Spring tends to be the showiest time of year in the South – verdant & emerging green, wild pink & white blossoms, and the collapse of last year’s marsh grasses. The fragrances of first blooms intoxicate. A city like Charleston shifts gears as raucous students largely leave for summers elsewhere, and tourists begin their pilgrimages to beaches and festivals. The burdensome humidity has not washed out the sky’s vibrant blue. People emerge from their wintry [sic] cocoons, wielding hoes, shovels, and gardening gloves; kicking their less-than-swimwear-perfect bodies into gear through bicycling and running; seeking restaurant patios; or, joining the company of friends and families for this inaugural season of the grill. The seasonal transition when more time is spent outdoors highlights the importance of public space, especially parks, in our cities and towns.
The Trust for Public Lands recently published the latest edition of ParkScore, ranking the park systems in 100 municipalities in the US. The ranking evaluates three aspects of public park facilities: (1) Park size as a percentage of city area and median park size; (2) Investment including spending per resident and amenities (like playgrounds and dog parks) that expand the breadth of users; and, (3) park access due to how many residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park.
In top ranked Minneapolis, Minnesota, 15% of the city area is dedicated to parkland, 81 people are served per park acre, and more than 90% of the population lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. Compare this to 97th ranked Charlotte, North Carolina, where parkland represents 4% of the city area, 62 people are served per park acre, and more than 70% of the population lives beyond a 10-minute walk to a park. While dollars cannot tell the entire story, it is significant that Minneapolis dedicates $232.59 per resident, while Charlotte budgets only $44.80 per resident. The Charleston region is rich in park facilities by virtue of efforts by individual municipalities and county governments to provide ample recreation opportunities for area residents. An evaluation such as ParkScore is a good yardstick for determining the efficacy of our park systems, and we would like to know what the “ParkScore” might be for Charleston.
You may recall a little history on playgrounds in our blog post Playgrounds & Imagination. Charleston’s parks and public spaces correspond with the city’s early history with Washington Square opening in 1818. A wave of public parks came into being during a national “parks” movement between 1900 and 1910. Charleston’s Hampton Park, as it is now known, was created during this period on land that was previously the Washington Race Course of the South Carolina Jockey Club, then the location of an open air prison for captured Union soldiers, and eventually the location for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition of 1901-1902. Important to recognize with this history, however, is the caveat that the vast majority of early “public” parks is that they were segregated, limited to use by whites, until the Civil Rights era in the late 1950s.
A number of Charleston’s parks were either renovated or came into being through funding from the federal government. Congress created the Land And Water Conservation Fund (LSCF) in 1965, to invest earnings from offshore leases for oil and gas exploration to safeguard natural areas, water resources, and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. In the past 50 years, the federal government’s LWCF has provided more than $16.7 billion through more than 40,000 grants to state and local governments. More than 75% of the total funds go to locally sponsored projects for close-to-home recreation opportunities, such as playgrounds, ballparks, soccer fields, and tennis courts.
All states must develop a statewide recreation plan every five years as part of the qualification process associated with applications for funding of projects. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation created its Tennessee 2020: Vision for Parks, People & Landscapes, a set of the state’s priorities for use of these federal funds. Its series of recommendations are substantiated through the results of public hearings as well as additional data gathered by the University of Tennessee’s Human Dimensions Research Lab. UT’s research established that support of the general public was significant and therefore, provided a basis for Tennessee’s state legislature to continue its funding support (partly matching the funds from LWCF) of public recreation resources across the state.
Further confirmation of the importance of parks can be found a little closer to home in the neighborhood that surrounds DeReef Park in Charleston. When the City struck a deal allowing homes to be built in the area – thinking that a new park located a mile away was a suitable alternative – neighborhood residents filed a lawsuit. The basis for their argument was that the park as recreational space received money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Several groups, including the National Park Service and the Gullah Society, have been working with the City to finding alternative park space in the vicinity to compensate the neighborhood for this loss. The lawsuit dates from 2013 and has now been resolved (here) with some decisions remaining on how to utilize the property that has been secured adjacent to the parkland. More can be learned of the history, the lawsuit, and importance for the neighborhood of this particular park here and here.
