The Heartland Active Transportation Summit (HATS) took place on September 28, 2012—two weeks ago—and by reflecting two weeks later I get to share with you all the concepts that really stick with me. The focus for HATS this year was “trails and transit,” which means the speakers focused on public transit[1] and multi-use trails, primarily in urban settings.

Perhaps I should first address a question that often comes up in our work at Verdis: How does (active) transportation relate to sustainability? I can understand how many at first might not see the connection. Oftentimes people think about sustainability within a box that includes only recycling, using less water, and turning off lights. However, sustainability goes far beyond that. Active transportation is a key aspect of the sustainability of communities because it does several things at once, all of which relate to the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and prosperity. Active transportation…

  1. Is more efficient than single-occupant, conventionally powered vehicles and therefore produces less air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and stretches our energy resources—particularly oil—farther so we don’t run out of them as quickly or don’t need to depend on foreign sources so heavily.
  2. Reduces the number of vehicles on the streets, making the streets safer for other people whether they are walking, bicycling, or driving a vehicle. A side benefit may be that with fewer vehicles on the street, traffic congestion is reduced and results in less time and fuel wasted stuck in traffic[2].
  3. Directly and indirectly improves community health. For users of active transportation, it provides a direct health benefit because they are either walking or bicycling more as they get to or from transit. For non users, active transportation means better air quality with fewer vehicles on the road, and therefore reduced incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
  4. Makes better use of available land by supporting denser development and preserving undeveloped land in its natural or agricultural state. In urban areas, it may also mean less land used for parking lots as more individuals arrive at their destination by transit, walking, or bicycling and do not need to store a personal vehicle somewhere nearby.
  5. Generally is more economical for individuals than owning and driving a personal vehicle. This of course depends on a number of factors, but assuming a person has access to transit, drives an average vehicle, and lives in an average community, they can save hundreds of dollars per month using transit instead.
Now—although I was tweeting my impressions and fun statistics throughout HATS—I would like to share my top five impressions after the dust has settled.

1. Make it Sexy

Too often we think of transit as being purely functional and without aesthetic value. Maribeth Feke with the Greater Cleveland Transit Authority made a presentation on the HealthLine in Cleveland, which is a bus rapid transit line designed to look and act like light rail. When planning the roughly 6-mile line, Cleveland completely redesigned the street from store front to store front, selected a vehicle that is sleek (it even “smiles” (see image below)), designed shelters that look cool and have interactive digital kiosks, and also involved local artists and gave the line character using thematic signage and other features.

For me the takeaway was that by making transit sexier (my words, not hers), you will pique the curiosity of people who might not otherwise have considered transit. Of course there are many other factors that affect a person’s decision to use or not use transit, but the “make it sexy” idea borrows from the automobile industry, whose advertisements are full of emotional appeal. One Danish company has figured this out and created an amazing commercial that shows transit as exciting, sexy, and desirable. The commercial is also quite funny in its hyperbole, but is a refreshing take on transit and borrows much of the drama and special effects of automobile advertisements (and movie trailers). Do you think it is effective?

2. If You Build It, They Will Come

I cannot attribute this takeaway to any one presenter, but it certainly proved to be true in projects discussed by several speakers. In all cases, it was clear that thoughtful, useful, and connected trails and transit infrastructure attracted riders and users, and often exceed expectations. It was true with the HealthLine in Cleveland, and it was true with the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. Check out this short video on the Greenway (P.S. It gets plowed before the streets do when it snows).

3. (Un)Arrested Development

Similar to the fact that urban trails, thoughtfully designed transit lines, and even rural trails see more use than initially expected, nearly every project also led to increased development along the trail or line. In some cases, neighbors who fought against the new trail or transit line near their home end up loving it, and developers have even embraced these features. As Carl Knoch from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy highlighted, in one community in the northeast a developer even went so far as to name its new multi-family building after the trail it was built next to.

