I always tell transit advocates that, if you really want transit, build a place. Successful transit connects successful places (and sorry, Andy Card, but a park-and-ride is not a successful place).
We build a lot of unsuccessful transit in this country because we too often treat transit as a substitute for the automobile. The thinking -- and this comes from people who plan transit systems as well as those who fund them -- is that transit is synonymous with equity. If you can't afford a car, well...then we need to provide you with public transit. It is a social justice issue.
And because of this mindset, transit tends to become the exclusive providence of government. Funding mechanisms require that transit projects be huge, involve massive coalitions of public officials and be designed by teams of bureaucrats and consultants, few of which even use transit. The result is a wasteful approach that focuses on corridors and coverage area instead of places and people.
I would also argue that our current approach may assuage the conscience (we have good intentions, after all), but does little to systematically address the social justice concerns that inspire (or are simply used to justify) our actions.
One of our core principles at Strong Towns is that we need to work incrementally. Making small investments over a broad area over a long period of time is how cities -- and their people -- have historically become strong, successful and wealthy. When it comes to transit, however, advocates have a hard time visualizing those first increments. Trains are expensive, Chuck. Indeed.
Annapolis, Maryland, provides a fresh case study for that first, critical increment of transit. The Maryland Avenue Shopping Shuttle, a service launched by a guy named Tim McClennen, brings visitors from the busy City Dock to the less busy Maryland Avenue on a souped up golf cart. It's not as sexy as a streetcar, granted, but what a stroke of genius.
Apparently City Dock is a relatively successful place. McClennen owns a business in a less-successful place that is too far to walk but close enough to shuttle. This guys realizes the obvious -- albeit brilliant -- idea that, if he can make it easy for a small fraction of the people in the successful place to visit his place, he can make his place incrementally more successful.
That's the core mechanism of a successful transit investment.
For too long, the retail district down the hill from the State House has been ignored by the city, McClennen said. He said he paid $17,000 for the Polaris Gem — which looks like a stretched-out golf cart — to bring to Maryland Avenue visitors who might not otherwise know there is another shopping district in Annapolis.
"I decided that instead of complaining, I would do something about it," said McClennen, a 2014 graduate of St. John's College who owns Odyssey Massage.
Think about this for a second. For $17,000 this private individual just created the first increment of a successful transit system. What would Annapolis be like if there were dozens of these. Hundreds? Fixed route little shuttles that went from one successful place to another place that is somewhere on that path to success? It would be amazing, and here's why: it would change the entire investment paradigm of the city.
Not only does this move start to restore the incentive for private capital to incrementally invest in neighborhoods again, but we now we have a feedback mechanism for where that next transit investment should be made. When that little golf cart can't keep up with the demand, when the success of each connected place overwhelms the capacity, then we can confidently replace the golf cart with a shuttle bus.
As things become more and more successful, the shuttle will be replaced with a streetcar which can someday be replaced with a subway. Now we're not imposing an expensive, ineffective, top-down transit solution in the places where we can get the funding, find a vacant corridor and build a political coalition of vested interests. Instead, we're incrementally building a dense web of successful transit that is intimately aligned with the expanded opportunities being provided by a complex development pattern. Success begets success begets success, all incrementally, all at a scale the provides opportunity and inclusion.
Chaotic but smart versus orderly but dumb.
This can happen, of course, but cities like Annapolis will need to fight their bureaucratic tendencies. From the article:
McClennen said he netted about a dozen riders his first week in operation. Then, on Friday, his service was halted when the city requested information on insurance and driver background checks.
He said his service will continue today, and he will meet with the city attorney to ensure he has the necessary permits.
This may not look like transit to you, but it is the only way we are going to build and scale successful, viable transit systems in cities all across this country. If you want transit, build a place. Connect it to another place. Think incrementally.