On a more festive note, this year marks a significant moment for Charleston’s city parks, the tenth anniversary of the Charleston Parks Conservancy – my, how time flies. In a recent interview with Conservancy Executive Director Harry Lesesne, we learned how the organization has grown and evolved from just a kernel of an idea that originated with philanthropist Darla Moore. With the successful completion of renovations to Colonial Lake in the past year, and its squads of citizen “Park Angels” – who can be seen weeding and planting in many city parks – the organization is now beefing up its staff to provide more robust organizational support, increasing its capacity in horticulture, and developing more programming in area parks. Look out for food truck rodeos, movies, concerts, and other seasonal events. This bumped-up capacity spells potential for collaboration with other organizations on park events. If you missed our earlier blog on the Conservancy, you can check it out here.
Community gardens have become a huge boon for the Conservancy with a variety of opportunities in several city parks – Magnolia Park, Medway Park, and Elliotborough Park. Lengthy wait lists exist for the 150 community plots. Each park also includes community garden beds dedicated to local food pantries. School children are involved in these efforts, including students from James Simmons Elementary School who work with the Green Heart Project at community gardens near Enston Homes.
The Parks Conservancy is also stepping up its game with other collaborative possibilities. The local arts organization Redux Studios is celebrating its new digs on Upper King Street, and taking substantial root in the community (more on this coming up soon). The synergy of these two organizations will be broadly felt later this year with the first in a series of temporary installations in Charleston’s Parks (here), launched in collaboration with the City of Charleston Department of Cultural Affairs and Artfields.
As the Parks Conservancy grows, people in Charleston will have more opportunities to become involved in their neighboring parks and strengthen their communities. Ultimately, it all makes a greater city to be enjoyed by all. At TEN, the Parks Conservancy is broadening its programs and creating a bigger vision for the future. Bravo!!!
The Journalists Resource at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (here) puts 1962 as year zero in the history of big-box stores. In the five decades since, the landscape of retail has changed significantly. Hundreds of small towns and larger cities have seen main streets suffer and tax revenues fall to below-subsistence levels. The research noted that fourteen retail establishments close, on average, within 15 months of the opening of a Wal-Mart. Even while many cities court big-box and smaller-box retailers in the name of economic development, research indicates that corporate commerce is associated with: “…increased obesity of area residents, higher crime rates relative to communities that were not by stores, lower overall employment at the county level, and lower per-acre tax revenues than mixed development.”
The 1970 scene of Main Street in my southern hometown (pop. 8,000) terminated at the high school – like a courthouse in the county seat. It seemed symbolic of a time when education was considered to be a way to better one’s self and one’s community. The local economy and the middle class benefitted from industries such as an ITT engineering unit and an Army Ammunition Plant (MLAAP). Downtown extended to the railroad with a few blocks comprising the business district – shoe stores, banks, menswear, small department stores, record shop, jewelers, boutiques, movie theater, café, post office. You could find most of what you might need or want without going far. For a kid on a bike, it was rather idyllic.
But the town’s major employers were affected by coming changes – digital eventually replaced touch-tone service equipment and MLAAP ended its manufacturing processes when acquired by a privately owned manufacturer of ammunition. A locally-owned bank (subsequently bought out by a national bank) replaced the school when a new high school was built on the town’s outskirts. By1980, the town was wishing for a McDonalds or a Wal-Mart to “put them on the map.” What the townspeople did not take into account was the inevitability that many downtown businesses would shutter as result and some buildings would fall into permanent disrepair until demolished. Many of the shops serving everyday needs and anchoring the downtown – clothing, jewelry, and small department stores – no longer exist.
The situation is not unique to the U.S. however. The New York Times recently covered (here ) the circumstances affecting European villages, zeroing in on the French town of Albi, an hour northeast of Toulouse. Vacant storefronts are scattered around the old center near the 13th century brick cathedral. “…Tourist shops and chain clothing stores are open, but missing are the groceries, cafes and butcher shops that once bustled with life and for centuries defined small-town France…[T]he decline evident in Albi is replicated in hundreds of other places. France is losing the core of its historic provincial towns….tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago.”
