Celebrate Clean Commuting in Blacksburg

We’ll be celebrating in Blacksburg on May 20 to thank those who have taken the clean commute pledge. Stop by, say hello, and enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry.

Clean Commute participants pledge to use a cleaner commute mode – biking, walking, riding the bus, carpooling – during May. Each trip pledged is an entry for the prize drawings. There’s a Commute Team of the Year competition open to any group (workplace, clubs, informal groups), too.

You can still join the Clean Commute Challenge!

Last call for the NRV Transit Rider’s Survey!

Before the survey closes on February 5, we want to hear from you about the region’s most-used bus stops. The survey (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MPOTransitStudy) will take about 5 minutes to complete, but the data we collect will inform the region’s transit system stop improvements in the years to come.

Missing the Bus, Gaining some Time

Huwmanbeing | Wikimedia Commons

This past Saturday, I took my daughter down to the annual Grandin Village Children’s parade.  To avoid worrying about parking and to spend a little extra time with my girl, we took the bus.  It was very convenient in that we were dropped off almost in the middle of the village and walked a short distance to stake out a viewing spot, and we were there early enough for prime seating.  I had planned on a quick lunch and a bus ride home, but poor planning on my part, a busier lunch counter than expected, and a missed bus threw a wrench in my plans.  Well, it seemed to at first.

The whole experience got me thinking a little more about time.

The discussion of transportation choice often comes back to a discussion of convenience, at the heart of which lies questions of time.  More specifically, what we choose to do with our time, how we spend it, and if we spend it well.  Sometimes its a purely practical, calculable question – I want to spend less time getting to work, less time sitting in traffic, less time waiting for the bus, etc.  Most of the arguments for TDM activities take place in this realm – reducing transportation demand reduces congestion time, robust transit systems mean less waiting, improved bike accommodations means faster bicycle commutes on less dangerous roads, et cetera, et cetera.

There is a qualitative component to this argument that deserves more attention, though, as my missed bus on Saturday proved out.  First of all, it did take longer to get to and from the village on bus, what with the need to walk to the bus stop and transfer downtown.  Since this was a day out, however, and not a commute trip, I built that into my plan – the walk to and wait at the bus stop and the longer ride to the parade was part of the fun, time I got to spend with my daughter while someone else did all the work.  Quality time, as the cliche goes.  My daughter got to pick her seat on the bus.  We had a chance to talk about whatever happened to be interesting at the time, got to see parts of the city we normally don’t and do a little bit of exploring.  Penelope clearly enjoyed the experience more than sitting in her booster seat while I concentrated on driving.

I tried my best to work our parade-and-lunch schedule around the return of the bus.  We were having grilled cheese sandwiches and soda-fountain sodas at Pop’s when I saw the bus go by about 10 minutes earlier than I expected.  With Valley Metro headways, that meant another hour or so until it would come by again.  I was, at first, frustrated, being pretty much ready to go home and get started on some chores and other projects.  I was about to call my wife to come pick us up when I reconsidered.  Perhaps this was an opportunity to be a bit flexible, enjoy the day a bit more, take advantage of the unplanned extra time.

So we did.  Instead of chores and projects, Penelope and I leisurely finished our sandwiches and sodas, then walked along Memorial Avenue for a bit, simply enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and each other’s company.  A forgotten teddy bear brought us back to Pop’s, and thence to Viva la Cupcake for a sweet snack, and finally to Too Many Books, where Penelope picked out something to read on the ride home.  It ended up being a little extra time I got to spend with my daughter that I probably wouldn’t have taken advantage of.

There is enormous benefit in the convenience and mobility offered my our modern transportation options, but there’s also something to be said for being forced to slow down every once in a while, to indulge yourself in your community instead of just zipping through it.  Missing a bus could be an opportunity to simply take a walk or an impromptu picnic with a friend or loved one.  A leisurely bike commute might result in a brief detour through a new neighborhood or park.

Absolutely, time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted in unnecessary trips and long commutes.  But precisely because it is precious it’s worth examining how we spend it on transportation, and to recognize the trade-offs.  It’s entirely possible that missing the bus could be the best thing to happen to you today.

Reading Material

Just to spend a moment to cross-promote:  If you want a little reading material on the bus in the morning (particularly if you’re riding one of the beautiful new Smart Way buses), or if your carpool partner doesn’t mind you catching up on a chapter on the commute home, why not join The Big Read Roanoke Valley in reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines?  And in case reading this blog isn’t enough, you can catch my occasional forays into literary criticism on the Big Read’s very own blog.

