We Know the Solution to Transit’s Last Mile Problem — It’s Walking

WMATA's Branch Avenue Station is not set up for convenient walking access. Photo via TransitCenter
WMATA's Branch Avenue Station is not set up for convenient walking access. Photo via TransitCenter

Good transit is rare enough in the United States, and then we make it even less accessible by surrounding stations with parking lots. We saw 16 examples of this wasted transit potential in our 2017 Parking Madness tournament — including a real stunner in Denver where three light rail stations are marooned in an ocean of parking. In transit parlance, the “first and last mile” connections to these stations are oriented for people who drive, not for people who walk.

Big mistake.

In a post at TransitCenter, Zak Accuardi writes that the walkability of transit stations is of “foundational importance” to their success. While transit agencies often have to go outside their own authority to promote walkable street grids and compact development near their stations, it’s worth the effort, Accuardi says:

The buzz around first and last mile connections has recently intensified with emerging mobility options like Uber and Lyft and bikeshare. Much of this buzz is focused on suburban and low-density first and last mile challenges, but agencies would often benefit more by focusing on first and last mile challenges in dense, walkable neighborhoods.

Emerging mobility services open up a variety of possibilities that can help strengthen transit, but they do not change two fundamental truths. First, land use determines transit’s viability; and second, initiatives that subsidize transit riders to obscure land use constraints can be very costly, and thus difficult to deploy broadly. This underscores further why walking access is so important, in both urban and suburban settings.

Improving street network connections that make walking to transit easier is among the most useful and cost-effective first and last mile strategies. Even in relatively dense urban centers, walking to transit can present a challenge. In Washington, D.C., WMATA has done a great, proactive analysis of the likely financial benefit of improving station area walkability, which shows an almost two-to-one return on investment

Transit-oriented development (TOD) and zoning changes are other highly effective strategies that put more people within walking distance to transit. These strategies are particularly useful in places where transit has been extended to very low density areas, or urban decline or road building has hollowed out areas near older stations. Putting more people closer to high quality transit should be a priority for any transit agency in these circumstances. As we highlight in Who’s on Board, Portland’s TriMet is an agency that has put a lot of hard work into local government outreach for station-area development in the Portland region.

Removing barriers to walking and TOD are likely to yield better ridership and financial return on investment than others designed to draw transit riders from suburban environments—the transportation equivalent of swimming upstream.

More recommended reading today: Seattle Transit Blog reports on the campaign to stop Democrats in the Washington state legislature from cutting $6 billion from a voter-approved transit expansion package. And Bike Portland explains how state legislation to allow cities to set their own speed limits has been watered down.

  • Wells

    The GM/FORD paratransit vans are 1970’s tech.
    Low-floor buses flowered in the 90’s and we keep buying their obsolete partransit vans. Seniors and disabled need
    the low-floor, and clean air. FWD PHEV hybrid goes
    from 10mpg to 30mpg.

  • Wells

    One other thing: Anyone who believes ‘driverless’ car tech is sensible has a minority viewpoint to read over.
    Just please don’t include driverless nonsense.

  • Ray

    The fix for the last mile problem is to use Uberpool. The subsidy wouldn’t be very different from a bus subsidy.

  • RMGH

    There are people who can’t walk 5 blocks, you know. I used to take the stairs, not the elevator. I used to park a few blocks away from my lab because it was a bit greener. I used to park in one place and walk to all my other shopping. Then I got Lyme’s and tendonitis in my foot. Now I can’t walk more then a couple of blocks without excruciating pain. I’m not 80, I’m in my 50s. Shit happens. The fact that you don’t CARE that shit happens to someone like me is really disgusting.

  • Vooch

    I care deeply about the 40,000 Americans killed every year by drivers.

  • Vooch

    how do walk at work ?

  • RMGH

    I’ve been listening to this BS for way too long. This is more a war on cars for the sake of having a war on cars and I don’t believe for a minute that it is truly substantive. The pretzel logic of making things HARDER for people trying to use mass transit by denying them parking at train stations has gotten beyond ridiculous. I think that that this is a way for developers to just make more money. And the greenies are buying it hook, line and sinker because it SOUNDS GOOD.

    Disclosure: I live in a suburban area of NY about 20 miles from midtown Manhattan. We have a train line that goes to Manhattan – 33 min by express to Grand Central.

    Sounds great, right? But that’s not your commute. In the old days (c.1995) you took a 10-15 minute car ride to the train station. Then I had my connections on the other side of the commute. A subway trip and several blocks. As NYC commutes go, it wasn’t so bad. I allowed 20 minutes to get to the train, 33 minutes to GCS, and another 30 minutes for the subway and walk. Even with that parking perk, you are almost at 1.5 hours each way.

    Fast forward to today: I no longer make that commute, but those that do have a long, long, long, wait for a parking pass. I’ve asked how a few commuters cope with this. Those that have chosen to still take the train have several issues.