As is often the case when U.S. municipalities use tax incentives and other public enticements to attract businesses, Albi’s city leader’s had invested in a new cultural center at the town’s edge. A shopping mall and grocery “hypermarkets” followed. These were evidence of the sharp rise in living standards between 1945 and 1975, a period when consumer demand could not be met by the small, city-center shops. Now, the town’s historic core, with its souvenir shops and chain stores, is primarily a haven for tourists.
The anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon is vast, and a controversial 2005 documentary – Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (stream it here) – presents some compelling evidence of a number of these correlations and some efforts to, as the film points out, halt Wal-Mart’s march. But, with Wal-Mart employing 1% of the total US workforce, curbing its growth, and that of the other corporate retail establishments, to benefit local merchants can be virtually impossible without aggressive measures to gain widespread public support at the local level, as was done in 86 communities as of 1999 (noted here).
One other, perhaps even more critical, reason to counter widespread corporate retail is its affect on the livability of cities and towns. In 2006, the American Journal of Agricultural Economics published the first study (here) of the relationship between big-box retail and local community social capital. Economists Stephan Geotz, Ph.D,. and Anil Rupasingha, Ph.D., outline the significant impacts across many professions and businesses related to corporate retail’s footprint, specifically the supporting network of businesses serving the mom-and-pop retailers:
“…This industry includes firms in the legal, accounting, transportation, warehousing, logistics, financial, publishing and advertising sectors that work closely with the retailers. In particular, local lawyers, accountants and bankers provide essential support services for the mom-and-pop stores, and these individuals typically are community leaders. With the arrival of Wal-Mart, and the attendant reduction in the demand for their services, these people can leave the community to pursue opportunities elsewhere. In the process, the social capital – the leadership – they embody is destroyed, and their entrepreneurial skills and other forms of location-specific human capital are forever lost to the community.”
Local newspapers suffer from reductions in ad revenues. As Geotz and Rupasingha further note, “…Local stores may commission the design and creation of flyers for insertion into local newspapers and they may take out ads. Wal-Mart does not follow this practice. With local advertising revenues drying up, compounding the effect of the Internet, local newspapers become unprofitable, eliminating a source of livelihood for local opinion leaders….Thus, a reverse multiplier works its way through the community.
“Social interaction among local entrepreneurs represents an important venue for sustaining and enhancing embedded social capital. As shoppers drive to the outskirts where Wal-Mart is located to buy goods and services, downtown stores close and local cafes and restaurants see their customer base dry up. Opportunities for dialogue and interaction among local citizens may be reduced….” More in reference to this study can be found here.
In Charleston, keeping it LOCAL is becoming increasingly difficult with the influx of chain retail, pricey commercial rent, and connectivity concerns. One bright spot in particular is Lowcountry Local First, a non-profit celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. LLF advocates and cultivates an “…economy anchored in local ownership, because local, independent businesses are the cornerstone of our culture, economy, and character.”
Lowcountry Local First provides resources related to creating, opening, and maintaining a local business, as well as tools to market your locally focused efforts. The organization is also active in community development concerns, by helping businesses kickoff in a flexible, inexpensive co-working space (LocalWorks) and, eventually transition to permanent commercial space (Commercial Space Advisory Committee). LLF works hard to foster relationships within the public sector to promote the interests of locally owned businesses; and, in 2016, LLF’s Executive Director, Jamee Haley was recognized as a South Carolina Ambassador for Economic Development by Charleston County. You can join LLF’s efforts here to make local businesses a priority in the Charleston community.