Book suggestions aside, I think the “saving time” part of transportation choice is often overlooked, or too narrowly defined as “getting there faster.”  Sure, getting cars off the road does increase the efficiency of the transportation network by reducing congestion and travel times, though the impact of that benefit in the Roanoke region is minimal, since we really don’t have that much congestion.  However, saving time in the sense of spending your time doing something more productive with it shouldn’t be discounted.  Reading time, for example: a 20 minute commute on the bus is 40 minutes a day you could be reading a book, or business magazine, or studying from a textbook, or listening to an audiobook.  Whatever you’re doing, you’re not driving, which frees up your attention for other things.

One of my favorite things to do is take the bus on shopping trips with my daughter; not because it’s quicker, because it’s not, but because the time spent waiting for the bus and actually riding with her is time we get to spend together without me worrying about paying attention to the road, and without her strapped into her car seat.  I may spend a little bit more time getting where I’m going, but I’m doing something much more valuable with that time.

Good Transportation Makes Good Neighborhooods

Last week, I had a brief conversation with Eldon Karr, a local architect who has involved in Roanoke’s Design ’79 plan (link goes to 1.26 MB pdf) and currently runs the Heart of Roanoke Facebook group and collaborative urban design experiment.  The conversation started with the Heart of Roanoke and Karr’s goal to create a design process, beginning with Downtown Roanoke, that could be applied to other neighborhoods in the valley.  Since I have recently written on Downtown and its importance in the broader transportation picture in the region, his idea about a design process that moved from neighborhood to neighborhood got me thinking about the ways that our neighborhoods are connected, and specifically how transit changes the way we experience the city.

Much of this stems from my experience working on the National Transit Database passenger count survey a few years ago, a tri-annual process that involves counting passengers on random routes at random times throughout the day for an entire year, collecting data that powers much of the Federal Transit Administration’s analysis.  The past several iterations, collecting data for this project has been a joint effort between Regional Commission and Valley Metro staff.  Since route and time selection is random, you’re pretty much assured that you’ll run every route and every time of the day over the course of the year.

For me, the result was more than simply becoming better acquainted with the bus schedule; it was an introduction to parts of Roanoke that I had never known existed, and the idea that there are social implications of the decisions we make about transportation.

In a community the size of Roanoke, it’s hard to believe that someone who has lived here almost 20 years wouldn’t have visited almost every nook and cranny of the valley.  But is it really?  If the way you get around is always Point A to Point B via the shortest possible distance, generally in a car by yourself with the radio on, and paying the required attention to the simple act of driving, it shouldn’t be surprising that you would mostly hold to the same several paths each day – work, store, friend’s house – and not experience much more unless a new home or job forces you to reconsider your routes.  Even then, you’re probably not paying much attention to what’s going on around you beyond watching traffic.

Riding the bus for this passenger survey provided two surprising opportunities:  It still got me from A to B, but through neighborhoods and streets I had not visited before, giving me a sense of a Roanoke that I didn’t know existed.  It also gave me time to breathe and just pay more attention to what was going on around me – houses I had never much noticed on paths I had taken every day, a decaying strip mall with the potential for a village center, hidden parks tucked into strange places, and, unfortunately, pockets of surprising poverty.  It gave me a sense of who my neighbors were and how our neighborhoods were connected (or disconnected, as the case may be), and a broader view of the challenges that face the region.

The conversation I had with Karr – beginning with this experience – touched on what a more robust transit system, starting with investment and support by downtown businesses and local government, and including the expansion of the network into Roanoke County and beyond, could mean for how people experienced Roanoke and how the neighborhoods might fit together; not as separate fiefdoms demarcated by four-lane roads and controlled through clever access management, but as connected communities whose residents share conversations and experiences (or at least exposure to each other if, like me, you prefer to read a book on your bus time).  Your perspective on city projects might be different; for example, your sense of where an amphitheater belongs (or if one belongs at all) might be different if you crossed three or four neighborhoods a day.  Maybe it would reinforce the conclusion at which you’d already arrived, maybe it would change it; either way, it would be a more informed decision.

