A Strategy for Strong Transit and Walkability in Small Cities

Center walkable transit in small cities around a key corridor -- like Genesee Street in Utica, New York.
Center walkable transit in small cities around a key corridor -- like Genesee Street in Utica, New York.

A leading group of transit planners recently convened in Minneapolis to talk about best practices. One of the big takeaways, according to attendees, was how leading big city transit agencies are improving service on high-ridership corridors with bus rapid transit, all-door boarding, and improved frequency.

Sandy Johnston at Itinerant Urbanist has been thinking about how those strategies might be applied in small cities with tighter transit budgets. Citing Utica, New York, as an example, Johnston says such cities can offer frequent transit service — and the walkability benefits it provides — but they need to be selective about where they do it.

It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about.

Here’s what else is worth reading today: Pricetags writes that the design of a car-free Vancouver plaza has resulted in a familiar pattern of pedestrian behavior. Charlottesville Tomorrow reports that a local design panel wants parking stripped out of a residential tower and replaced with retail. And Denver Urbanism explains how the city’s historic streetcar system helped shape the city for walkability.

  • thielges

    The idea of splitting transit funding into two pots: one for lifeline transit to ensure mobility for the disadvantaged, the other for mainstream high volume, high ROI transit is a good idea for all cities, including big cities. Too often these two conflicting goals are muddled into a single plan. The result is that lifeline transit is weak. And mainstream ROI is poor.

    The muddled lack of transparency makes transit agencies look lame and incompetent, weakening their political currency. By separating the two goals it becomes clear that transit agencies are also responsible for part of a social welfare program.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

The “Choice” vs. “Captive” Transit Rider Dichotomy Is All Wrong

|
The conventional wisdom about transit often divides riders into two neat categories: “choice” riders — higher-income people with cars — and “captive” riders — lower-income people who must use transit because they don’t own cars. But this framework can undermine good transit, according to a new report from TransitCenter [PDF]. In the attempt to cater only to “choice” riders or “captive” […]

The Case for Letting States, Not Cities, Shape Development Near Transit

|
A bill circulating in the Connecticut legislature — HB 6851 — would give state officials greater control over development near transit stations. The measure has met with some resistance because it would weaken powers that have traditionally belonged to local government. But Sandy Johnston at Network blog Itinerant Urbanist says that in Connecticut’s case, that’s probably a […]

The Plan to Transform Houston Transit Without Spending a Dollar More

|
Transit in Houston could be getting a dramatic makeover, covering a much greater area and significantly boosting ridership — and running it won’t cost any more than running the current system. Houston’s Metro transit teamed up with TEI, a Houston-based transportation planning firm, and transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who blogs at Human Transit, for an overhaul […]