On February 2, 2017, If You Were Mayor co-founder Whitney Powers was honored by Historic Charleston Foundation as the 2017 recipient of the award for “Women Who IMPACT Preservation.” The festivities to announce and celebrate the honor occurred in the ballroom of the newly renovated hotel on Marion Square The Dewberry. Over two hundred people attended the event with proceeds directed to Historic Charleston Foundation’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. This ongoing program has tackled such projects as the stabilization of the North Central neighborhood (read more here) and the creation of the Romney Street Garden. The following is a transcript of Ms. Powers’ remarks:
It is such an incredible honor to be standing before you this evening. I am humbled by Historic Charleston Foundation’s recognition. And I thank you all for being part of this occasion. I have been inducted into a club of real potency – joining the likes of past recipients Geona Shaw Johnson, Karalee Neilson Fallert, and Michelle Mapp.
And here we all are – Women – at a time that seems like a kind of re-recognition of the capital that we have always brought to the table. For Charleston, we can thank those who’ve gone before us – preservation leaders Dorothy Legge and Frances Edmonds, civil rights leader Septima Clark, and the abolitionist Grimke sisters. More broadly, there is Rachel Carson who prompted the regulation of deadly synthetic pesticides and brought about the modern environmental movement. I marveled at the film Hidden Figures and its portrayal of the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson – women who overcame race and female stereotypes as NASA mathematicians and engineers in the early U.S. space program. I look around at many of you who have started, or currently lead, many of this city’s vital organizations that advocate for a better city. And I see others of you who support and embolden friends and colleagues in infinite and unsung ways.
Sometimes things occur that remind us of our early invincibility and dreams. The recent death of Mary Tyler Moore brought to mind not only her iconic newsroom comedy and her best friend Rhoda – but also, for me at least, Marlo Thomas’ portrayal of That Girl and her smashing wardrobe. It wasn’t really a stretch to consider that I would be a fearless single, working woman from Mississippi who, in my 20s, found myself in Washington, DC, and, later, New York City.
I did not have a load of money, but it did not really require much investment to find like-minded people and feel empowered in those heady days of youth. By example, I joined those who protested against Royal Dutch Shell and its investments in apartheid South Africa and supported passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. We had a voice. We were carried forward on a wave of sexy optimism. Within ten years, apartheid would fall apart and Nelson Mandela would be elected South Africa’s President.
So I landed in Charleston almost 30 years ago, with little sense of my own limitations. I readily engaged alliances with old friends and new. I founded an architectural practice following Hurricane Hugo. And, perhaps, I had a bit too much focus on rebuilding a re-imagined architectural legacy, while most in the city were a bit more interested in the caprice of transactional real estate development. Yet, I found that preservation informed my architectural interests on every level, and, I have been fortunate to work with a remarkable slate of knowledgeable consultants and talented staff.
But, this honor is only partly about my architectural contributions to Charleston. When I started IfYouWereMayor.com two years ago, it was really an effort to empower people to share ideas and issues in advance of a mayoral race that would replace a leader whose decision-making prowess was generally accepted practice during a forty-year tenure. The backbone was research done by my late husband Edwin Gardner on the various metrics associated with the concept of livability; and, the initial seeding and germination came from great organizations in Charleston that were advocating for facets of what makes a city thrive economically, socially, and creatively.
Historic Charleston Foundation was one of those organizations, along with the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, Enough Pie, Lowcountry Local First, OHM Radio, Lowcountry Maritime Society, Quality Education Project, Charleston Moves, Wings for Kids, Metanoia, Meeting Street Academy, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Redux, Preservation Society, Coastal Conservation League, and Charleston Parks Conservancy. Over the course of the year-long campaign, our efforts found voice in numerous public forums with all or most of the slate of candidates. They certainly got an earful.
At this stage, the role in society of civic engagement could not be more critical. We now know that it is not enough to remain within the silo of any specific interest area – our collaborative voices are the only way to ensure that Charleston continues as a living, breathing city. Action comes from leveraging the voices of individuals and organizations that not only want to preserve, but to foster a future in the city – through its buildings, neighborhoods, local businesses, parks and green space, art, health, safety, schools, and connections. My work in this arena has reinforced my belief in the life of our city. Our work together must maintain diversity, promote innovation and economic opportunities, preserve our historic core, and ensure that social justice underpins our decision-making.
