Monday, September 21, 2009

James Corless of Transportation for America

Photo via T4A

Last week was a big week in terms of both my class load and things happening that I want to write about. I hope I can catch up a little this week.

On Thursday, James Corless from Transportation for America (T4A) was in Missoula for a small conference on health. While he was here he also gave a short guest lecture at the University of Montana sponsored by ASUM Transportation.

What is T4A? Its a large non-profit organization geared toward campaigning and advocating for reworking America's national transportation system. A large coalition has been built around the need for reform of over 300 other non-profit, for-profit organizations, and government officials. As an organization, T4A is very much geared toward lobbying and policy, but have a wide range of resources available for partner groups to access.

Mr. Corless' speech covered the usual "why we need reform" points that most of the people in the audience had probably heard before; certainly preaching to the quire. But he had a lot of good points to pass along. He stressed the connection of land-use and transportation and that the two are so interrelated that they can not be treated separately.

Our current land-use patterns certainly don't promote people getting out of their cars and hopping on transit or a bike. The last 70 odd years have seen an erosion of our cities and public spaces to provide for vehicular traffic. And as this process has continued, the more cars are accommodated, the more cars are present on our roads and need to be stored somewhere, which then reinforces the need for more space for cars and more travel by cars.

The only way to stop such a process is to stop designing for ever more cars and design for more public space to be given over to transit, sidewalks, and cyclists; as demonstrated by the recent Park(ing) Day events that aimed to take public space back from vehicles. This strategy needs to be accompanied by a reorganization of our land-use practices. Putting a transit corridor down a an area of sprawl does little to alleviate traffic. But add in mixed-use zoning and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) along that corridor for several blocks on either side, and all of a sudden you have a game changing situation.

Another important factor is the cost of transportation, not just monetary, but time and convenience (as even Thomas Friedman knows and points out in his recent column). If transit can be made to be faster and easier to use, while var travel is made harder to use, people will naturally switch. This is what has happened for almost a century, but in reverse; making it harder for people to use transit or walk to where they need to go. And so people have intuitively made the switch by the millions to use of the SOV because other modes of transportation where so damn hard and confusing to use.

Once people see that transit or active transportation (biking/walking) can be enjoyable, easy to use, convenient, and cheap they will flock to it to reach there destinations. Vehicular traffic now creates so much of its own friction as people compete for limited road space and congestion builds, that people don't want to deal with the stress of driving. Give people an enjoyable experience on their way to a destination, as Phoenix is discovering with their new light-rail line, and people will flock to public transportation.

A long road to reform looms ahead, but already local and national organizations like BWAM and T4A are already working hard to make a difference. It will take a lot of collaborative effort to achieve T4A's vision for transportation. Thanks again to James Corless for talk with us here in Missoula.

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