The huge impact of trails and transit on development is clear, and therefore they should be viewed as an economic development tool as much as they are a personal mobility and choice tool. There is data to show that bus rapid transit and street car (as technologies) appear to always increase development along the route. I snapped this photo from Ranadip Bose’s presentation:

Ranadip is with SB Friedman and will be helping study the economic impact potential of various options under the Central Omaha Transit Alternative Analysis, a planning process currently underway in Omaha looking at transit options from downtown to midtown, UNMC, and branching out to UNO and Aksarben Village.

4. Bicycling is Good for Health and the Economy

One of the speakers at HATS, Dr. Sam Lankford, is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of the Iowa Trails Study, which looked at the economic and health benefits of bicycling in Iowa. Dr. Lankford’s research used a conservative approach, yet it still concluded that annually:

  • bicycle commuting generates over $50 million in direct and indirect impacts for Iowa
  • bicycle commuting saves Iowa over $13 million in healthcare costs
  • recreational cycling generates over $360 million in direct and indirect impacts for Iowa
  • recreational cycling saves the Iowa over $70 million in healthcare costs
Futhermore, the study estimated that in 2011, more than $18 million was spent on bicycles, apparel, accessories, and service at local bicycle shops (not chain or “big box” retailers) in Iowa leading to bicycling related tax revenue for the state. The study provided some empirical evidence for what we all know is intuitively true: that bicycling provides economic and health benefits for communities that embrace it as a means of both transportation and recreation. Personally, it was great to see scientific research methods applied to this area of interest. I also was pleased to see such positive results in a state that in many ways is similar to Nebraska, leading me to believe that Nebraska can also embrace cycling more fulling and reap similar economic and health benefits.

5. Abundant Access

The lunchtime keynote speaker was Jarrett Walker, an international expert and consultant in transit planning. His keynote presentation was full of eye-opening insights. But because Walker has a knack for boiling down seemingly complex concepts into their essential parts and getting at the simple core of an issue, it was easy for me to encapsulate his presentation with one idea: abundant access.

Abundant access, Walker said, should be the goal of any good transit system. Abundant access means that a person can get from an origin to any destination, when they need to get there, in a reasonable amount of time, and even to be spontaneous. It also means that any person can access the transit system, whether they be someone who depends on that system, or someone that chooses to use it for one reason or another.

For anyone that wants to use transit, abundant access also means freedom from having to own a personal vehicle. In the U.S., we often think about the personal vehicle as providing freedom to get where you want to go when you need to get there. But when the average annual cost of owning a vehicle in the U.S. is between $7,000 and $9,000, and you have to worry about parking and storing that vehicle, and taking care of that vehicle, owning a vehicle actually starts to feel more like a burden. Good transit that provides abundant access, on the other hand, can enable a person to be without that burden and experience mobility free from encumbrances. In Omaha, U.S. Census data suggests that the cost of vehicle ownership may be a strain on many households and accordingly there may be a need for transit services beyond current levels[3]. Recent trends in Metro Transit’s ridership support this hypothesis.

Conclusion

After HATS 2012 I was left with sense of the huge opportunity. There is clearly more we can do in Omaha and in Nebraska to take advantage of the opportunities around improved transit and expanded trails. We aren’t going to see that change overnight, and there will be many smalls steps before we realize that vision. The good news is that there are many concurrent planning efforts underway right now at the regional and local level that can incorporate and plan for more trails and transit.

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[1] To borrow a definition from Jarrett Walker, “public transit” means a system of “regularly scheduled vehicle trips, open to all paying passengers, with the capacity to carry multiple passengers whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes.” Walker, Jarrett, Human Transit 13 (2011).

[2] “Traffic congestion is taking its toll. The cost of traffic congestion in 1999 came to $78 billion nationwide. This total includes the cost of 4.5 billion hours of lost time due to traffic delays and 6.8 billion gallons of fuel wasted while sitting in traffic.” Source: The Association for Commuter Transportation, Commuter Choice Brochure Document No. FHWA-OP-02-027, www.commuterchoice.com.

[3] City of Omaha, Master Plan – Transportation Element: Inventory and Needs Assessment 30, adopted by City Council on August 21, 2012). Available on the City of Omaha website.