The Devil is in the Design Details: Strategies to Enhance Transit Experience

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I live in a region that is nationally known for its traffic congestion.  In virtually every poll, newspaper article, or blog on the topic (google “DC region traffic congestion” for proof), the DC metro area is up in the ranks.  Somewhat under the radar are the initiatives taking place throughout the region to provide viable alternatives to residents who are desperately trying to avoid driving (and road rage). Of course, Capital Bikeshare has quite a reputation these days; it’s been so popular that a network that was once only in Washington DC quickly expanded to Arlington and soon will be finding its way to Montgomery County. However, less known is that since the region’s Transportation Planning Board adopted a regional complete streets policy, a number of local jurisdictions and transportation agencies have adopted and started implementing their own versions of it.  And in my own hometown of Washington DC, where we’ve had a complete streets policy for a few years, the Department of Transportation also recently started a campaign, “Move DC,” to develop a multi-modal, long-range transportation plan.

I write all this to say that in any given city and region, transportation departments are embarking on countless such initiatives to increase efficiencies and enhance user experience of transit.  And while these systemic efforts to coordinate and collaborate on a large scale is critical (we’ve discussed the importance of partnerships many a time), I think that perhaps the devil is in the design details.

According to Smart Growth America, nearly 130 communities adopted complete streets policies in 2012.  As part of complete streets, cities are encouraged to think about integrated, holistic roadway design that not only accommodates all modes of travel, but also serves residents with varied needs.  From aging populations to those with physical disabilities, residents have different demands of a street and of transit.  And regardless of whether or not a city decides to implement a complete streets policy, it is critical that these groups and their interests are represented in roadway planning and implementation processes to ensure that the “small” details (think: sidewalk and curb design; crosswalk timings) actually work for everyone. [Design (and plan) with everyone in mind]

Portland Multi Modal

Apart from the nuts and bolts of roadway design, cities are also looking into technology as a means to enhance user experience.  As part of the “Move DC” efforts, the city has tagged intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in their list of options to explore further.  ITS applications use ‘smart’ technologies to improve the efficiency, coordination and delivery of services, including roadway and traffic management.  Applications such as transit signal priority in Tacoma, Wash. and Chicago, Ill.; emergency vehicle preemption in Plano, Texas and St. Paul, Minn.; and red light enforcement cameras in Scottsdale, Ariz. and Raleigh, N.C. are some examples of the ways that ITS technologies can not only contribute to more effective, efficient, and safe transit and roadway systems, but also save cities money, time, and resources (this report gives more details on the examples listed). While ITS is a large umbrella under which a range of technology applications fall, cities have an opportunity here to identify those specific technologies that would be most useful to not only meet current transit demands, but actually account for and enhance future ridership.  [Design intelligently]

ITS or no ITS, cities can (and do) plan transportation better when the end user experience is thought about early in the planning stages.  Complete streets and intelligent transportation systems are only two umbrella concepts in a whole menu of strategies that transportation departments can turn to when attempting to create an integrated, effective system that is actually based on user demand and user experience.  These are meant to serve as inspiration, and perhaps examples of a larger idea that is best captured by the title of one of my favorite books on the power of design to improve lives: [“Design like you give a damn”]

Here at NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute, we’ve spent the last several months curating and adding to the wealth of transportation resources already on our site,  We’ve included more reports, guides and model policies on complete streets, bike share, and carshare, to name a few. Check out our new resources and, as always, email us at with any questions, comments or suggestions!

1 comments on “The Devil is in the Design Details: Strategies to Enhance Transit Experience”

  1. Nice overview. It is not clear, though, how much of thought is being given to make safe, unimpeded movement possible for pedestrian and bicycle traffic? Good and well-lit sidewalks, buildings and storefronts with shady awnings, protected pedestrian crossings (including footbridges across busy roads and intersections) are all foot/pedal friendly. The more get on their feet, the healthier and friendlier will the city become.

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