Becoming Clean Commuter of the Year

What did it take to win Clean Commuter of the Year in 2015? 93 trips. A little motivation. Planning. Encouragement from friends and coworkers. An employer actively supporting smart commuting.

2015’s winner – Emma Jones – is a regular clean commuter. She takes advantage of her employer’s support for telecommuting and connects her cycling with the bus on days she’s heading to the office. But she doesn’t stop with the daily commute; because she lives in town, she can and does use her bike and her feet to get around for errands and social outings.

This post isn’t just a success story about our winner. It’s a post on how you can be a successful clean commuter, too. more

Reasons To Ride: The People

If you are like me, you may be feeling increasingly detached from real, in-person contact with other people. I keep up with my friends on social media, communicate with my professors largely through email, attend some of my classes online, and (when I’m not on the bus) drive in my car alone. Yes, I see my classmates and coworkers daily, but new conversations with new people seem few and far between. In public places, where it used to be common for random people to strike up conversations, most people are now silently absorbed in their phones or earbuds, hesitant to chat.

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Reasons To Ride: Money Savings

Hi folks! This week has been a great week. It’s finally starting to feel like spring in the valley, a few buds have appeared by the bus stop, and I’m feeling more on top of my work (see last week’s blog post: Reasons to Ride: Getting Things Done). My bus rides this week were relaxing, productive, and featured an eclectic mix of lovely people (stay tuned for next weeks post: Reasons To Ride: The People.) Also thanks in part to the Smart Way, I’m feeling better about my savings account this week, which brings me to this week’s topic…

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RIDE Solutions Launches New Transit Tool with Google Maps

ROANOKE, VA (Dec 11, 2012) – RIDE Solutions has partnered with regional transit providers Valley Metro and RADAR to provide up-to-date routing and schedule information via Google Maps. The Google Maps service will now provide transit options for trips anywhere in the Roanoke Valley and Alleghany Highlands region in addition to the Smartway and Smartway Connector routes between Blacksburg and Lynchburg.

The trip planner can be found at ridesolutions.org, valleymetro.com, and radartransit.org, as well as directly through Google Maps. The tool can also be accessed through smartphones and tablets through the Google Maps app or web browser. “Trip planning via Google Maps will allow us to reach out to new customers and provide them with an alternative to driving by overcoming the biggest fear about riding the bus: the fear of missing it,” said Jeremy Holmes, RIDE Solutions Program Director. “Through Google Maps, we can now tell you your exact bus number, arrival time, transfer and rate information, everything you need to know.”

Planning a trip is easy. From the RIDE Solutions home page at ridesolutions.org, simply enter the basic trip information by either street address, cross streets or major landmarks along with the trip date and desired arrival or departure times – for same day service or many weeks in advance. The Trip Planner will then display several options from which to choose. Each option will include directions to and from the nearest bus stop; applicable route numbers including any transfer information; and, total travel times for each trip option.

“This is truly a regional effort,” says Wayne Strickland, Executive Director of RIDE Solutions’ parent organization, the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission. “Not only does the tool support all the major transit services in our region, it allows you to plan a single trip across all of them. Now, you can plan a single bus trip from Blacksburg, to Roanoke, to Lynchburg, all with the assistance of Google Maps.”

RIDE Solutions worked with Portland, Oregon-based Trillium Transit to build the data that supports the Google Maps tool. The trip planner now supports Valley Metro, the Smart Way Bus, the Smart Way Connector, the Star Line Trolley, the Mountain Express, and the shuttles for Ferrum and Hollins universities.

RIDE Solutions is operated by the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission in partnership with the New River Valley Planning District Commission and Region 2000. It is a grant-funded program that provides multimodal trip planning services – including carpool matching, bicycle commute routing, transit assistance, and telework consultation – for citizens and employers in the Roanoke, Lynchburg and New River Valley regions and surrounding areas within southwestern Virginia.

