The Last Mile: How Bike-Ped Improvements Can Connect People to Transit

Whether it’s just a short walk down the street or a five-mile bike ride, the journey between home and station is a major factor in people’s decision to take public transit.

Bike-share can bridge the last mile for public transit. Photo: Flickr/Arlington Country

For the transit officials and livability advocates gathered at the Rail~Volution conference this week, that key piece of the journey is known as the Last Mile. Frequent service and affordable fares, on their own, won’t entice people to make that trip. The route to the station also has to appeal to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Every transit trip is a multi-modal journey, pointed out Alan Lehto, director of project planning for TriMet in Portland, at the start of a panel yesterday. “Everybody who rides transit is a pedestrian or cyclist on at least one end of their trip,” Lehto said. “Getting people to and from the station is fundamentally important.”

But that aspect of transit is often overlooked. In fact, look no further than Portland itself, Lehto said. In a recent study, TriMet evaluated all 7,000 bus and transit stations within the region and found major gaps in bike-ped accessibility. “We realized that 1,500 of those don’t even have a sidewalk,” Lehto said.

Ensuring that transit stations are served by adequate pedestrian infrastructure is the bare minimum required to connect people to transit. Making the Last Mile truly appealing takes more than laying down sidewalks and adding a few bike racks.

Tim Stoner, managing director for Space Syntax, an engineering consulting firm in London, put it this way: “I want to talk about the last mile not as a distance, but as a place.” That place doesn’t end at the edge of the bus shelter. Before you can even think about the station itself, Stoner said, you have to think about the area’s connectivity. That starts with a good street grid.

“Human beings prefer simplicity,” Stoner said. Making a route physically safe and visually interesting for pedestrians is great, but even an inviting space can be a deterrent to transit, Stoner suggested, if it means pedestrians are sucked into an awkward or circuitous route.

Whether on foot or by bicycle, traveling to a transit station should be comfortable. Rory Renfro, an associate from Alta Planning + Design, shared his experience designing multi-modal transit plans for several cities in the United Arab Emirates. Whether it’s a small town on the Persian Gulf or a new development in Arizona, the Last Mile should consider “thermal comfort.” Taking temperature into account could mean siting bus stops in shaded areas, encouraging buildings with arcades for pedestrians or even adding climate control to transit shelters.

Accommodating bicycles adds another factor to the equation. But Rob Inerfeld, transportation planning manager for the city of Eugene, Oregon, suggested bicyclists can complement existing transit service and save transit agencies money.

Safe bike routes to transit hubs reduce the need for feeder service, potentially cutting bus costs. More folks bicycling can also relieve pressure on transit service during peak hours. To understand the capacity benefits, look no further than Capital Bikeshare, Inerfeld suggested. According to a CaBi survey, 40 percent of its members reported a reduction in their use of transit. And, with 22 of the district’s metro stops equipped with bike-share stations, CaBi has become a people-powered extension of the transit system itself.

“I think bike-sharing is a really good investment for transit agencies, especially relieving pressure on transit during peak hours,” Inerfeld said. “I haven’t found any examples in the U.S. where a transit agency led in the investment and development, but it would be nice to see more involvement of transit agencies in bike-sharing.”

But what if you want to ride your own bike for that Last Mile to the train stop and leave it there? For Inerfeld, the bottom of the bike parking hierarchy is an outdoor rack — ideally, covered from the elements and placed in highly visible areas to deter theft. The next step up, Inerfeld suggested, are bike lockers — large metal boxes that can be rented by the year or accessed for shorter time frames with a key card. Bike lockers can play an additional role as small-scale billboards, too. “Bike lockers can be advertisements for riding a bike to the station, but, in so many cases, they’re not used to get the word out,” he said.

The top shelf of bicycle accommodation is the full service bike station, like the Bicycle Transit Center at Union Station in D.C. Inside the helmet-shaped glass bubble, there’s parking for 140 bikes, in addition to repair and rental service, lockers and changing rooms. “People can combine biking and transit in all different ways,” Inerfeld said, leaving their bikes overnight or keeping them secure during the day. Already the facility has 200 members and an average of 35 trips per day. But given the $4 million price tag, Inerfeld acknowledged the bike station concept can carry some sticker shock.

Still, if bike stations and bike lockers can tap into evolving technology, they could skyrocket in popularity, as bike-share systems already have. “With bike-share, the technology is no longer getting in the way,” he said. “Bike parking is still operating on the old model; you have to sit on a waiting list to get a locker; the administrator may have no way of knowing how much it’s being used.” But the key card era is just around the corner. Just check out Bike Link, a company that manages bicycle shelters in California, charging users a mere three cents per hour and providing key card access to all its facilities.

Of course, all of these innovations require dollars. The good news for local agencies is that the Federal Transit Administration made a policy change this summer that benefits bike-walk connections. Previously, the FTA allowed funding for biking and walking projects that benefited public transportation facilities if they were located within 1,500 feet of that transit location. Now that distance has been bumped up to a half-mile. So many more Last Mile ideas could be on the table for federal funding.