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.

  • bobfuss

    You are certainly free to offer a dastardly conspiracy theory in support of your personal preferences. But shouldn’t we instead let the voters decide?

  • Flubert

    So, again, your position is that anyone who doesn’t want to ride a bike, for any reason, is the Anti-Christ?

  • Joe R.

    Which people would those be? If you can’t ride a bike, then you’re certainly not in any kind of physical shape to drive an automobile.

    As others have mentioned, very few people are so disabled that they can’t ride a bike. Back in 2006 I had a vitamin B12 deficiency which caused swelling in my feet and left me walking like a 90 year old. I was in pain walking any distance. My walking speed was probably a third of my usual 4.5 mph or so. Despite that, my ability to cycle wasn’t as severely affected. I couldn’t do my usual 20+ mph speeds, but 13 to 15 mph was quite manageable. This was 9 or 10 times the speed I was able to walk with the problems I was having at the time. I’ve heard many stories of elderly who can barely get around on foot, but they can comfortably cycle at 8 or 10 mph.

    Cars are, or should be, the minority solution reserved solely for driving around only people so disabled they have little to no mobility. That’s probably a few percent of the population. Bikes are hardly a minority solution.

  • bobfuss

    Huh? Millions of people can drive but cannot ride a bike. Disabled people can drive but cannot walk, let alone ride a bike. My cousin has MS and drives. You think he can ride a bike?

    Good God, man. I think most of us can forgive you for single-mindedly seeking to advance the agenda of cyclists over other classes of road user even if we do not agree with you, But to suggest that everyone can and should ride a bike is borderline insane.

    Cars are not the minority solution. Over 90% of trips in the US are conducted by car.

  • Joe R.

    Nobody with MS can safely drive. To suggest otherwise is borderline insane. From wikipedia, the symptoms are “can include double vision, blindness in one eye, muscle weakness, trouble with sensation, or trouble with coordination.”

    The fact we let people with these types of disabilities drive doesn’t mean they can. It just shows we’re obsessed with the profit of selling cars and motor fuel to the point that lives lost from incompetent drivers don’t matter.

    Driving requires at least as much coordination, thinking, and reflexes as riding a bike. The only thing it doesn’t require is the ability to propel the vehicle. However, as I said even the very elderly can propel a bike at slow speeds. Barring some disability which prevents pedaling, like loss of use of your legs, I can’t see how someone who can’t ride a bike can safely drive a car.

    90% of the trips in the US are conducted by car simply because we’ve systematically removed all the other alternatives. This is like saying 90% of the people prefer stale, maggoty bread in a country where that’s usually the only available food. If we had a viable transportation system where you had a choice of modes, probably driving would be a minority mode by far. When you compare driving to other alternatives in short, medium, and long distance transportation scenarios, it rarely is superior.

  • Joe R.

    All the voters and legislators who foisted an autocentric society on us are long dead, or at best in nursing homes at this point. The status quo isn’t being kept because it’s what people want. Rather, it’s being kept because the 1% profit handsomely off it. Car makers, oil companies, police departments, insurance companies, doctors and hospitals just to name a few all make a fortune off an autocentric transportation system. To suggest the voters decided to continue this when most haven’t even had much experience with alternatives is insulting. The voters are led like sheep. If all they know is cars, then yes, that’s what many will continue to choose. However, that’s hardly a level playing field. Fund alternatives just as much and then see what people choose. Cars are one big reason the savings rate of Americans is so dismal. They put a good portion of their earnings into a depreciating asset which also sucks up lots of money to operate.

  • bobfuss

    Utter nonsense. We have elections at least once a year in almost all localities and if there really was the support for compelling everyone to walk or ride a bike then I think it would have become evident by now. Why do you care so little what most Americans want?

  • bobfuss

    Utter crap. My cousin with MS has been driving for 40 years and has a better safety record than any able-bodied driver. Your prejudice and bias even extends to demonizing the disabled. Disgusting.

    And regardless, he could never ride a bike so clearly that is not a solution here. You should be deeply ashamed of yourself.

  • Joe R.

    I never said he could ride a bike. The solution here is to have an able-bodied person with adequate driving training drive him. Driving around the severely disabled is actually one reasonable use of automobiles.