A Focus on Transit

Now that we’ve wrapped up Bike Month 2012, it’s time to look to the rest of the year (including, yes, planning for Bike Month 2013, which will begin somewhere around November of this year.  Among the projects that await us here at RIDE Solutions – especially our long-anticipated expansion into Region 2000 and the Greater Lynchburg area – is a focus on improving access to and awareness of transit options in the region.

Transit is a bit trickier than bicycles, we’ve found, despite the fact that pretty much anyone can ride a bus regardless of fitness level, terrain, access to bike lanes, etc.  However, the nature of transit – fixed schedules, sometimes circuitous routes, occasionally impenetrable route schedules, among others – can sometimes make it difficult for folks who want to choose transit to do so.

In the coming months, we are going to concentrate on improving transit information for those who could already be using existing transit services – those who live and work within the City of Roanoke, for example, or Roanoke/NRV commuters who could be using the Smart Way – and collecting information on ways services could be improved for those whose schedules don’t match existing routes and times.  We’ll also be looking at multimodal options – carpool and bike connections, even vanpooling – and we’ll be investigating opportunities to improve access with technology.  We’re already underway getting Google Transit set up for every service in the region currently lacking it, and have already looked at potential mobile apps and other tools to help you find out where and when to catch the bus.

During this time, we’ll need a lot of information.  Complaints, compliments, suggestions.  Have you ever ridden the bus?  Why or why not?  What would get you on the bus – wi-fi, accepting credit card payments, etc.?  How do you prefer to get information about transit?

We’ll also be looking at connections among all the transit systems.  For example, when Google Transit is up and running, you’ll be able to plan a trip from Blacksburg to Lynchburg all on the bus, from Blacksburg Transit to the Smart Way to the Smart Way Connector.

Keep an eye on this space, and keep your ears open as we send out requests for help.

How Much To Run a Bus?

Kemper Street Station, Lynchburg | C. Patriarca, Wikimedia Commons

Today’s announcement that the Smart Way Connector service is scheduled to start on July 19th is a good opportunity to continue the discussion we’ve been having on transportation funding issues.

As I have written here and here, we labor, as a nation, under the misapprehension that certain kinds of transportation modes are subsidized, and others are not.  Transit, in particular, suffers this misunderstanding.  To an extent, as the first article mentions, this is a language problem – we call gas taxes a “user fee,” and most people don’t understand to the extent to which that fee falls short of covering infrastructure construction and maintenance costs.  To a greater extent, though, I think it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what transportation is.

In short:  We have conflated transportation with driving, rather than understanding transportation as mobility.  Driving is, of course, one element of mobility – the most popular one at the moment, in many cases a very convenient and efficient one, and certainly the only one to which many people have access.  But it’s not the only way to be mobile, certainly not the best way to use resources efficiently, and one to which lots of people also don’t have access.

In regard to the new Smart Way Connector service, the local Roanoke Tea Party has brought up some criticisms of what they refer to as the “Pork Barrel Express,” criticisms worth discussing.  They point to the per-rider cost of approximately $74 that was calculated in an early story on the service.  They rightly point out that this cost is likely higher since gas prices have climbed since that original estimate.  I’d quickly point out, though, that the cost is based on certain ridership assumptions that might now be driven higher by those same gas prices, therefore bringing the per-person down.  We won’t know this dynamic until the bus starts running, of course.

The thrust of their argument is found in this paragraphs:

[T]he proposed cost of the bus trip for each rider will be $4. How could it be so cheap?

Well taxpayers are paying $74 per riders (based on the cost before gas went up to $3.30 a gallon). This is so Roanokers can get to Lynchburg and take a subsidized Amtrak train to the Northeast. Amtrak has never turned a profit and is only operating due to an annual influx of $1.5 billion in tax payer funding.

Here is where we get into that problem of the word subsidies.  The Smart Way Connector will get $150,000 from the Commonwealth.  Amtrak gets $1.5 billion.  These are “subsidies,” theoretically, because they aren’t offset by fees or fares.

But neither do roads.

Amtrak received $1.5 billion in tax payer funding?  This link points out that, since 1947, highways have received $9.4 billion a year in subsidies above and beyond the funding they already receive from gas taxes and tolls (for a total of $600 billion).  This ignores all the initial public investment that went into the highway system between 1916, when the first Federal Road Act was passed, and 1932, when the gas tax was initiated.

