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First mile, last mile: plugging gaps in city commutes

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Shiny new public transportation systems are nice, but getting people to them is a challenge, experts said during a panel discussion at the SXSW Eco conference.

AUSTIN, Texas -- The overarching problem with many city mobility initiatives is that, when it comes to transportation, there are gaps that make it difficult to people to use the systems built for them.

You may have bike lanes, but few will use them if there's no where to lock those bicycles up when they get there.

You may have ample sidewalks, but they may attract bicyclists (and frustrate pedestrians) if there's no bike lanes to go along with them.

You may have sustainability goals, but having everyone buy their own bike may work against them.

That's according to a panel of experts here at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference, who sat down to tease out just how bicycles, trains, cars and more can not only co-exist, but help each other in a multi-modal transportation ideal.

"System is an important word when talking about transit. It requires a network of solutions," said designer Gabriel Wartofsky, whose E-Bike concept aims to bridge the gap by allowing city buses to take on shared folding bikes like pods and redistribute them around the city.

But it starts with a proactive approach to problem-solving. In the U.S., federal transportation funding is on the decline and will continue to do so because it relies to heavily on gas taxes, said Asha Agrawal of the MTI National Transportation Finance Center. That means state and local governments must step in.

"We're unlikely to see huge infusions of money from the federal government for cool new transit projects," she said. "We're going to continue to see more and more diversity in how different communities raise money."

But the public mindset is a huge hurdle. While we as consumers contribute much to a working automotive infrastructure -- the government provides roads and maintenance, but we provide vehicles, gas stations, parking spaces and vehicle repair -- we don't think about doing the same for public transit.

Shoe leather to walk to the station and the purchase of bicycles to get to the transit system are places to start, Agrawal said.

"We really need to do figure out not to rely on the government but think about how we as individuals and businesses can solve these problems ourselves," she said.

Jane Choi, an urban planner for the City of Los Angeles, said her local jurisdiction was doing just that. In 2008, voters passed a ballot measure for a 0.5 percent sales tax on all items to improve the region's lacking public transportation.

"We've already figured out the first and last mile for the vehicle," requiring in the zoning code parking spaces for residences and commercial buildings, she said. "But we're very far behind with regard to providing those same sort of facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians."

Los Angeles is experimenting with a $16 million federal grant to develop prototypes for futuristic "mobility hubs" -- "It's really a Redbox for transportation," she said -- that require a universal access card.

"It's many years away, but it's really exciting to think of system retrofits to our system to accommodate non-auto modes [of transportation]," she said.

Dan Dawson, customer relations manager for alternative transportation service Big Blue Bus, said his company handles 22 million rides each year in Santa Monica, Calif. But there are challenges.

"We work really hard just to maintain the infrastructure we have," he said. "A consistent funding source is really important to get out of the maintenance box and try creative things."

But cycling remained the preferred topic to helping commuters get to and from public transit. Agrawal said the potential for pedestrian-motorist-cyclist conflict is high unless the goal is clearly defined and pursued.

The answer? "We need more cyclists," she said.

This would:

  1. Make local jurisdictions more proactive about addressing issues;
  2. Educate drivers and develop a culture that cyclists also have a right to the road;
  3. Encourage cyclists to begin using public transit;
  4. Make everything safer.

It's really a chicken-or-egg scenario -- someone's got to make the first move. Then "the problem starts to resolve itself," she said.

But education and reputation play a huge part. In Los Angeles where streets are hostile to cyclists, Choi said that funding is available for infrastructure improvements, but public acceptance has been most challenging.

"We tried to install a 'bicycle boulevard' and because of a misunderstanding about a signal in one neighborhood the project went out of control. It pretty much killed part of the project," she said. "Which is really unfortunate, because these bicycle treatments really help slow down traffic and [reduce collisions and cut-through traffic]."

But there are hardware challenges. Making space on congested buses for bicycles is a challenge, and may run afoul of vehicle codes in some areas, Choi said.

And then there's the rush hour scenario.

"People have a low tolerance for riding trains with bicyclists," she said. "They just get really upset about it. It's going to take a campaign of teaching people how to share."

Still, the demand is there,

"We see cyclists all the time chasing buses to get on a bus to use a [open] rack," she said. "There's a huge need for retrofitting our buses for more bike room."

The best approach is to develop solutions that work under the existing regulatory climate or require only minor changes, Agrawal said.

Bringing bikes on buses is "incredibly useful," she said, but bike-sharing programs are also worth a look, since they help discourage passengers from bringing bicycles on-board by offering an alternative place to put them.

MORE POINTS

More points from the panel:

  • On minivan like "combis" to plug transit gaps: Non-bus riders are afraid of them; labor costs make them expensive to operate; laws make them illegal in some places to exist.
  • On bicycles and gentrification: There exist "invisible bicyclists" -- people who are purely dependent on bicycles, usually low-income and working in the service sector, who tend to ride the wrong way on roads without a helmet. They're not thought of as part of the cycling community, but they're there, Choi said.
  • Women are "the indicator species" -- more women means cycling success, Choi said.
  • The reputation for cyclists as spandex-wearing sports nuts prevents people from adopting. "A lot of our cycling infrastructure on the policy side has been pushed by advocacy groups. In the U.S., the cycling advocacy group has tended to be somewhat homogenous" -- male, younger, enthusiasts, in good shape, not afraid to ride in traffic, she said. "Diversity in this community is key to getting traction."
  • The urban paradox: suburbs might be better for bicycles because strip malls, etc. actually have the space to give to bike racks and related infrastructure. "It simply doesn't exist" in New York City, Agarwal said.

In the end, different regions require different solutions, said Geoff Wardle, director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design.

"There is no silver bullet that solves all of these problems," he said. "There is no grand universal theory for personal mobility."

After all, it doesn't matter how shiny and new your transportation is if you can't get them to use it.

"If you can't actually get people to and from the transit system," he said, "You're in trouble."

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure