The Palm Beach MPO took a field trip last week, riding Palm Beach County transit. Kudos to the board members for experiencing the transit system firsthand, even if the trip itself wasn’t really indicative of the day to day experiences of your average rider. I applaud County Commissioner Steven Abrams, as it is my understanding he rides Tri-Rail to work everyday, giving him a real perspective on transit.
Two ideas worth pursuing
The MPO discussed a technology that might allow buses to get signal prioritization at traffic lights, significantly speeding up headways. This sounds like a first step toward bus rapid transit and could have a big impact on convenience and, by extension, ridership on Palm Tran. From the Post:
Along with more bus shelters, Palm Tran wants to develop “smart card” technology — the same that allows drivers with a card on their windshield to zip through toll booths. Adding WiFi and technology to let bus drivers and county traffic engineers communicate to extend green lights at intersections when a bus is approaching is also being considered, said Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton Forbes.
BRT has proved transformational in a number of cities. BRT, if done right, can provide reliable and frequent county transit at a fraction of the price of rail. The cost of right of way acquisition for new rail is enormous and so better ways to use existing capacity and road networks should be the focus.
Secondly, it was good to hear about city and county success in putting in the humble bus shelter. No one likes to wait for a bus in the sweltering Florida heat (well, most of the year). Improved bus shelters help bus riders significantly and also advertise where bus routes exist.
Opportunities for improvement
Unfortunately, disconnects large and small remain in our county transportation policy. Here’s what my wish list would consist of.
- A Houston-style reimagining of Palm Tran to create a useful bus system. Increase frequency, decrease headways, and make the time to travel between major points reasonable. A half hour car ride can take 2 hours on Palm Tran. This is unacceptable and no one will choose to ride the bus in this circumstance, even those trips where the two endpoints are in walkable neighborhoods.
- Get the small stuff right. I tweeted this last week, the day before the MPO trip. It was the result of me trying to figure out how to get from FLL to downtown WPB. The Fort Lauderdale trolley doesn’t have a Google Feed, and the result is an inaccurate estimate of the time it takes to get home. Over an hour of time is added to my estimated trip because the trolley isn’t feeding into Google. This affects not only Google, but those apps that rely on Google data such as Transit App. I realize this is a Broward county example, but the same problems exist in Palm Beach County.
- County transportation impact fees are required to fund new road capacity. This policy subsidizes the car trip and harms older downtowns like West Palm Beach, where what is needed is not new roads but more multimodal options. Downtown WPB has generated a tremendous amount of new urban infill over the past decade, but the impact fee money is not benefiting downtown; in fact, it is being used to fund road widenings in car dependent areas of the county. This is a really stupid policy that needs to change. As Urban3’s analysis demonstrates, the downtowns and traditional neighborhoods are the breadbasket of the county tax base, because they are far and away the most potent land areas in the county. Undermining their tax productivity is harms the cities and also the county at large, which relies on these downtown areas for a disproportionate part of the tax base. See Urban3 analysis video, below.
- Last but certainly not least, better land use policy, countywide. Regardless of how much money we sink into our transit systems, if they don’t connect to walkable neighborhoods, the results will be underwhelming. As recent studies have shown, in transit oriented development, the most important part of the equation is not the transit, but the compact, walkable development. Building transit in sprawl surrounded by huge parking lots doesn’t reduce car trips and doesn’t provide the many benefits of walkable urbanism. Only building walkable urbanism does that. Transit is secondary to building neighborhoods with centers and with a reasonable pedestrian walking time from center to edge.
The MPO has done a good job elevating awareness of tools like Transit App as well as supporting complete streets and Tri-Rail Coastal Link efforts. A large chasm exists between best practices in land use and transportation at the county level, however. The inevitable outcome of the sprawling pattern of land use pursued at the county level is more congestion, more road spending, more unsafe stroads, more pollution, less community, more time spent commuting, and less fiscal productivity (see video below). Some of these issues must be addressed not by the MPO, but by Palm Beach County.
Avoiding the the “Browardization” moniker requires a more nuanced understanding of the interdepencies between land use and transportation than the “build, build, build” more roads approach. The preservation of Palm Beach County’s high quality of life depends on it.
[edit, 9:30 am: This is a good opportunity to mention the Strong Towns #NoNewRoads campaign which is happening this week. Here is the description of the campaign:
This week at Strong Towns we are going to focus our attention on the embarrassing mess that is the American system system of transportation finance. Our premise here at Strong Towns has been, for some time now, #NoNewRoads, a rejection of any proposal to spend more money on this system until we undertake dramatic reform…
Here’s a common sense approach that a consensus of Americans seem willing to support:
- Let’s prioritize fixing what we have. We should not build anything new until we’ve figured out how to pay to maintain what we’ve already built.
- Anything new that is built must not be the result of paybacks in a system of pork-barrel politics but the result of a rigorous, independent financial analysis.
- The users of the system should pay for the system. That includes those hauling freight as well as those hauling kids to soccer practice.
- We can’t just keep building highways. Our approach to transportation has to acknowledge the limits of more road building and the benefits of alternative approaches.
- We cannot ignore the complex relationships — positive and negative — between the way we approach transportation and the impact that has on our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Allowing these to continue as separate undertakings — transportation and land use in different silos — is self-defeating and economically suicidal.
Cover photo: Bill DiPaolo, Palm Beach Post