I am so proud of Historic Charleston Foundation’s commitment to a broad definition of “preservation,” and its efforts to promote connectivity, diversity, and authenticity in Charleston. Historic Charleston Foundation has been bold in its desire to look at the big picture of our region. They have offered capacity and voice to other organizations, and demonstrate a leadership that is the hallmark of what makes a city great. I could not be more honored than to be selected as the 2017 Woman Who Impacts Preservation.
We’ve been working to calibrate our winter message following the recent presidential election; to gauge how cities might fare during the coming administration; and, to sense how individuals and organizations see their roles changing, if at all, in the immediate future. It is no secret that the divide between urban and rural areas decided who would be the incoming President. This map published at the website of the New York Times shortly after the election, shows how the Democratic votes were concentrated in urban areas while rural areas were decidedly Republican. What might this mean for cities?
Generally, city leaders recognize the complexities of governing, and are actively seeking ways to incorporate more comprehensive policies that reach all their constituents in more equitable ways. And the issues facing many are strikingly similar, whether large or small, urban or rural. The online magazine Next City recently featured (here) the “2016 Menino Survey of Mayors” by the Boston University Initiative on Cities According to the article: “While last year’s survey focused on topics like infrastructure, finance, and housing, this year’s was more heavily skewed toward what the researchers called ‘people priorities’ – things like poverty and immigration.” The key findings of the report (here) point to the real concerns of Mayors as 2017 unfolds. Many found the Obama administration an “urban champion,” giving high marks to federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation. Given the shape that the Trump administration is taking, it is not a certainty that cities will continue to enjoy the largesse of the federal government. Furthermore, many mayors report “…adverse consequences of the national rhetoric, ranging from empowering fringe elements in their communities to sowing anxiety and fear among their urban constituencies.” Many cities are resisting the potential repercussions. One example would be those cities that have staked claims to “sanctuary” status for immigrants, acknowledging the contribution these newcomers make economically and culturally. Many of these “sanctuary cities” are accepting the risk that they may be jeopardizing federal funds, but many consider “sanctuary” status more important to their economic future than the uncertainty of federal funds. Read more here.
Individuals are also organizing in the face of a rise in tension and uncertainty. Stephanie Barna’s article in the January 11th edition of the Charleston City Paper highlights how some women in the Charleston community, prompted by recent events such as the murders at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church and the election, have challenged the status quo by organizing initiatives to fight gun violence (GunSenseSC), train women for leadership positions (Center for Women); tackle democracy in action (League of Women Voters); discuss issues (Gather for Good); increase opportunities for women to run for office in SC (WREN); and encourage women to vote and fight racism (YWCA). Women on the west coast have some ideas about shaking things up that bear inclusion here. Who could have imagined that a year ago, in Oakland, California, a group of mothers would step up to establish The Radical Brownies, a social justice version of the Girl Scouts. Designed to “empower young girls of color to step into their collective power, brilliance, and leadership to make the world a more radical place.” They learn about black history, civil rights and social justice plus there is a “Black Lives Matter” badge. Creativity and action are key to making change happen.
Other individuals and organizations are actively looking for ways to combat structural racism, or to transform negative connotations into understanding and advocacy on behalf of anyone who is marginalized in our society. When the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper published its series on domestic violence, few people were aware that the state ranked among the top 10 states nationally in the rates of women killed by men. The state legislature was called into action and the paper won a Pulitzer Prize, due in part to the results. In the atmosphere of this heightened awareness, Mackie Krawcheck Moore started THRIVE SC a pilot program to support to victims of domestic violence by providing transitional housing and other support services to re-establish dignity in their lives. The program is based on the prototype developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Charleston’s resident provocateur K.J. Kearney’s Creative Mornings presentation highlights the issue of how some systemic problems will be difficult to disassemble – massive corporations make enormous amounts of money from the “broken justice system,” with its high incarceration rates, or the “broken education system” with an extensive and often questionable testing system. Kat Morgan, one of the Charleston area’s deep thinkers on making productive and collaborative change possible, was a moving speaker during the 2016 TEDx conference in Charleston (here) and is working diligently to give people the tools needed to respond to racism. Her organization Allies Take Action is sponsoring workshops this winter to help, with themes such as “What Did You Say? Responding to Offensive Remarks” and “Change Your Mind: Basic Tools to Transform Unconscious Biases.” Her website Changeability Solutions also makes a wealth of resources available for your own deep dive. Look out for our OHM interview with her coming soon to the If You Were Mayor® website here. Among the other organizations to put on your radar screen: Showing Up for Racial Justice has a Charleston chapter with a Facebook presence (here) that is working to break down barriers related to structural racism in the area.