  • Joe R.

    Do we even bother educating voters on these things? If all voters know is driving, that’s what they’ll support. That’s why we have to start offering alternatives just to get people knowledgeable of them. The good news is it won’t bust budgets putting in sidewalks or bike highways. Both things cost a fraction of what car roads do.

  • Vooch

    compelling ?

    err

    right now we compell people to own and drive hulking death machines

    why not eliminate the hundreds of billions of subsidies for mass motoring and then see what modes people freely choose

  • Vooch

    not the anti-christ

    just lazy and entitled who believes his use of a hulking death machine should be lavishly subsidized

    plus goes into a absolute hissy fit when he can’t store his hulking death machine for free on public property.

    plus also believes the roadway is reserved for his exclusive use

    also thinks that killing someone with his hulking death machine is a ‘accident’

  • Rotimi

    I am so glad policies are not made for 99% of the population.

    And who’s supposed to pay for that cab ride again? What I’m saying is, transit should plan for that last mile, not ask every 70, 80, disabled citizen to call a cab.

  • Rotimi

    Joe – who pays for all these electric chairs and other gadgets?

    And until Boston Robotics perfects their “mobility devices which can even walk right up stairs in the not too distant future”, what do citizens do? And if the devices don’t get perfect “in the not too distant future”?

  • Vooch

    who will pay for their cars ?

    you’d rather a 80 year old drive 20 miles to store than walk 5 blocks ?

    really ?

  • Joe R.

    The mobility scooters are free. Didn’t you see that commercial where they advertise to get seniors free scooters? I’m assuming you just need a doctor’s approval to verify you really need it and Medicare picks up the tab.

  • We, the tax payers, should pay for that cab ride. Indeed, providing fully subsidised cab rides for the disabled makes more sense than maintaining a paratransit system.

  • Flubert

    Wow, so you actually hate people for no reason other than their free choice of a mode of transportation?

    Who else do you hate?

  • Jason

    This is a false choice because right now we’re the ones on the hook for subsidizing the roads and the parking craters around transit stations.

  • Jason

    Rhode Island Ave is definitely awful, but then you have stations like Greenbelt, where I’m reluctantly inclined to settle on saying that all things considered, if Greenbelt was a necessary evil to get Maryland to pay into Metro, you could do far worse than building a Greenbelt out in the suburbs.

  • Jason

    It’s not safe to drive in blizzards and monsoons so not really sure why you think those are amazing gotcha examples.

    For heatwaves, god forbid we reorient train stations to be fed by bus lines.

  • Jason

    Greenbelt is an abomination of land use, but considering how far out into the suburbs it is I’m reluctantly inclined to settle on it not being that offensive a tradeoff for getting Maryland’s support for the system. In general I roll my eyes at people who insist that because Metro was built with thoughts that it would be more of a commuter rail line that it therefor must always remain so…but I feel like stations like Greenbelt are sufficiently far out into the suburbs that it’s not that bad to say that at those edge stations it really is still serving that purpose.

  • Richard

    Terminal stations are always going to be less exciting than closer in stations. They are going to have some parking, they are going to have a bunch of bus bays.

    Saying Greenbelt station is a parking crater ignores what the rest of Grenbelt looks like. It’s all like that.

  • Jason

    Fair enough that I didn’t exactly communicate this point properly, but my intended point was whether it was a good use of transit construction money to build Greenbelt station at all. I know what the area surrounding the station looks like and I know that it’s far enough out that it’s probably never going to urbanize even to the extent that places like Arlington and Silver Spring have.

  • Vooch

    free choice ?

    you mean lavishly subsidized killing machines

    80% of trips in US are less than 3 miles.

  • Flubert

    Oh boy, you have really drank the kool-aid. Personally I could never hate people based on such a slender pretext.

  • Flubert

    You just don’t get it, do you? Most people prefer to drive and vote accordingly. That’s why we get the infrastructure that we have and not the infrastructure that you personally prefer.

  • If you fail to see that the destructive automobile-based lifestyle is heavily subsidised (and, indeed, that it was wholly created by such policies), then it is you who, so to speak “has drunk the Kool-Aid”.

    (Also, it would seem that your command of the English language is as weak as your grasp of reality. Please note that the past participle of the verb “to drink” is “drunk”.)

