Monday, May 5, 2008

Transit planning in Arkansas is a lot like Ottawa

Reading an article from the Northwest Arkansas Times from the weekend, I noticed a lot of parallels between the questions residents of that city are asking, and the big issues that people in Ottawa are thinking about during the planning stage of our next transit project.

Some area residents, including [Ron Goforth, president of Beta-Rubicon Inc., a firm that specializes in independent technology assessment services], argue that planning for light rail now only makes sense as Interstate 540 is consumed by increasing traffic and commercial development.

"If you have an opportunity to anticipate future problems and pre-empt them or reduce their negative impact by taking early action, it seems prudent to think ahead," he said. "It's fast, it's cheap, it's comfortable. It's where the future needs to be."

Others say Northwest Arkansas doesn't have enough population density to support light rail and it is far too expensive.

"I think everybody would be in favor of light transit if need could be demonstrated and if it was feasible and practical and cost effective," Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said. "But we haven't got to that point yet."

Here's an interesting question that is appropriate for Ottawa to ask when thinking of the extension to Bowesville after hitting up the airport:

[Steve Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center] maintains rail lines influence land use. He said, as it has in other cities, rail would become a catalyst for creating denser, urban land uses around the train stations.

"If we wait another five or 10 or 15 years, our current trends are to spread out, to create low density, and that's going to make mass transit really unfeasible. We can use mass transit now to get to the kind of land use we want to see," he said.

"Does transportation create land use or does the land use necessitate a certain level of transportation?" [Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission] asked.

Access to mass transit is a huge factor in determining the liveability of a certain area. It follows that a relatively undeveloped area would quickly become developed if a light-rail line runs through it. There is something to be said about taking the opposite approach, and limiting transit development to where the population warrants it. The eternal question in transit planning, I suppose.

One issue that Ottawa's ahead of Arkansas, by the tone of the story, is in a bus system that complements a possible rail system:
"You can't build light rail then expect to fix the bus system afterwards. You've got to have a bus system that's vibrant and meeting the community's needs," [Phil Pumphrey, executive director of Ozark Regional Transit] said.
Ottawa has that bus system. It's not perfect, but if light-rail takes over the grunt routes and buses just have to get people to the trains, it could be even better.
Luoni countered that light rail is not just a cost, it is also a benefit because it encourages economic development. He said rail transportation offers peoples a choice in transit, the opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint, helps neighborhood-based merchants and is a way to revitalize communities by encouraging a denser urbanism rather than sprawl.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART ) is a good example, Goforth said.

"Where they have put in hub stations, it has been an enormous economic development driver and revitalization of weak areas. So, there is a big upside," he said.

Goforth said the cost is not either build light rail or improve the highways.

"We're going to have to have both," he said, adding that a feeder system, such as a bus system, is also necessary.

Goforth said the short term solution for immediate demand would be working on getting bus rapid transit (BRT ), but there are very, very different economics in the two concepts.

"They are cheaper and faster on the front end, but much more expensive and less contributors to economic development on the back end," he said.

Because BRT is not a fixed asset like rail would be, developers of commercial complexes don't cluster around a bus station, Goforth said.

[Phil Pumphrey, executive director of Ozark Regional Transit] said that's its advantage.

"One of the advantages buses have over rail is that if the demographics change and you have to move a rail it's very expensive. But a bus is just a short planning session," he said.

So there are a lot of things to consider. We're not the only ones dealing with these problems, though.

1 comment:

Jason A. Chiu said...

I'd have to disagree with Luoni's assertion of the benefits of light rail.

Widespread construction of a light rail infrastructure through already developed neighbourhoods can/would hinder "neighbourhood based merchants" and divert existing transit and traffic to an unsustainable level, whereby detours and longer commutes become commonplace.

Of course, the speed bumps encountered before light rail is fully operational are supposed to be out weighed by the end results: A sustainable, efficient and accessible form of mass transit. The argument can quickly descend into an "ends justify the means" tautology.

The costs (which Luoni acknowledges) are not the only factors to consider when erecting light rail, or any sort of rail transit in a city already developed. Municipal, and even state/prov/federal, governments need to bring new ideas, new theories and approaches to urban areas regarding transit, as taking what worked for cities 10-30 years ago, might not work as efficiently for today's urban environment.

The results of those cities who adopted light rail decades ago are now apparent, copying them would only be a temporary solution that would inevitably reveal itself to be a disappointment when, decades from now, the late-adopters to late rail realize that they've committed themselves to a dated form of mass transit.

If looking back at previous mass transit initiatives teaches policy makers and transit thinkers anything, it's that they should be looking forward.