What We’re Getting Wrong About Public Transit

The Tribune’s Lee Davidson reported yesterday that planners are encouraging cities to build denser, more concentrated developments around public transportation. That’s positive news and should result in significantly better cities along the Wasatch Front.

But reading the article, I couldn’t help wondering if we’re still slightly missing the point. While commuter rail and transit hubs are wonderful, they tend to focus on reducing car use for longer trips — going from city to city, for example — while ignoring more common short trips people make while driving around town.

Take Daybreak, for example, the sparkling new suburb in south Salt Lake County that I’ve criticized several times in recent posts. Daybreak gets a lot of things right. There’s rail linking it to Salt Lake City, much higher density than most suburbs, and a stated interest in sustainability. In many ways it’s a great place.

The problem, however, is that planners in Daybreak — as well as nearly everywhere else in Utah — have seemingly ignored shorter trips. With sprawling neighborhoods, few mixed use buildings housing necessities like grocery stores, and a few big arterial (st)roads, users still have to get around by car. Sure, those car trips may be shorter than in traditional suburbs, but they’re still happening and current rail doesn’t change that fact. In fact in most Utah cities, people have to drive to get to public transit in the first place.

Daybreak includes laudable efforts to increase density, such as these apartments. But at least so far, there are few destinations — basic stores, entertainment, etc. — within walking distance of these buildings. Hopefully that will change, but in the meantime some of the benefits of the density are lost as residents make local trips via car.

And unfortunately, people tend to drive around town a lot more than they drive to neighboring cities. Figures vary depending on who collects them, but according to GOOD, “nearly 70 percent of American’s car trips are less than two miles long.” Smart Growth America and the Sierra Club are both a bit more conservative, saying that nearly 50 percent of car trips are three miles long or less.

No matter how we slice it though, we tend to make a lot of really short trips around town in our cars. We drive to the store, to drop kids off at school, or to restaurants. And unfortunately, new rail systems — in Daybreak, Provo or elsewhere — are unlikely to change that.

The oddest thing about this whole situation is that building commuter rail systems is really expensive. It requires leveling land, building bridges, and laying hundreds of miles of track.

Some people will use this commuter rail station in Provo to go north for work or play. But most of the time we spend in transit is more local, where this train doesn’t go. That means we’ve spent a lot of money to make a minority of our trips greener and more convenient.

By contrast, allowing developers to build infill in existing neighborhoods, then adding a bus line here or there to serve the resulting density, barely costs the public anything at all. In other words, we’re chasing more expensive, government funded options while ignoring the cheaper, more effective, and privately funded options that have been available all along.

The point is that much of the attention on transit in Utah right now focuses exclusively on replacing long car trips with long train trips. That’s great, but we also need to look at replacing short car trips with short walks, bike rides, or bus trips. Ultimately, without a decent intra-city public transit system, as well as the density and walkability to support it, building commuter rail is like trying to bake bread without yeast: it just won’t rise.

A TRAX light rail station in Daybreak. It’s great that this exists, really, but clearly the idea is that people will have to use cars to use public transit. The goal, however, shouldn’t be brief car trips, it should be no car trips at all.

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5 Comments

Filed under commuting, travel, urban

5 responses to “What We’re Getting Wrong About Public Transit

  1. Rebecca

    I agree, the shorter trips are what make up the majority of the traffic, the commute, and should definitely be addressed. Increased availability of public transportation for these trips may help. Personally, I feel like increasing the bike-a-bility of the commonly used roads and encouraging biking in general may help with this.

  2. People would take transit for short trips if the frequency between stops was five to eight minutes. That won’t happen until there is density to support it. So people keep buying and owning cars that require parking and drive down the density that supports transit frequency. Its a catch 22.

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