Before anyone jumps on those numbers, I’ll grant there are lots of ways to do the math on how this breaks down – per person, per mile, per trip, etc.  Of course, almost every one of these is going to come out in favor of the automobile and roads.  That’s not the point.  The point is that all transportation is subsidized.  None of it turns a profit.  Once we all get on the same page with this, we can then start to have a conversation about how best to invest those public dollars.

Up until now, maybe highways and an emphasis on personal automobiles makes the most sense and is the most efficient, but maybe that’s because, in part, they’ve been the recipient of massive public investment for decades and decades, investment that helped build the system up and make it efficient as possible.  If that’s the case, might it also be the case that new transportation modes, modes developed to meet the transportation and energy needs of the future (such as the rapid arrival of the Baby Boomers, and eventual mobility issues for them, along with issues of energy security and independence), deserve equally robust investment?  If gas prices are on a general upward trend, doesn’t it make sense to look at systems that make the best, most efficient use of that limited resource while also offering the maximum choice and mobility?

It’s also worth noting that there are a number of externalities that aren’t captured in the public cost of a roads-only approach to transportation.  This study shows that buses are about 10 times more safe than motor vehicles, and trains about 80 times more safe.  There are public costs for managing motor vehicle accidents, and the death and injuries from car crashes are also captured in higher insurance premiums and healthcare costs.  There are health impacts from the pollution generated from tailpipe emissions that are also captured in medical costs rather than in transportation costs.  Oil companies receive about $4 billion in tax breaks, and though these costs are spread across multiple transportation modes (including buses) and petroleum products, it seems safe to say that the biggest beneficiary of this subsidy is the automobile.

This is not intended as an attempt to capture all the costs associated with different modes, but simply to hint at the complexity of what’s involved, and that it’s not a straightforward calculation.

Even more important, though, is that I’m not sure the discussion about cost is the right one to be having anyways.  To my first point, the core of transportation is mobility – can you get there from here in a way that’s safe and meets your preferences.  That gets to mode choice and the many different audiences for transportation needs.  If you are elderly or handicapped, for example, and driving car isn’t an option, is a transportation system that invests solely in personal motor vehicle travel actually meeting the goals of providing transportation.  If you’re a company in a major metro area and your employees spend two unproductive hours in traffic each day when they could be riding a wifi enabled bus or train, is your state really making a wise transportation investment when they invest in more roads rather than rail?

In other words, is a per-mile (or per person, or per trip) cost really the best measure?  Is $80 per trip automatically a worse investment than $5 per trip if that $80 actually does a better job of improving mobility and encouraging other economic activity (like access to jobs and housing)?  That’s the question we should be asking.

Transportation spending is about how we move people, not how we move cars.  Different places with different needs will make different choices, and those choices will change over time as the market changes.  Right now, it seems like we’re entering a phase where gas prices will steadily increase, both aging Baby Boomers and up-and-coming Millenials seems to have a preference for urban living and a car-free or car-lite lifestyle, and renewed interest in public health and traditional neighborhood design mean a reexamination of walkable communities.  These are all trends that support investment in a mix of options for a mix of people, instead of the single-minded support of roads and cars we have followed for the past half-century.

My sense is that people will begin to look more closely at their transportation budgets (the most expensive thing after a mortgage or rent for most households), they’ll look at the time they waste in traffic, they’ll look at their smoggy horizon or think about how safe their streets are, and they’ll start to make different choices.  Not a wholsesale change, mind you, but they’ll appreciate having access to a bus, or a greenway, or a bike lane.  It might be the only thing that lets them keep the job they have, or live in the neighborhood they grew up in, or afford to put food on the table.  As more people use these new modes, the market will shift – just, no doubt, as it shifted towards highways and away from rails and dense development in the early part of the century with those 2 decades of public investment in infrastructure.  That, in turn, will shift costs.

There is a vital discussion to be hand about this or any other transportation investment, but before we have it we need to make sure we understand the terms of the debate.