What Makes a Good Transit System

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I am a daily transit user and I generally like the system in the DC metro area.  I don’t live far from a station, there is ample parking (this is a HUGE deal as this wasn’t always the case) and I don’t have to transfer lines when I’m on the train.  For me, these are factors which make public transportation more attractive than driving because it’s easier, cheaper and faster, hallmarks of a good transit system and features which make it desirable for others to use.

As not only a person who uses public transportation to get to work but also works on the issue as it relates to local governments, this recent article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, that touts the region as one of the best in terms of connection people to places of work, caught my eye.  The Utah Transit Authority’s approach to their transit system was a well thought out one.  In addition to expanding their rail lines, they took the opportunity to redesign their bus service system so that the two could complement each other – making transit even easier to use.

This finding comes out of a Brookings report that found that Salt Lake City’s system connects 64 percent of its population to jobs via transit.  To give some reference, the report states that the typical job is accessible to about 27 percent of commuters via a 90 minute or less transit trip.  But according to this follow up article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, a set of assumptions were made about a rider’s travel habits and propensities in the Brookings study which may not necessarily be valid.  For example, that people were willing to make a one-way 90 minute commute and that they would be willing to walk up to ¾ of a mile to a transit stop were a few.

As a consistent transit user for the past 7 years, I can personally vouch for some of the criticisms the follow-up article poses.  I use transit because, for the most part, it’s easy for me to use but I don’t think that is the case for the majority of people out there, thereby validating the position of the follow-up article.  However, the Brookings report shouldn’t be discredited because their assumptions are based on a set of best case scenarios given a city or region’s current state of constraints and opportunities.

Rather than focusing on the Brookings report or the critique, it’s important to look at what seems to be working for the Salt Lake City region and it’s that there is a common understanding between policy makers and other stakeholders, coupled with a demand from end users, that a better public transportation is the way to go to move the region forward.  And because of that, the Salt Lake City region has had the highest per capita investment in transit of any region in the country over the past 10 years.  The implication is that it’s not only dedicated to investing in a system that is trying to meet current demands but that they are also trying to sustainably plan for future needs.

So while the follow-up criticisms are valid and perhaps the Brookings study could be tweaked to make more realistic assumptions, Salt Lake City is doing something right.  Because according to General Manager, Michael Allegra, of the Utah Transit Authority, 80% of their riders are choosing transit over their cars.