    First, it tacks on an additional 20 minutes to an already too long commute. That’s minimal. Some have to go to an accessory lot several blocks away. Those close-in can grab a bus.

    Second, it isn’t always 70 and sunny. There is snow, ice, rain, 90+ days in summer where they all have to contend with the elements in their business cloths no less.

    Third, cab rides and uber ride sharing is both expensive and time consuming. This actually tacks on another 30 minutes to people’s commute. The train commute is already unaffordable unless you are making very good money in NY ($268/year) Forcing people into ride sharing is expensive in terms of both time and money. Its going to add about $7 each way to commuting costs which is another $315 per month.

    Fourth, no one works 9-5 any more. To be effective ride sharing and mass transit like busses have to be on the road from about 5 in the morning to midnight. And PLEASE, don’t tell a single woman who has to work late that she should BIKE home at 11 PM at night. These notions of ride shares and mass transit for commuting don’t work in good part due to the reality of the 24/7 work schedules people are being subjected to.

    What’s this going to do? People who can DRIVE TO WORK will DRIVE not train. And that is precisely what is happening. Time and money are two of the most valuable assets people have and they don’t like people with bad ideas stealing it from them. If they can make driving work, they will.

    The net result is more cars on the road for that 20 mile drive (40 miles round trip). Sure, it stops them from taking that 2.5 mile drive to the station – which was all they wanted in the first place. but now, for each commuter who takes this option, you have to replace them with 7 additional metro-north passengers to make up that increased carbon footprint.

    Let’s look at what this would do for my own carbon footprint. When I commuted, the odd hours were definitely an issues. I had to teach a couple of evening classes and that got me back to the train station between 10-11 PM. If I hadn’t had train station parking, I would have had to drive at least twice a week. Sorry, I’m not risking my life walking alone on the streets at the age of 20 something. When I did get home during normal hours, I took advantage of the fact that I was already downtown and would buy groceries and do other shopping in the are BECAUSE I WASN’T RIDING A DAMN BIKE – I HAD MY CAR. So I probably saved the planet at least two trips into the downtown every week. Most people I asked who had parking said they did the same thing. It saved unnecessary trips to the downtown at other times.

    So, having PARKING AT THE TRAIN STATION allowed me to save the planet about 90 miles of car driving a week.

    But you know who benefits from all this nonsense? DEVELOPERS!!! They don’t like putting in parking. they can make far more money with retail space or apartments or whatever….It also gives them that wonderful excuse to tear up the entire suburban landscape and redevelop it all into a very profitable urban center. $$$$$$$

    Folks, you are being snookered. There is no net gain here. PUT IN THE #$%!ing PARKING! Stop trying to tear everything up to please developers wallets and let’s make use of technology to make everything less carbon producing. But the net gains environmentally from all these histrionics is probably nil.

  • RMGH

    I have no intention of selling my home just to please your agenda. I am disabled, that doesn’t mean I should be forced to live where YOU TELL ME TO.

  • RMGH

    Trolls like you aren’t even worth the time.

  • Vooch

    you can live wherever you chose. No one is saying anything differently.

    just don’t expect to be lavishly subsidized if you choose to live far away from anything. The era of plush subsidies for the ex-urbs is rapidly ending.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Have the trains been bringing less people since they replaced the parking with apartments? That’s the only question that matters here. If the trains still run just as full, then everything you say is irrelevant. It’s just that instead of *you* riding the train, it’s the people who live upstairs from the train, and might use it on weekends and evenings too, not just going to and from work.

  • RMGH

    They haven’t replaced the parking with apartments, they WANT to replace it with retail and restaurants more than apartments. No one wants to live on top of a major train stop!

    Right now there is no accurate way to measure anything. You’ve had building in neighboring towns that need to use our train station as well as increasing density all over the surrounding areas. With all this there has been no increase in either parking OR public transportation options. If anything, public transportation has had cutbacks. So tracking is near impossible.

    But, more people are giving up on the train and are DRIVING all the way into NYC if they can’t get good parking. That’s the point. You then need 8 MORE train riders to make up the carbon footprint of one person who opts out of the train commute. Those are the numbers you need to crunch in order to get any meaningful numbers on what this is doing to emissions.

    One solution that our municipality doesn’t want to consider is to is to dole out spaces according to need. The outlying areas really have zero in public transportation options and ride-sharing/taxis are prohibitively expensive because of the lower density. These residents could be prioritized over someone in the downtown that has a bus stop for the train half a block away with a five minute ride. Unless they are handicapped or work very unusual hours (like a hospital worker) someone living within a half-mile of the train really shouldn’t need a parking spot at the station. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from applying for one.

    And I disagree with your premise. Once you hit the wall of diminishing returns, it goes downhill from there. You can’t keep adding density while cutting access to the train station without forcing more people into their cars. What you need are less bodies on the road DRIVING to Manhattan. Otherwise, you are just increasing the carbon footprint. And the more difficult you make it for people to get to the train station, the worse that’s going to get.

