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Transit: Long-Scorned, Key to Metros’ Future?

Neal Peirce / Jan 08 2009

For Release Sunday, January 11, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeircePublic transit was scorned by vast majorities of Americans for a half century after World War II. But might it become the central development key for America’s 21st century cities and their metro regions?

That’s the audacious “green” formula of the authors of a just-released blue-ribbon commission report– “Sustainability and the MTA” –for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

It’s true, New York with its 8.5 million daily trips, comprising to 40 percent of all U.S. bus and subway ridership, seems like a transit outlier.

But ridership is now surging nationwide (even with $1.50 gas). And for cities aiming to be “green” and globally competitive, New York’s transit-centered approach poses a powerful model.

MTA’s commission was headed by Jonathan Rose, an illustrious developer of environmentally friendly and transit-accessible housing. Rose insists that transit is the necessary centerpiece of planning the future as the New York region adds an expected 4 million new residents and 3 million new jobs by 2030. If New York or any other region hopes for a sustainable future, he insists, development needs to be channeled carefully, consistently, into transit-oriented clusters rather than sprawl.

Plus, Rose argues, a strong and expanding transit system can organize and help grow the region so that it cuts back sharply on its carbon emissions, competes efficiently with other leading world cities by reducing wasteful traffic congestion, and advances social equity by making jobs accessible to all residents.

New Yorkers can already boast their transit system makes the city and region America’s green leader. MTA’s buses, subways and commuter trains remove some 3 million drivers from the roads each day. And they do it at twice the energy efficiency of the most advanced hybrid cars, registering a massive “carbon avoidance” benefit. The high-density, high-transit model translates into per capita energy consumption just one quarter the national average.

But the secret’s not just having more transit lines–though the commission recommends the MTA do just that. It’s about shifting zoning and other policies to make sure the lion’s share of new residential and business development is located in transit-accessible city and neighborhood cores. And then insisting the “last mile” of transit accessibility be covered by flexible feeder buses as well as pedestrian and bike improvements.

Cars and trucks won’t go away under this new approach. But the region will have a more efficient, “robust, resilient, multimodal, fine-grained system,” argues Rose.

The blue ribbon commission was a picture of inclusiveness–transit and rail professionals to regional citizen groups, utility executives to sustainability advocates. Line managers from MTA’s vast rail-bus-bridge authority were active on project task forces. And Obama-style, all 68,000 MTA workers were polled for their ideas, with a big crop of creative responses.

Major goals and a plethora of “green” ways to conserve, avoid pollution, and cut carbon emerged. By 2050, it’s suggested, MTA should draw 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources–among them a big set of wind farms 13 miles off the Long Island coast. Through such measures as energy retrofits and new braking technologies, it would cut its operational energy use sharply. It would apply high LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards to all its building projects. It would apply green standards to its waste flows, even take care to substitute rainwater and “greywater” for its massive daily washdown of thousands of buses.

Will a new transit era require “megabucks”? The answer is definitively yes. The commission believes $75 billion to $100 billion will be needed between now and 2019 “to prepare MTA and its service region for a sustainable future.” A separate commission has come up with a $30 billion estimate for capital improvements by 2014. It’s headed by Richard Ravitch, the business leader who, as MTA chair in the 1980s, introduced new financing to save the system from ruination in a low-point of frequent breakdowns, graffiti-splattered cars and troublesome crime.

Admittedly, advancing New York for transit in the face of recession will be tough. But the city’s civic leadership is remarkable and it’s had decades of high quality mayors, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his imaginative department heads pushing a “PlaNYC” to green the entire city. Predictably, the New Yorkers are hoping some Obama stimulus money will help push their green transit agendas forward.

Could a New York-style formula apply to regions nationwide? Absolutely, asserts Robert Yaro, a member of MTA’s blue ribbon commission and president of New York’s Regional Plan Assn.: “If this process were replicated in the 45-plus U.S. metros that already have urban and regional rail systems, which collectively are home to two-thirds of our national population, it would go a long ways towards achieving national mobility, a national climate and energy strategy.”

Think of it, Yaro suggests, as a “stealth national development/metro development/energy independence/climate strategy” for the entire United States.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

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