What Does Public Transportation Say About The Community It Serves?

What public transportation says about the community it serves

When some people think about public transportation, they might think people who ride buses have no other transportation alternative. If that's your thought, you might want to take a look at who's riding the bus these days.

Yes, public transportation does serve a need for those without options. But let's think of public transportation as less of a need and more of an opportunity for the whole community. Today, public transportation speaks volumes to how a community prepares for sustainable success and growth, how much the community values effective planning and shows that it is seeking many avenues for an improved economy.

Sustainable success and growth

We've all heard that a major problem in Michigan is getting young people to stay here after they've reaped the benefits of our state's higher education institutions. We've also heard that a convenient, accessible public transportation system is one of the ways to get them to stay. Generation Y is poised to make a huge impression on public transportation. This generation, almost as large as the infamous Baby Boomer generation at about 60 million, is showing a preference for public transportation. For many, individual autos are no longer considered a status symbol.

This generation also grew up with technology and has the gadgets to be connected all the time, in any place. Time wasted traveling could be time spent working, chatting, getting caught up with friends, shopping or any variety of activities online. For many, the freedom of time during transit outweighs the freedom of driving at whim.

But clearly, Generation Y is not the only group turning to public transportation. That infamous Baby Boomer generation will need alternative transportation options, too. U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate the number of Kent County's 65-plus population increased by 6.6 percent over the past decade. Whether from need or want, these folks will increasingly turn to public transportation, but their needs may cost more. People in this demographic have a higher tendency to live in outlying suburbs, making accessibility a prime concern. Having the infrastructure and ability to meet these specific needs will continue to present a challenge to transit agencies.

Value of Effective Planning

Public transportation has a substantial effect on urban planning, or does urban planning have the effect on public transportation? In any event, by definition, urban areas have a volume of people within a specific geography. These people need to get from place to place, either within the geography or outside of it. Effective urban planning uses public transportation as the way to transport a number of people who have similar destinations at the same time, using a balanced, multi-modal transportation system. A phrase often heard is, "We can't build our way out of congestion." The routes and types of public transportation elements have to work within the fabric of the community. And within a regional network like West Michigan, that kind of planning is essential.

Improved Economy

Public transportation allows people access to work, access to purchase goods they need and want and access to get to school. The economic case for public transportation is broad. With gas prices at $4.17 at the time of this writing, public transportation might also be a saving grace for many people. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics states the average car built in 2008 (the latest year for which statistics are available) gets about 23 miles to each gallon of gas. For someone who lives 10 miles from work, it costs about $4.17 to drive to and from work almost every day, or about $20 per week.  Add in the costs to travel to doctors appointments, to get groceries, and to community activities, and the price of gas begins to have a significant impact on individual budgets and discretionary income.

Public transportation also serves as a driver for economic development. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), for every $1 invested in public transportation, $4 in economic returns is generated. Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation yields $30 million in increased business sales. Every $10 million in operating investment yields $32 million in increased business sales. These are significant values impacted by public transportation.

So how does a vibrant public transportation system impact a community? The more appropriate question should be how does a lack of such a thing impact the community? In Grand Rapids, we have consistently been on the forefront of innovative community activities. From putting fluoride in public water to hosting the largest art competition in the world to having the most LEED buildings per capita, the Grand Rapids community has a proven legacy of coming together to achieve great things. Next stop: expanded reliable, convenient, accessible public transportation.

Seth Horton is the Transit Practice Leader at Progressive AE, a Grand Rapids-based architecture and engineering firm. He has strong experience with Federal Transit Administration, Michigan Department of Transportation and American Reinvestment and Recovery Act regulations. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, two children, dog and cat.

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