OK, I admit that this all sounds a little sentimental.  And I’ll offer the hedge that this is my own experience; 180,000 people are all going to experience the valley in different ways and crisscross it in places I probably still haven’t seen (for example, I didn’t know until yesterday that there is a Christmas tree farm within the city limits).  The point is to consider the secondary, perhaps obscure (but nonetheless important)  impacts of transportation decisions, to think about how people share space in their city and how often they interact with their neighbors and fellow citizens, whether that interaction is desirable, and what the barriers are.  Riding the bus isn’t going to fix that – nor is putting down a sidewalk where none exists so people feel safe walking, or riding a bike to the store so it’s easy to stop and talk to your neighbors – but it certainly seems to be part of the puzzle.

Now, before anyone accuses me of trying to force everyone out of their cars and onto buses so we can all be warm and fuzzy together, all of this is not to say that public transit doesn’t have its faults.  Trips are longer, occasionally fraught with uncertain delays, and often confusing route maps and schedules.  But like anything we talk about at RIDE Solutions, the point is to look at our transportation network and transportation behavior from a trip-by-trip basis.  A commute trip is a pretty good one to make by bus, a shopping trip may not be.  Different trips can be more effectively taken by different modes, and it’s worth thinking that we should add social benefits to the standard list of financial and environmental benefits we think of when we take a car off the road.

It Boggles the Mind: Why is CEI Against Transportation Choice?

This Competitive Enterprise Institute post on World Carfree Day and the effort to encourage a less car-centric society has to be willfully stupid.  That’s the only way to explain the conclusions they draw.  Fortunately, Andrew Leonard at Salon.com has already offered a rebuttal of their claims (though it should be noted that the rebuttal is leveled against an email alert by CEI, the text of which is similar to, but not a direct quote from, the post linked to above).  Leonard’s conclusion nails it:

CEI complains that World Car-Free Day is “anti-prosperity.” If their idea of prosperity is living in the suburbs where you have to drive miles to get to the nearest McDonald’s, I guess they are right. But World Car-Free Day really is “pro-good life.” A life in which we use our bodies instead of burning fossil fuels, reside in livable neighborhoods instead of sterile deserts of tract housing, and enjoy the wind on our face instead of the hum of the air conditioner.

What boggles my mind about complaints like those of CEI is that is misses the point on two very broad levels:  First, they argue that automobiles provide mobility and that people would be “isolated” without them.  Well, yes, but in many cases only because our development patterns have assumed the use of an automobile as a primary means of transport, resulting in sprawl.  It’s a bit disingenuous to complain that grandma couldn’t get to the doctor without a car, when there’s a pretty good chance grandma can’t drive at all.  Since there’s probably no doctor near where she lives and no to little investment in public transportation, she’s been left completely stranded even if she owned a car.  CEI limits their definition of mobility to driving an automobile, forgetting that investments in transit, rail, safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and even high-speed data infrastructure to encourage telecommuting also equal mobility.  The policies they argue would “make owning one’s own car more difficult and expensive” aren’t necessarily there to penalize car owners, but to encourage development patterns and fund transportation networks that are equitable to all users – including the elderly, handicapped, rural residents, and other audiences they identify for whom driving a car doesn’t necessarily make sense, either.

Second:  Besides their narrow-minded approach to mobility, the big point CEI misses is that of energy.  Automobile-centric mobility arguments and automobile-centric development patterns only make sense in a world of cheap energy with few external impacts of its use, a world we clearly don’t live in anymore.  Ask anyone who was driving back and forth between Roanoke and Blacksburg in 2008 if $4/gallon gas contributed to their prosperity.   It’s not just the energy involved in moving the automobile back and forth I’m talking about, though; there’s energy involved in building and maintaining the roads upon which the vehicles drive, in supporting the infrastructure that connects commuters’ homes and destinations (power/sewer/etc. – miles of water line to connect a neighborhood to a mall is much more energy intensive than a few blocks to integrate a neighborhood village center).  There’s the energy involved in mitigating externalities – pollution, smog, traffic control, emergency services, and so forth.  And, finally, there’s the human energy expended in stress and time dealing with long commutes, road rage, sedentary lifestyles that see us sitting down, unmoving, even when we’re traveling at 55 miles an hour.  In a world of limitless, clean, free energy, CEI’s perspective might have some value, but unfortunately for them such a world doesn’t, and probably will never, exist.

