to be, and that point of view may well affect American thinking over time.

"Natural Step is a whole movement to get businesses to think about what they are using in terms of resources and how to reduce waste. Cities are more sustainable than less compact areas. Cities are important to sustainability. The denser the better. Denser are better and cities with better transit are better overall, in terms of energy use.

"Public transportation facilitates density, yet it is in very difficult position: ridership is going up but they are losing money on each passenger. Deficits are increasing. Agencies are having to cut services at the same time when more mass transit is needed. Since public transportation hasn't been approached with a long term perspective, they are going to be in a panic.

"The stars are some of the European cities and New York and Chicago here in the US. The highest quality transit is electrically powered, because they can allow more livable cities around them. Zurich's system is particularly conducive to living and walking. Commuter rail isn't as attractive to have around you as the trolley. In N. America we have a cities that are bus systems, but they get stuck in traffic and are no better than having cars. Those cities with better rail and denser have a higher percentage of people taking the tram to work. They also have lower subsidies.

"Which comes first: Putting the transit there, will they come? You need good land use to make transportation work, but you also need good transit to get the land use policies. In the communities that have been successful in bringing in new transportation solutions, businesses and major civic institutions have been very influential. Corporations based in Dallas and community businesses based in Dallas promote the creation and expansion of that city's light rail system. In Salt Lake City, the LDS church got very involved.

"There is huge demand now for goods to be run on freight, but the freight yards have all been developed. Harvard has bought all the land that is currently the big freight yard near the Alston toll booths. We could lose that valuable resource close to the cities. We need efficient ways to move goods. These transportation and distribution costs are important strategic factors.

"The only transit that can be successful is that which cares for people who are transportation dependent and it has people who have resources. Atlanta succeeded by having both of those populations. To have even a basic level, you've got to have both. Transit agencies aren't active politically. They don't have a seat at the table. Organizations with a strategic perspective on transportation issues would help them get one."

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