Public transportation does more than reduce traffic congestion

Public transportation is designed to do more than improve traffic flow. It also provides social and economic benefits

By Mary Velan

Discussions surrounding the use and expansion of public transportation networks will typically focus on their benefits - specifically reducing roadway congestion. But many people do not realize public transportation is designed to achieve more than just improved traffic flow: the networks must also provide a social and economic benefit as well.

Beyond Congestion

Every public transportation project in the United States is introduced to the community with a promise of reducing traffic congestion - which is appealing for just about every resident looking to shorten their daily trips. Because traffic flow impacts the vast majority of drivers and riders, congestion reduction is part of the branding for all transit projects ranging from road redesign to bike sharing.

Despite the continued promise of traffic reduction, many public transportation projects fail to make a significant impact on congestion once the initiative is complete. Some communities report slight congestion improvements or mileage declines, as well as long-term expectations for drops in car-dependency. The limited results for public transit projects reducing congestion can be attributed to a variety of factors such as more ridership does not always mean less traffic.

In a recent study, scholars found the Expo rail in Los Angeles was able to increase overall transit ridership in the region without contributing to any significant reductions in traffic speed or travel time on a nearby interstate. The scholars concluded that light rail transit lines located in high demand areas will see a rise in ridership, but also make room for new drivers on the roads. Thus, many public transit projects are branded incorrectly as being solutions for traffic congestion.

So if trains, bike sharing and buses do not reduce traffic, then what other main benefits do they offer? Transit experts argue non-car options improve:

  • Public health
  • Sustainability
  • Mobility and access to the city

And most importantly economic growth and community engagement.

Economic Boost

First and foremost, successful public transit projects are almost always associated with agglomeration - or the economic boost that occurs when people and jobs become concentrated in certain areas of a city. When urban settings grow to accommodate dense populations and job opportunities, roadways are tight and mobility is limited. Public transportation options make it possible to move more people through central areas to maintain economic activity and spur future growth.

When a city's congestion reaches a high level, less people try to navigate via personal vehicles and economic activity is hindered. When a city adds public transit and mobility options such as light rail, pedestrian bridges and bike sharing, economic activity and prosperity can continue to grow while congestion remains a constant, Human Transit reported.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, public transportation projects should be focused on connecting workings to sustainable jobs and living wages. Public transit should be used to generate employment opportunities for disadvantaged workers, boost workforce development and enable more efficient job training. The Ladders of Opportunity pilot program aimed to prove these points by modernizing and expanding transit bus services to connect certain populations to local workforce training, employment centers, health care and other vital services.

Community Engagement

Transit infrastructure and services not only make city amenities and opportunities more accessible to residents, but also provide civic spaces that engage the community. What makes a city successful is much more than a set of strong policies and superior transit options. Sustainable, thriving communities are built on a foundation of talent, opportunity and engagement. Public transit plays a key role in attracting, nurturing and maintaining these ingredients to build stronger cities, Mass Transit Mag reported.

Cities looking to increase economic activity and spur innovation must attract young, college-educated professionals. This demographic is not typically interested in driving long distances between their homes, work and other destinations. They enjoy dense communities with different amenities within walking distance or a quick transit trip away. This type of development not only attracts young professionals but entices business growth to create more opportunities, Mass Transit Mag reported.

Successful cities are also defined as meeting the demands of the people, which cannot be achieved by local officials making all the decisions. Rather, residents and community stakeholders must come together and take small actions to encourage the development of new policies that meet their needs.

Boston's Goals

One example of a community looking to achieve a variety of goals through public transportation projects can be seen in Boston. The city has a Go Boston 2030 initiative that aims to improve transportation by engaging the public to develop a strategy to meet all their goals and needs. After surveying more than 6,000 Bostonians, the city's advisory board drafted a plan that lays out a variety of future transportation goals:

  • Ensuring there is affordable housing in areas where there are upgrades to the transit system
  • Quality maintenance of transit facilities, sidewalks and roadways
  • Connecting low-income communities to "job-rich" districts
  • Reducing transportation costs for low-income riders
  • Tapping into the local startup community to create innovation transportation technology
  • Ensuring there are various modes of transit and an equal level of investment in transportation infrastructure in underserved communities

The city is now outlining an action plan based on public input that will include specific projects and policies to be implemented over the next five, 10 and 15 years.

“Our transportation action plan will lay out an ambitious roadmap to address inequities in underserved neighborhoods, connect our workforce to job opportunities, and prepare our systems for climate change,” Mayor Walsh said in a statement.

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