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.