World Carfree Day, Clean Commute Day, Ciclovia, Bike to Work Day – all these events are efforts to get people past thinking that there is only one way to get from A to B, that only one kind of vehicle makes sense.  Sure, in many cases, there is absolutely nothing wrong with driving a car, and the automobile’s ability to get people over long distances quickly has done much for connecting far-flung communities and moving goods around in a way that has increased everybody’s quality of life.   But for individual transportation choices on a trip-by-trip basis, sometimes it simply doesn’t make any sense to get in your car.

Even if you aren’t carfree today, at least take a moment to think about a trip that could be taken carfree.  Think about how your day might be different if you took the bus on Fridays instead of driving and could read a book or just relax knowing you were significantly safer than if driving in your car.  Think about how your family life might be different if you lived close enough to walk your kid to school in the morning.  Think about picking up your groceries in a trailer on your bicycle and what that weekly ride might do for your health.  Maybe none of these options are realistic for you, and that’s fine.  But if you imagined just one of these possibilities and thought, “Yeah, that would be nice,” you’ll know why we work so hard to promote alternatives, and you’ll have proved CEI dead wrong.

In Defense of Ciclovia

A few weeks ago, the Friday after August 1st’s Ciclovia, a Letter to the Editor appeared in The Roanoke Times that took a critical look at the event (letter appears second from bottom, but is quoted below):

Since Roanoke spent a lot of money making bike lanes around parks, I do not see why they have to have a bike show downtown (“Taking to the streets” Aug. 2 photos). Streets are blocked, interfering with traffic. More important, children are riding their bikes in the street and could be hit by a car or bus.

If the city built bike lanes around parks and other areas, they should be used, not city streets made for cars and buses.

My response appeared in today’s paper, quoted below in full:

In response to Catherine Wydner’s Aug. 7 letter, “Use bike lanes, not the city streets,” I want to clarify a few misconceptions she seems to have about our recent Ciclovia event.

The Ciclovia, organized by the Roanoke chapter of BikeWalk Virginia, was an effort to show how much more vibrant our urban space could be when it is opened to people rather than dedicated to cars. Indeed, the 500-plus attendees of the event — including cyclists, artists, families, health professionals, rollerbladers and others — enjoyed the opportunity to “play in the streets” and experience Downtown Roanoke in an exciting, new way.

I take issue with her assertion that city streets are “made for cars and buses.” Streets are made for transportation, regardless of mode. Citizens should feel comfortable and safe choosing how to commute, do their shopping and visit friends, whether they do so in a car, on a bus, on a bike or on foot.

Smart cities concentrate on transportation designs that move people, not only cars, and Roanoke’s support of events like Ciclovia reveals its dedication to this principle. BikeWalk appreciates the city’s support and the support of all who attended the event.

This idea that “streets are for cars,” as if cars are creatures with rights, is one we have to get past if we’re ever going to make significant improvements in our transportation infratructure and energy use.  A century ago, people might have argued vehemently that “Streets are for horses!”  Before that, “Streets are for the market stalls!” and even “What the heck is a street?”  Now, as always, streets are a function of our cities and how we choose to move around within them and connect to others.  They should always be viewed with an eye toward moving people the fastest, safest, most efficient and, now, cleanest way possible.  In many cases that may be by car, which is fine.  But not always, and not for everyone, and the more we keep this top-of-mind the better off our cities will be.

Delaying the Rocky Mount Bus – For Now

The same financial problems besetting every local government have caused Rocky Mount to reconsider implementing commuter bus service to Roanoke.  Considerations other than weak revenues influenced the decision, though:

The drop in gasoline prices was also another reason that the proposed commuter service is on the back burner now, [Assistant Town Manager Matt Hankins] told the town’s planning commission Tuesday.

When the bus service was proposed last year, gas prices were high, he said. With the decrease in gasoline prices,  Hankins said, the proposal for bus service has a lower priority.

‘I expect it will come up again,” he said, “if gas prices go back up.”

I think “when gas prices go back up” is more likely than “if,” and I would encourage Mr. Hankins and the rest of the Rocky Mount leadership to keep the commuter bus plan handy.  When the economy recovers and, with it, local government revenues, so will gas prices.

During the skyrocketing gas price increases in the spring and summer of 2008, RIDE Solutions saw its largest percentage increase of new carpoolers come from the Rocky Mount and Franklin County area.  Those folks have remained active in the database despite the drop in prices; when gas spikes again, the commuters of Franklin County and Rocky Mount would be well served by their leaders’ ability to move swiftly on establishing an affordable option.