  • Flubert

    I’m just saying that I need a much stronger pretext to hate someone than that they drive a car. Otherwise it seems that you must hate 90% of Americans. You’re hardly a poster child for tolerance.

    Oh, and that would be the past tense and not the past participle.

  • You wrote “you … have drank”, improperly using the past-tense form as the past participle.

    Past tense: “you drank”
    Past particple used in the present perfect tense: “you have drunk”

    Please review any fifth-grade English textbook before commenting further.

  • Vooch

    40,000 dead Americans every year is not a slender pretext.

    hulking
    death
    machine

    is a perfectly apt description

  • Flubert

    I always know I have won the debate when the other guy resorts to nitpicking typos.

  • Flubert

    And that’s probably priority number 59 for most voters who are more concerned with congestion and the costs of driving than the accident rate.

  • Vooch

    LOL

  • There is no “debate”, as such. You are just mindlessly parroting the dogma of the orthodoxy into which you’ve been indoctrinated, steadfastly ignoring the parts of reality that don’t fit your programming.

    And it wasn’t a typo. A typo is when someone accidentally hits the wrong key. By contrast, what you did was to ignorantly use the wrong verb form. Then you further displayed your ignorance of the difference between the past tense and the past pariticiple.

    All thoughts deserve expression by means of well-formed language. Alas, you have struck out on both ends of that proposition, having shown yourself to be incapable both of original thought and of coherent English.

  • Flubert

    LOL, so if someone disagrees with you they are “brainwashed”? How convenient for someone with an exotic ideology that is probably not shared by even 1% of the voters.

    And whether or not was a typo wasn’t the point. The point was that only a petty anal-retentive pedant who is losing a debate resorts to such cheap tactics.

  • Flubert

    If you have evidence to the contrary please supply it. But I never heard anyone saying that they voted for “X” because of his position on traffic accidents.

  • bobfuss

    Disagree. Cycling remains an option for the young, fit and healthy in most situations. And while I am sure that more people could ride a bike than currently do, there is quite simply no way to force them to do so, unless you are arguing for a form of fascism.

    If I am taking kids to school then doing a weekly food shop, the going 20 miles to my job, then to the gym, then home, it’s a car every time.

    And 90% of Americans would agree with me, which leaves you out in the cold in terms of your ideological bias.

  • Denying the importance of good grammar is a hallmark of the anti-intellectual savage. And in this respect as well you are demonstrably nothing more than a nonthinking vessel for prevailing orthodoxies.

    Run along, and leave the serious discussion to those who are mentally equipped for it.

  • Flubert

    No, while you thought you were winning the debate, you didn’t try and play the pedant card. But as soon as I exposed your argument as flawed, you suddenly went all grammar Nazi on me – always a reliable sign that you know you are struggling.

    The irony is that your observation about my syntax was itself wrong, but I’m not going to encourage you to go further off on a tangent,

    Oh, and the other sign that you are losing a debate? Calling the other guy “brainwashed” or “stupid” or “mentally ill”. You should join Clinton’s campaign!

  • Vooch

    mass motoring is lavishly subsidized

    subsidies distorts mode share

  • Vooch

    who pays for all the private cars ?

  • Flubert

    All forms of transportation are subsidised. I don’t see any great push from the voters to change that.

  • Vooch

    Cycling and walking are not subsidized

    driving is insanely subsidized

  • Flubert

    Public transit systems are highly subsidized. SF Muni, for instance, covers only 25% of its costs.

    And everyone benefits from an efficient highway and interstate freeway system.

    Walking and cycling both benefit less from public infrastructure, but they do still benefit, and of course neither contribute any incremental revenues either.

  • Vooch

    “..
    And everyone benefits from an efficient highway and interstate freeway system.
    …”

    try telling that to the 40,000 Americans killed by drivers last year.

  • Flubert

    You know, I watched all the presidential candidate debates last year, when voters asked about the major issues that concerned them, and damned if I recall anyone raising that as a significant issue.

  • Vooch

    carefully scripted questions filtered by a corrupted media – yeah that’s reflective of people’s true concerns

  • Flubert

    So it’s all a vast right-wing conspiracy?

  • Vooch

    actually a socialist cabel

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