"The solution to sprawl and congestion is good public transportation," is a standard cliche of transit planning--a version of "if you build it, they will come."
Too bad it doesn't work.
Study after study, city after city, have proven that nothing tried so far can pry Americans out of their automobiles. Despite a ritualistic rearranging of mission statements and routes like the deck chairs on the Titanic, American mass-transit still languishes in the decidedly unsexy task of transporting the carless.
Levels of ridership remain at a statistical inconsequence--in Raleigh a half of a percent. Even glowingly optimistic predictions of the Triangle Transit Authority's fixed-rail system exceed the cost of buying and fueling autos for all of its riders. And although mass-transit mission statements have the proviso of decreasing the number of car trips, that's only on paper.
Governments (and liberals) like mass transit for emotional reasons ("if not for transit, what can save us from sprawl?"). We like it because we are supposed to like it; it is "good." In these days of cash-strapped budgets, an untried idea that could well work might be worth a shot.
Robert Olason was a transit planner for 25 years with the city of Raleigh. He personally oversaw the creation of the CAT system, created the ART system (private taxis providing door-to-door service for the disabled) as well as the now-almost discontinued CAT Connector (small timed-transfer feeder buses). These ideas are being implemented in other cities and are used as examples of "best practice" at national conferences.
After spending a lifetime in public planning, Olason, a good, dedicated bureaucrat, came up with an old idea that might just work for Raleigh: Create a downtown that makes it possible for people to walk where they need to go. That would draw all the people who'd like to live an urban life, but can't--maybe 10 percent of the population.
"A policy concentrating on the walk mode, rather than the ride mode, will produce far greater results at far less cost," Olason says. "And it might be the only way to have any significant impact on sprawl and congestion, because our present policies do not."
It is an axiom in the transit business that the average person will tolerate a 20-minute journey, whether by car, bus--or on foot. Olason was reviewing some land-use maps and was struck that the 20-minute rule would work very well for Raleigh's old city, the 1792 William Christmas plan, and an idea took root: Olason's "walk" mode, where a majority of trips from origin to destination would be on foot. One would still have the car and would use mass transit, but the primary mode of transportation would be on foot--not an original idea in Manhattan or San Francisco perhaps (or 200 years ago, here), but in car-addicted Raleigh, where 90 percent of trips are in single-occupancy automobiles, it borders on heresy.
His revelation is complementary to the zoning reform Raleigh Planning Commission member Thomas Crowder is promoting ("Can This Man Make Raleigh a Real City?" March 12), and the effort to create healthy urban lifestyles as championed by the "Active Living by Design" program (see "Warning: Urban Sprawl is Dangerous to Your Health," April 2, 2003).
The problem is this: When a developed setting has grown up along what is called the suburban "drive mode," such as in Raleigh, there is almost no way to lure riders (unless there is a broken car involved). The results are under-used transit services and wasted revenue. The main difference between current transit strategy and Olason's is a switch in concentration from the "ride mode" to the "walk mode"--altering the focus from the conventional suburban transit corridor to Olason's dedication to the urban core ("urbs" he calls them).
The thing that will make the idea work--i.e. significantly decrease the number of citywide automobile trips--would require vastly increased density in the "Urb," the core of the city. "Unfortunately, politics gets in the way," Olason says. "Politics dictate that a solution should attack sprawl everywhere, since sprawl is everywhere. This is more about making habitat for those who don't want to exist in the 'ride' or 'drive' mode."
He defines cities as places in which people walk where they need to go.
"You'll never guess what the biggest city in the state is," he continues. I roll off a few guesses: "Charlotte, Research-Triangle?"
"Nope. Fort Bragg. Highest number of walk trips, origin to destination. The percentage of walk trips coincides with the equally high number of bus trips." He contends that the two are related.
What Olason has in mind is making it easy for people who live in the historic city not to have and use a car--more in the flavor of Brooklyn or Adams-Morgan in D.C. Like a return to the pre-transit era, "neighborhood stores and home delivery replace the need to drive," he says. "A person lives an 'urban' life by mostly walking from place to place. A person lives a 'suburban life' simply by driving from place to place." The thinking is that a suitable density of population, along with easy access to goods and services, would decrease the drive mode. "The way most urban planning is done is a case of the cart before the horse," Olason says. "Here, public money would be directed toward subsidizing the 10 percent of us who wish to live a city life, on our feet, rather than strapped behind the wheel."
As the area begins to fill, shops and stores will follow the increased population. Other means to make the area good for walking and harder to drive would be by calming it, not with speed bumps, but with pavement surfaces and two-way streets. In addition, the concept would be enhanced by altering taxes to give advantages to the protected urban area.
Olason's plan figures that "public support of urban services for people living in the historic city will produce urban densities far faster and at less cost than the regular rail initiative." In a switch from creating transit systems that few ride, here, public money is used for those who want to live an urban, pedestrian life.
If there were 50,000 people living in Raleigh's urban core, Olason says, then the number of trips on TTA's rail system would double the authority's projection of about 25,000 a day. Raleigh's single-occupancy vehicle trips would be reduced from 900,000 to 800,000 a day, a drop of about 10 percent.
Raleigh's fairly high rate of auto/pedestrian collisions would also certainly drop in the urban core via a new rule, "the slower mode gets the road."
Ideas similar to Olason's have been employed in cities in Europe. Amsterdam has discouraged traffic by installing cobblestone streets and diverting roads. London has heavily taxed automobile usage. No city in the United States has tried this sort of thing (although there is an accidental version at City Market). Although the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council issued a resolution to have the city manager review the feasibility of Olason's study, reception of the plan has been typically poky at City Hall. But Olason is gaining a new cadre of supporters--among them, builder Greg Paul.
"He is absolutely right," Paul says. "There needs to be enough people living downtown that small shops can thrive on their trade. People could then live downtown comfortably without a car, and transit could be their link to the rest of the area." Paul goes on to say that "the City of Raleigh must get behind the development of downtown housing in a meaningful, stimulating way. The benefits will be reaped down the road."
To read Olason's essay and details of the plan, go to www.Geocities.com/Civilcommunity. Click on "Walk Mode."