  • Bin Lu

    How about BoardUp. the worlds first self-locking longboard that can fold in half! Just kick the metal kickpad on the nose to foldup.It could be a good solution for commuters taking bus or train. carry it like suitcase. and easy to store. check goboardup.com

  • RMGH

    You’ve obviously never had arthritis in your knees. There are PLENTY of people who can’t ride a bike. I’m one of them.

  • RMGH

    There are many people with debilitating diseases who CAN DRIVE. But they CAN’T WALK and they CAN’T BIKE. Get that through you thick skull.

    Autoimmune diseases are a perfect example, such as Lupus, MS, and RA. I was a lab researcher specializing in this area, so I know several people who are afflicted with these disorders. They attack the JOINTS not the reflexes. They CAN DRIVE, some can walk short distances and they can’t bike.

  • RMGH

    Your 82 year old mother doesn’t have Lupus, RA or MS or sever osteoarthritis does she? Not everyone is gifted with that kind of physical resilience. And the types of resilience vary.

    I had one aunt who could walk miles and climb mountains, but her mind was fried by Alzheimers. My own mother had severe arthritis caused by acquired flat foot, but she had a formidable mind. She could drive, she couldn’t walk or bike after the age of 65. Another aunt had severe arthritis and walked short distances with a cane, but was sharp as a tack until the day she died at near 90. She could drive, but there was no way she was biking anyplace. I have one aunt who is 95 who is blest with both a sharp mind and strong body, but that is rare. All of these people could drive, except the one with the Alzheimers – for obvious reasons.

  • Joe R.

    If your joints are in poor shape you can’t move those joints as rapidly, and hence you can’t react. It’s not just how fast the brain processes something and tells the body to move. It’s also how fast you can actually move.

    If you can’t walk and can’t ride a bike I’m not seeing how you can safely drive. The fact a person with the diseases you mention might be able to get a car to move isn’t the same as saying they can drive. What happens when something unexpected occurs and the difference between life and death is a few tenths of a second in reaction time? As I said, the solution is to have an able-bodied person drive a person who has disabilities which affect their joints or reaction time. Or just live in a place where you don’t need to drive.

    P.S. I have severe carpal tunnel syndrome which falls into the category of joint disease. I can walk or ride a bike just fine but there’s no way I could drive. I could reliably turn a steering wheel fast enough, nor can I grip it for long enough periods.

  • Joe R.

    My own mother has severe arthritis. In the last few years her mind is also going. However, back when her mind was OK she wasn’t able to drive well on account of the arthritis. Going 20 mph when everyone else is going 40, or going 40 on the highway, is a hazard to her and everyone else. Heaven forbid something unexpected happened that she had to react quickly because she couldn’t. The joints just couldn’t move fast enough. I don’t consider that a person is able to drive if the only way they remain safe is due to others watching out for them. You can’t depend on that. I’m glad my mom no longer drives because frankly she was dangerous driving 15 years ago.

    We have the AARP to thank for the fact we refuse to retest elderly drivers annually. If we did, contrary to your opinion, we would find many of these people in fact can’t safely drive. That even includes those without Lupus, RA, or MS. In fact, I’d say upwards of 75% of the general public can’t safely drive even when they’re 20 and healthy because they lack the coordination, intelligence, spatial perception, or proper attitude.

  • Vooch

    if someone has alzheimer’s ; i certainly do not want them driving a 4,000lbs hulking death machine

    BTW – most eldery are much safer and more mobile cycling than walking. And certainly safer than operating a hulking death machine

    e-bike baby

  • RMGH

    Where the HELL did you get your medical degree from? Online correspondence school?

    Plenty of arthritic people drive and have better driving records than strong young and reckless drivers. I also don’t buy for a second that you can ride a bike in traffic but are unable to turn the wheel of a car. That’s ridiculous.

  • Joe R.

    We’re not talking here about mildly arthritic people who probably can drive as well as the average population, which is to say not terribly well. Rather, we’re talking about people so disabled they can hardly walk and/or can’t ride a bike. If your joint are in such severe shape for that to be the case, then you can’t safely drive, either.

    As for me, it’s far easier to lightly hold on to a handlebar which requires minute movements to maneuver in traffic than it is to grip a steering wheel which requires major movements, like multiple turns when turning a corner. I never had a driver’s license but if I did I would have given it up when my CTS became bad enough to prevent full-time work in my late 20s. Another important point here is if I screw up on a bike on account of my disability, at worst I’m only hurting myself. If I do the same in a car, I can easily kill multiple people.

    Tell me, why is it so hard for these disabled people to simply get someone to drive them? I’m not suggesting they bike if they really can’t. But don’t drive, either. Have friends or family drive them when necessary.

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