Jeremy Nelson, Principal with Nelson\Nygaard, led the breakout session on Connectivity at the Urban Next Summit last month in San Francisco. The ambition:
“We can go where we need to go without owning a car”
When attempting to make the city work better for everyone, mobility is key. Improving connectivity and transportation is a very big task and, as Chikodi Chima suggests in his review of the Summit, you could likely focus an entire conference around it alone and still not cover everything.
For me, the issue of connectivity and improving it could be divided into two real goals:
1) Decrease the need for people to commute to get what they need (i.e. increase mixed use development and service provision in communities); and
2) Increase the transportation options available for the times that people do want/need to leave their neighbourhood.
In addition to increasing mixed-use development in communities, our group talked a bit about initiatives by residents to provide services and support each. The Ainsworth Street Collective in Portland is a great example – neighbours would meet informally (while out walking or gardening) and eventually started organizing formal get-togethers to talk about their neighbourhood. Along with hosting potlucks and community events, they increased their community capital by creating a tool-share, bulk organic food buying system, and have created a guide for services in the neighbourhood. Perhaps a welder lives down the block from you, or someone who specializes in landscape design – the goal is to support each other’s businesses as opposed to going outside of the community for everything. In this sense, along with service provision and local stores to purchase from, communities themselves can increase their connectivity through social capital.
To compliment better resource provision, it is also important to increase transportation options available to all citizens in a city. One representative explained that a current challenge for the transit system in Omaha is that it does not cover the entire city. While it is common for areas of a city to have less than ideal service, this type of situation effectively cuts off a section of the populations and creates a wall beyond which transit is not an option. This is particularly a problem for people with lower incomes who are more likely to rely on transit services – instead, they either become dependent on car ownership that they cannot afford or are subjected to living without potentially necessary amenities.
In some cities, citizens have tried to find solutions to transit problems collectively. John Cary the President and CEO of Next American City told our group about the Casual Carpool in San Francisco. It is a system where motorists pick up and drop off pedestrians and transport them across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco in the morning for work. Pedestrians get a free ride, and the motorists get to ride in the express carpool lane. While this is a fantastic low-fi initiative (people coming together to help each other out), John noted that it has been going on for many years (I think he said 20) and there still isn’t a pedestrian or bike lane on the bridge, nor has transit to the greater Bay Area changed to make this unnecessary. So the degree to which it is really helping progress transit options comes into question.
These examples highlight some of the barriers for people being able to get where they want to go without the necessity of car ownership. Instead, citizens are required to go out of their way to function day to day.
While car pooling, car-shares, and new enterprises such as BIXI can be used to alleviate some transportation deficiencies, we also talked about ways of encouraging/providing incentives for what you want more of (less car centric development and more transportation options for different user groups) and discouraging/penalizing what you want to change. The ideas ranged from charging motorists for miles traveled (creating incentives for compact development); removing site-specific parking minimums; requiring developers to design in-line with municipal transit objectives ; providing good infrastructure for walking and biking; and encouraging workplaces to provide incentives to those who use transit, bike, or walk to work.
The “cool factor” was also mentioned, which is certainly a relevant issue for increasing transit ridership, particularly in mid-sized cities. Many people do not take transit due to an ill-informed perception that transit is for “others”[read: poor, “dangerous” people] – I have heard these sentiments expressed in Regina without much to back them up. People who romanticize the subway and metro experience when they travel to Chicago, New York, and Montreal are too quick to jump back in their cars when they return home without a thought towards becoming a patron of their local transit system. To state the obvious, transit works best when people take it.
One person mentioned that in her city, a local music festival encouraged people to take local transit during a music festival and the buses had ads promoting the festival – it was a nice cross-promotion. This concept stuck with me as being one to try in Regina, but I think it should be taken further. Regina already has a few initiatives that promote transit use (i.e. on New Years Eve and during Mosaic), but what if you could ride transit free the week of Folk Fest by showing your concert pass, or during the first week of University with your student ID? Instead of having to get on a specific shuttle bus at a mall parking lot that only takes you to an event, you could get on any bus and go anywhere! This would promote both the local event as well as transit.
To end the session on Connectivity, Jeremy asked that we each take 15 seconds to state one important thing we each would do to increase sustainable transportation in our respective cities/towns when we got home. I decided to create a map of sidewalks in the town where I now live to showcase how limited (and sometimes dangerous) it really is for those of us without a car to get around. I will be covering that in a future post.
This post wraps up my impressions from the breakout sessions at the Urban Next Summit, however I am sure that many of the inspiring ideas and projects that were discussed will continue to come up!
** carpool photo here