If you scan the headlines of our local papers, you’ll probably see stories about how rapid population growth and development, transportation issues, and air-quality concerns are hurting Western North Carolina. Just reading these things can be discouraging.
Believe it or not, however, many of the gravest problems facing our region can be addressed simply by improving our transportation systems. Mass transit has a long, well-documented history of reducing air pollution and easing congestion and sprawl while providing better access to jobs, services and shopping, lowering transportation costs, and creating opportunities for economic development. Can the humble passenger bus really help us achieve all these things while enhancing our overall quality of life here in Western North Carolina?
Mass transit means mobility for everyone. Tens of thousands Western North Carolinians of driving age don’t own a car; many can’t afford one, and others can no longer drive or don’t wish to. Our growing senior population wants and needs mass transit — the vital web that can keep them connected to jobs, services, shopping and the community at large.
When we sit stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Smokey Park Bridge, it’s obvious that congestion is a bad thing. It costs our region millions of dollars in lost productivity and wastes untold hours of our precious time. Mothers with school-age children spend an average of 66 minutes a day behind the wheel. Traffic leaves less time for family, friends and community involvement. A Harvard University study suggests that for every 10 minutes spent driving to work, involvement in community affairs drops by 10 percent.
A good transit system saves money as well as time. Transportation is the second highest annual expense for American families, exceeded only by housing. Nationwide, transportation claims nearly 20 cents of every dollar families spend. The AAA estimates that we spend about $8,000 per year owning and operating our cars. Eliminating one car in a multi-car household could free up thousands of dollars to meet other family needs.
Overreliance on automobiles has made us unhealthy due to lack of activity. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in our community, and about 25 percent of children and 50 percent of adults are overweight. When transit is seamlessly woven into the fabric of a city via sidewalks and greenways, people are effortlessly drawn into a more active lifestyle.
What’s more, roads and parking facilities are expensive to build and maintain. They remove scarce land from the tax base — land that could be used for other purposes. The proposed Haywood Street parking garage will cost an estimated $15 million — about one-sixth of the city’s entire annual budget, and almost 20 times what the city spends on transit each year. In addition, both UNCA and Mission St. Joseph’s are also contemplating building expensive new parking facilities. If Asheville had a more effective transit system, there would be less pressure to build destructive and oversized highways, such as the eight- to 12-lane version of the I-26 connector proposed for West Asheville.
A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that investing in the kind of transit infrastructure suggested here yields a bigger, quicker payoff than an equivalent investment in highways and has more potential for stimulating long-term economic growth. Spending on this kind of comprehensive transit plan also has more than twice as much potential to boost productivity, compared to spending on highways.
But doesn’t Asheville already have buses, you may ask? Yes we do, and Asheville Transit does a good job with the limited resources it has, serving nearly 1 million riders each year. Service runs Monday-Saturday, with 16 hourly routes radiating from the Asheville Transit Center downtown. More than 60 percent of city residents live within about two blocks of a transit route. And though most buses run only within the city limits, Asheville Transit has been expanding service to Hendersonville and Black Mountain, thanks to special funding arrangements.
What will it take to encourage more people to use Asheville’s mass transit? There are several key ingredients:
• Creating high-frequency transit routes. Studies have shown that very few people who have other options (i.e. own a car) will use mass transit that runs only once an hour — our current service level in most parts of Asheville. High-frequency routes would run at least every 15 minutes and offer extended evening hours. In the early 1990s, Boulder, Colo., established a single, high-frequency transit route (based on a community design process), which it marketed using creative strategies. Ridership jumped immediately. Based on that success, other high-frequency routes were later added. Creating one or two pilot high-frequency routes in Asheville could attract many new riders to the system.
• Offering strong incentives for supporting mass transit. Imagine if you had to find the correct change every time you wanted to use your car. What a hassle! In Boulder, half the city’s 100,000 people now have transit passes that allow them to use the transit system for free anytime. Businesses and neighborhood organizations buy the annual transit passes in bulk. They do cost money, but compared to building a new parking deck or paying employees’ monthly parking costs, transit passes can be a good investment.
• Encouraging transit-oriented development. No matter how good the service level is and how savvy the marketing program may be, transit systems require a compact, urban development pattern to be viable. We need to steer future growth into areas where high-quality transit service can be provided. The city should encourage (or at least allow) attractive, high-density redevelopment in these areas. And how about creating a program like the one described above, to supply future residents in these “transit-oriented developments” with transit passes?
• Money. Doesn’t it always come back to that? Creating higher-frequency routes does cost money. But if we took a tiny fraction of what’s now spent on highways and parking facilities and used it to improve mass transit, all of these strategies could be possible. Pressure at the state and federal levels is needed to redirect a portion of current highway resources toward mass transit.
Reaping all the benefits an improved public-transit system can offer us requires a comprehensive transportation plan that includes sidewalks, bikeways and greenways. And to lead this effort, we need a strong pledge from both the city and county to limit the growth of local traffic and total vehicle miles traveled to the level of population growth.
The tools described above can help make our city and our region a better, healthier and more dynamic place to live while improving our air quality, giving us more open space, and enhancing the character of our landscape. We look forward to seeing you on the bus!
Andrew Goldberg is the coordinator of the Mountain Air Quality Coalition, a project of Western North Carolina Tomorrow that works out of Western Carolina University’s Center for Regional Development. Brownie Newman is the executive coordinator of the WNC Alliance. To learn more about how you can get involved in local efforts to improve mass transit, call the Alliance at 258-8737.