It might be a good time to consider making a New Year’s resolution that includes getting more involved and engaged. It will make your city and community a better place to live. Regardless of how you might feel about him, Ralph Nader makes the case in this recent interview on The Takeaway that grassroots leaders have a significant role to play in the future of cities. And there has been no better time than the present to find your own way to be involved.
Are there real world examples that demonstrate a higher return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers when cities choose people over cars in their transportation decision-making? In our blog post Transportation Values we established that a set of livability parameters could responsibly be used by local officials to gauge priorities for transportation projects: (1) the potential for the project to build communities through access; (2) resiliency of the infrastructure; and, (3) promoting modes of transportation that are alternatives to private automobiles. In this post we validate use of these criteria as economically sound practice for local decision-makers and stakeholders.
The October 2016 release of the research report Active Living Environment in U.S. Communities, part of the Gallup-Healthways State of American Well-Being series, demonstrates that communities that invest in bike paths, parks, walkability, and public transit have significantly improved health and well-being. The report shows strong correlations between bicycling, or walking, and health factors such as lower rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack incidence, and smoking. Furthermore, the report outlines basic best practices so that decision-makers can effectively execute projects that: (1) make healthy choices by individuals easier and safer; (2) encourage outdoor physical activity; and (3) develop stronger social networks through housing diversity and mixed use development. More information and a download link to the report are available here.
Critical to the success of infrastructure investments when created to accommodate bicycles, walkers, and public transit is taking a “systems,” or holistic, approach to enhancing safety within the design of the infrastructure itself. Seattle’s recent adoption of lower speed limits citywide, along the lines of the UK campaign “20 is Plenty,” marks significant recognition by a U.S. city in this initial step toward safer streets.
Beyond this simple change is the configuration of roadways themselves. A recent blog post at BikeLaw.com relates the Columbia, South Carolina, story of a crash by a state Department of Transportation [sic] truck into a house along a road where lane widths encourage driving at speeds in excess of 40 mph, all within 15 feet of the houses. This kind of dated infrastructure design leads to crashes. Federal safety guidelines have changed from the 1969 criteria that led to this configuration, and updates to this road could provide the same capacity at lower speeds, add protected bikelanes, and ensure a safer neighborhood environment without changing the overall right-of-way width.
Many cities and communities have adopted the Swedish concept Vision Zero, aimed at reducing traffic fatalities to “zero,” through the use of traffic calming, well-marked crosswalks and pedestrian zones, as well as separated bike lanes. These features can minimize the 90% of fatalities that are the consequences of human error. Success in the implementation of this strategy in the US is measurable with reductions of traffic fatalities of 43% in Minnesota, 48% in Utah, and 40% in Washington State.
For most U.S. applications, successful implementation of Vision Zero requires a three-pronged approach that includes “Engineering” that puts people first, “Education” that aligns local neighborhoods and residents with the project expectations; and, “Enforcement” that focuses on intersections and street corridors with high crash rates. While this three “E” approach is critical, some neighborhoods have been resistant to the “Enforcement” component, citing the potential to profile African Americans and inequitably target low-income communities. In this CityLab article, Leah Shahum, founder and executive director of the Vision Center Network, stresses “…enforcement is, and was always, meant to be a secondary and complementary to engineering, and that additional traffic enforcement is never supposed to occur without intensive community engagement….No amount of police presence can overcome road designs and policies that simply don’t work well enough.” San Francisco has elected to include a fourth “E” Equity, and focuses enforcement strictly on the factors that lead to fatalities, such as speeding, red-light running, or failure to yield, by using cameras to equitably enforce laws. It should be noted that, unfortunately, cameras are not allowed to monitor speeding or red lights in some states, including South Carolina.
