All Transportation Is Local

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At an uncertain time for federal transportation policy, local elected officials across the country are rolling up their sleeves and adopting a “do it yourself” ethos — and the result is often surprising.

This is a guest post by Hayley Richardson.

Despite the importance of transportation to their constituents, many local elected officials feel there’s little they can do to improve their city’s transportation systems in the span of a single term of office. Often, the consensus is that state or federal decisions outweigh local action, and that truly transformational projects require decades to plan and build.

But that impression is wrong; local leaders have more influence over transportation than they might believe. Transportation systems are thriving in American cities where mayors and other local officials are taking ownership — and these systems are often struggling in places where local leaders have failed to do so.

Dependable, efficient public transit and a strong menu of transportation choices are critical to keeping cities attractive and providing alternatives to cars. While mayors may not necessarily control regional transit agencies, they do control how streets are used and designed and how new developments connect with transportation systems. All Transportation Is Local, a new field guide published by TransitCenter, chronicles how mayors across the country are exerting power by allocating road space for buses, rethinking development standards, and slicing through red tape to get projects done fast. For example, some mayors actively partner with transit authorities and even bring financial resources to allow transit systems to offer better service.

Leaders in these cities have recognized that transportation is intrinsically linked to broader values that matter to citizens — like economic growth, equity, public health and safety — and are not content to leave responsibility for this critical area to other, slower-moving levels of government.

Growth, Not Gridlock

Congested streets are a reality in any thriving metropolis, and many cities are actively working to get more performance from their road infrastructure. But cities need to give people efficient choices for getting around so that traffic congestion does not become suffocating. More and more cities are redesigning streets to prioritize transit, walking and cycling. Bus-only lanes are becoming commonplace in San Francisco, Seattle and New York, speeding the vehicles that carry the most people and, in some cases, reducing risky driving behavior.

The city of Everett, Massachusetts, made news last winter with a pilot project that transformed underutilized parking into a bus-only lane overnight, using nothing more than traffic cones. The initiative improved travel time markedly, and has since been made permanent. Research shows that walkability is key to high transit ridership and is essential for the success of dense, mixed-use districts. From Memphis to Manhattan, many different cities have developed ongoing programs to make streets more welcoming and safe for pedestrians.

Rewriting the Rules

To create climates where transit and walking can become mainstays of urban travel, many cities are rewriting regulations that presently force buildings to over-cater to automobiles. Requirements dictating that developers overbuild parking and attempt to maintain free-flowing traffic often act as a barrier to transit-oriented development.

Dozens of cities are doing away with such requirements, making it easier to build walkable, attractive neighborhoods. In 2015, the Minneapolis city council relaxed parking requirements for residential developments near the city’s busiest streets and encouraged additional development by reducing parking costs. The San Francisco Planning Commission recently changed the way the city reviews transportation proposals.

Across the country, transportation projects that call for replacing car-centric travel with more sustainable modes, such as bikes or public transit, will be deemed environmentally sound and sail through review, while projects that encourage more driving, such as the construction of new lanes on freeways, will be evaluated based on how much harm they cause.

Controlled Experimentation

Mayors are also recognizing the importance of putting people in charge of transportation who are action-oriented strategic communicators. The most effective city transportation leaders may not be engineers, but they win support for change by connecting transportation to critical city goals like safety, access to opportunity, and economic productivity. They move quickly by embracing quick project delivery methods, employ an experimental mindset, and hold staff accountable to near-term benchmarks. These leaders know that streets can be rapidly reshaped in useful and attractive ways with at-hand materials such as paint and moveable objects, anticipating later reconstruction with more robust methods.

Fast-growing Nashville has distilled many of these approaches into one package. Mayor Megan Barry recently released her transportation action plan, Moving the Music City, which aims to improve transportation options for city residents within a single mayoral term. The plan increases bus frequency and implements a set of programs that make walking safer in both residential neighborhoods and commercial districts and ease access to transit stops. The range of transportation goals is underpinned by institutional directives that create a new city division of transportation and instruct it to develop ways to improve city streets in the short term, using “quick-build” techniques.

At an uncertain time for federal transportation policy, local elected officials across the country are rolling up their sleeves and adopting a “do it yourself” ethos. The results in many places have been transformative, creating new transportation options, more walkable cities, and dynamic new public spaces — and instilling in local governments a sense of accomplishment and momentum. When city leaders embrace the idea that all transportation is local, and thus within their grasp, transportation systems can thrive.

Featured image from Getty Images.

About the author: Hayley Richardson is the communications associate for TransitCenter, a foundation committed to improving urban mobility through research, advocacy, and grantmaking. She strives to make transportation policy accessible, and has worked on sustainable transportation initiatives across the country, most recently at the New York City Department of Transportation.