Building on my systems discussion of a couple of weeks ago, I thought that it would be a good idea to go into more detail on the subsystems that make up the overall transportation plan (or at least, my opinion of what such a plan should entail.)
When I think of transportation, I consider four major categories of transportation: automobiles, public transportation, bicycling, and pedestrian. There may be future categories (I.e., autonomous vehicles) but for now I’ll focus on the four. Each of the four has its own benefits, infrastructure needs, equipment needs, and drawbacks. However, to best serve the city as a whole, we must find ways to incorporate all four within the urban landscape.
First to consider is the automobile. This category includes mostly personal cars and personal trucks. It will also include commercial vehicles, although some of the infrastructure requirements are a bit less for these. The biggest advantage to using an automobile is convenience. You can walk out you door to your car, drive to a parking space close by and walk to your final destination. When you’re done, you reverse the process and head home, or head out to another destination. You also have the convenience of comfort since you’re not in any way exposed to the elements.
So what is the cost of this mode? First, of course, is the automobile itself. Studies have shown that it requires $9500 per year for the privilege of owning a car. In addition, space for storage/parking at each end of the trip must be available. Assuming that the city has parking in place to allow for the maximum number of cars that could be expected, then a huge amount of space is given over to automobiles which is not even used the majority of the time. Space that could be better used for public use. Pretty high price to pay for convenience.
You will note that I did not include cost of roads above. This is because all four of the transportation modes will need to have some sort of “path” to get from A to B. Admittedly, the type of required path will vary to some degree.
So now consider public transportation. Public transportation could be a bus system, light rail, or Bus Rapid Transit which can be considered a hybrid of the first two. While I have used both buses and light rail, I am most familiar with the bus so I’ll use that in my narrative.
A standard bus seats up to 60 people comfortably. Assuming a generous 1.5 persons per automobile, a single bus has the potential to replace 40 cars. Unfortunately, that potential is rarely met.
There are many reasons commuters give for not taking the bus. While it is often assumed that travel time is the major obstacle, recent studies show that it is more often the quality of the experience that affects the decision. Commuters are looking for clean, comfortable rides along with ease of payment. Frequency of the bus is next, with the actual travel time falling in behind that. These are areas that, unfortunately, all the bus systems I have used could improve on.
So why would one take the bus? In Omaha, that $2 fare is much less than the cost of gas and parking downtown if you spend more than two hours. It’s less aggravating since you don’t find yourself circling to find a space to leave your car (although there is surely a space a few blocks away if you walk.) You can occupy yourself doing other things on the trip like reading, checking and sending email, taking a call or two, or even meeting your fellow riders. It’s well worth trying.
I’ve discussed biking on this blog already, so I won’t spend much time on it today other than to say if the city truly wants it to be part of the transportation ecosystem, there should be more infrastructure that will make cyclists (particularly the newer ones) feel safe in their travels.
Which brings us to walking. At some point each day, ALL of us are pedestrians. We have to use our two feet to move to and from our cars, bus stops, bike parking racks to reach our final destination whether that be home, work or play. To do even that small bit means there has to be proper infrastructure in place. Wide enough sidewalks, properly placed crosswalks, good signaling to let other vehicles know that we’re there. Not rocket science, but all too often not considered well enough.
So how do we use this matrix of possibilities? Do I truly believe that everyone will fall into lockstep? No, I’m a realist. In a city as far flung as Omaha, it’s not truly reasonable to expect everyone to give up their cars. The distribution of the services we want and need are often too widely dispersed to make cycling (let alone walking) the end all for our errands or work. The buses currently don’t even run west of Village Point, and even those are generally ONLY for commuting to work in downtown. No, I see my fellow Omahans and I using combinations of the subsystems. Riding to the bus stop (or walking if it’s close enough), using the rack on the front to take us closer to our goal, then riding/walking the balance. Using our cars to take us from the far reaches of the city to a mass transit lot, taking the bus downtown, and using bike share to reach our destinations.
There is so much to see and hear in our city, things that we miss if we are concentrating behind the wheel of a car. Things that are best found out in the open, if only we take the opportunity to do so. If only a small number of us make the effort, take the plunge, and step off the curb it could do so much to alleviate the sclerosis that currently clogs the arteries of the place we live.