"Trying to market a city without transit is like trying to sell a cell phone without a camera." That was one of the take-home messages from a speaker at an urban planning conference earlier this year, according to my friend who was there. The room was full of city planners who are trying to convince businesses to settle in their areas. Transit is considered key not just because it gives people an easy way to get to work, but it also signals to the private sector that a city is healthy enough to invest in itself.
This week, the American Public Transportation Association released its third quarter ridership report, showing seven consecutive quarters of ridership growth on subways, buses, and commuter rail. There have been 7.9 billion rides from January through September of this year. If the trend continues, it will amount to 10 billion rides by the end of the year. "That's real numbers. These are impactful numbers," said APTA President Michael Melaniphy. "It's not just an urban phenomenon. Cities under 100,000 people are seeing good growth. Demand is pushing the capacity of what they can handle." Almost 60 percent of transit rides are work commutes, according to APTA, and cities are looking for ways to give workers on swing shifts access to their jobs.
Melaniphy believes the public and local leaders are way ahead of Congress in terms of willingness to finance transit. APTA spent much of the last year simply trying to protect existing federal funds from being cut in a two-year highway bill. Around the country, the attitude was different. In 2012, local initiatives to tax more for transit had a 79 percent passage rate. Last year, the rate was 76 percent. "The mayors get it," Melaniphy said. The state of cities' transit systems are among the top five questions asked of city officials by businesses looking to locate there.
What is transit's role in the economy? How important is it to job growth? We know transit is essential in densely populated areas, but how can it be useful in less densely populated areas? Should transit systems prioritize work commutes over other kinds of travel? How should cities and towns develop and market their transit systems? What is the future for transit?