Many communities are finding that the ability to build more roads or expand existing corridors is increasingly difficult, expensive, and, frankly, unsustainable. Many are looking at public transit options in a nod to the changing attitudes toward driving especially among people under 35 years of age. Traditional bus systems are seldom seen as the panacea and are often considered both unreliable and uncomfortable. Some cities have looked at trolley systems and light rail, both being among the most expensive public transit options out there, with neither addressing all of city transportation issues. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is often seen as a more reasonable and flexible option with designated lanes and timed traffic signals, as well as being faster, more comfortable, and more reliable than buses. For this reason BRT has found many supporters across the nation. Regardless, most fixed-route systems also require last mile/first mile infrastructure development including parking and connections to outlying and sprawling residential areas. A good take on the pluses and minuses of these various options as they played out in Dallas can be found here.
More interesting, exciting, and cost-effective are the options for public transit presented by ride-sharing services and autonomous (self-driving) cars, trucks, and buses. While the practicalities of autonomous vehicles may be a decade or more away, private ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber have become well established in many cities, including smaller ones like Charleston, South Carolina. In dense urban environments Uber Pool and Lyft Line provide options for “sharing your ride-sharing ride” to lower the cost per passenger. (Listen in on a sample commute via UberPool at Science Friday here). The rise of ride sharing services brings us to its emergence as a public transit option.
After funding for an on-demand bus system fell through (a twenty-year fight), Frank Martz, city manager of Altamonte Springs, Florida, was desperate to find a cost-effective means to offer public transit in this community north of Orlando and transform it into a thriving, walkable destination. Knowing that some Silicon Valley companies offered on-demand transportation such as he envisioned, he decided to consider the possibility of subsidizing car-sharing as a logical option to complement existing fixed-route transit especially into sprawling suburban precincts. He approached Uber in November 2015 with the idea, and by March 2016, an agreement was struck and UberX:Altamonte was launched as the nation’s test-case of the future of public transit. A full account of Altamonte’s story can be found here.
In the past year a number of cities, following Altamonte’s example, have been striking agreements with ride sharing services to supplement other existing or planned fixed-route mass transportation systems, ostensibly for the first mile/last mile connections of commuters. While there remain obstacles to overcome in order to reach every rightful user, the implementation of subsidized car-sharing as a public transit option is growing at a hard-to-ignore pace. In September 2016 the Transit Center, a foundation that works to improve urban mobility, rushed to publish an initial comprehensive resource Private Mobility, Public Interest, recognizing some of the pitfalls that had been exposed by Altamonte and other early adopters of carsharing, bikesharing and on-demand transit: use and availability of data; reaching disadvantaged users without smartphones or credit cards; and, overcoming barriers for riders with disabilities. The publication provides public agencies with guidance to aid in the development of the next generation of public/private partnerships in this mobility arena.
Autonomous (self-driving) car tests in Pittsburgh and in the San Francisco area show promise and suggest a significant, even historic, shift in the transportation – and urban planning – paradigm. These recent articles in The Economist, Mother Jones, and New York Magazine, provide a snapshot of how 20th century sci-fi visions may spell our near-future reality. It is no question that getting ready for this shift is mind-boggling given the potential, even probable, impacts on parking, affordability, and many other facets of our lives.
The bottom line for public officials and taxpayers is that transit options have never been as economically viable as they are today. Federal safety guidelines allow many existing roadways to simultaneously accommodate cars and other modes of transportation at little cost. The increased safety, broadened community access, and public health paybacks make resistance to these investments seem both foolhardy and ill advised. The opportunity to reduce congestion, with nominal investment in the launch of a public/private partnership with ride-sharing services, and as a complement to existing fixed-route transit, is a no-brainer.
Do these options pass our 3-question “test”? Let’s see – Building community through access (check); Resiliency through flexibility (check); Transportation alternatives (check). What are you waiting for?