Whether we like to admit it or not, city and transportation planning is all about trying to influence behavior. There is always a certain outcome that is desired through design. For example, pretty much everything that I aspire to professionally is driven from an epiphany that I had early in architecture school. I realized that density, not solar panels, is the key to slowing the destruction of our environment (although solar panels are great, don’t get me wrong). As Peter Calthorpe is known to say, “a party wall is more cost-effective than a solar panel.” ‘Cost-effective’ is an easy, crowd-pleasing way to say ‘energy efficient’. In the current political environment, it is dangerous to be motivated by anything other than the bottom line.
In advocating for public transportation I definitely have an agenda beyond an efficient bus system or saving money. Luckily, the fiscal bottom line also happens to benefit from better cities and better transportation. In fact, almost everything that has been done in the name of ‘better living’ in the past 50 years has been a drain on our resources; both monetarily and environmentally. Fortunately it seems as if the tide of public opinion is slowly turning toward favoring a more natural form of human gathering; the city. The benefits of a walkable neighborhood extend to nearly every aspect of private and public life, from property value to personal health.
The Metropolitan Council’s Corridors of Opportunity initiative comes up regularly when talking with public officials about light rail and urban issues. Corridors of Opportunity aims to put an appropriate land-use infrastructure in place around developing and future public transportation hubs, so that the most beneficial land developments will spring up once the economy recovers. This is almost entirely a local effort, as federal dollars for infrastructure are scarce and difficult to secure. However, local funding is preferable to federal funding anyway, as federal grants come with many, many strings and conditions. Federal money also poses the risk of torpedoing public support for otherwise sober and realistic projects, such as what happened to a small bus stop project in greater Oregon. If possible to attain, local funding for infrastructure projects is preferable and will produce a much simpler process, and most likely a much better end result.
Local funding is the goal for future Twin Cities light rail projects. We need to prove the benefits of regional public transportation in a way that sways public opinion toward voting for local and regional funding, no federal money or strings needed. One way to accomplish this is by doing exactly what Corridors of Opportunity strives to; create thriving and livable communities made possible by public transportation.
Something that I have not heard discussed is benefits for living near public transportation nodes. Each stop should have it’s own distinct culture, a palpable sense of community. One way to do this is to provide incentives that everyone in that small community shares. The best perk that I have been able to think of is free public transportation. If a quarter-mile is the walkable border of a neighborhood, why don’t we provide free and unlimited light rail passes for residents of each stop’s quarter-mile neighborhood? The expense to Metro Transit would be minimal in my estimations (especially since the current Hiawatha Line seems to collect fares by the honor system), and the incentive might just be enough to sway potential homebuyers and renters toward living near a light rail stop. It would certainly be a large factor in my decision. What is lost in fare revenue will surely be made up and more in property tax revenue and ridership numbers. Like Portland’s growth boundaries, there will be an incentive to develop and live in a compact area. Maybe we could even extend lesser benefits out to a half-mile radius, say $75 a year for unlimited rides.
Benefits always seem to go over better than penalties; just mention ‘gas tax’ to anyone who likes driving their car and see what I mean. (In full disclosure, I would vote ‘yes’ on a gas tax over and over, but I’m careful about saying that at family gatherings.) I believe that something like neighborhood transportation benefits are cost-effective enough to fly under the radar of even the most righteous self-appointed budget warriors, and they would provide benefits far beyond their cost.
If something like this has been done before I would love to hear about it, and if anyone has any input about neighborhood transportation benefits please voice them because this is a discussion that I would really like to see take off.