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Community plan, not transportation plan, would help to solve commuting problems

Steve Berg’s excellent article, “Road to Ruin,” in the February issue of Mpls-St. Paul magazine, clearly describes the transportation situation in the Twin Cities: We are behind. It’s getting worse. We need a solution. 

His article describes a plan to reduce congestion in the Twin Cities, a situation that has been building for some time. However, it is a transportation solution that proposes doing more of what has only exacerbated the problem.

An alternate approach suggests that by using transportation as but one component in the implementation of a community plan, we can accomplish more, with less.

Auditing the system
I start from the premise that transportation should address the community’s needs.  Choosing to live in the suburbs and to work from my home in Shoreview, I used the Metro Transit’s website to try to arrange five typical trips:

Visit my sister in Eden Prairie  —  The system gave me an error message saying that no stops were available.

Meet with a colleague for a work session  —  My 20-minute drive would require 1 hour and 47 minutes and preclude me from doing errands/shopping en route.

Have lunch with a colleague  —  My 20-minute drive would require 3 hours and 11 minutes, plus a nice walk (at least in summer).

Go to church on Sunday morning  —  No bus service.

See a specialist at the local hospital  —  For a 10 a.m. appointment; I would have to leave 1 hour and 55 minutes early if I choose to forgo the eight-minute drive.

Obviously picking up a sheet of plywood or a week’s worth of groceries would be a real challenge. Nothing in the plan described as the solution would change any of these things; it would simply increase my costs to live in the metro area and to operate my vehicle. The questions become: Do I change my lifestyle to fit the system, or do we design a system to support our lifestyles? 

Setting the stage
Let’s begin with a few basic design principles:

• A personal vehicle will be required for many activities.

• Transportation systems should provide competitive (speed and cost) alternatives to that of a personal vehicle.

• As trucks get bigger and cars smaller, personal travel should be separated from freight movements to the degree possible.

• Powering the system electrically would reduce oil dependence and emission production.

• The use of electronic means to accomplish tasks  —  and easy access through walking or biking  —  should be used to eliminate driving trips whenever possible.

• Employers, where possible, should be encouraged to use strategic telework programs to lessen travel demand. Several studies have found productivity gains of 20 percent or more, as well as significant reductions in facility costs and other benefits.

• If a community consensus is developed about the best system, government policy needs to support it.

• Systems need to anticipate future conditions and must be designed to support regional objectives, rather than merely to expand existing systems.

To apply these design principles to the region, we must first define region. In the global economy, to talk about our seven- or 20-county area as THE region is simply wrong from a factual, moral and economic perspective.  The focus should be on the entire economic service area (which includes parts of four other states – Iowa, Wisconsin and the two Dakotas) and how to make each of the community types within this expanded region vibrant, viable and competitive.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, weak rural communities merely drain urban resources.  The questions are: Do we eliminate them, continue things as they are or integrate them fully into the regional economy?

While small towns have generally lost their role in supporting the agricultural community, they do provide a highly desirable place to raise a family.  Based on our research and other studies, about 60 percent of all jobs now can be deemed “teleworkable.” A 1996 Metropolitan Council survey found that 46 percent of Minnesota urbanites would rather live outside the cities. When we put those two findings together, we get a new paradigm  —  we have the means to address the fundamental demographic problems that have been afflicting small-town America and to address urban congestion.

The centralization forces of the Industrial Age are being challenged by the de-centralization forces of the Information Age.   By supporting “freedom of locational choice,” the region can address many issues beyond transportation alone.

The context for a solution
The Distributed City Model, which we’ve developed, focuses on a strategic approach to integrating communities across economic regions. It raises questions about community balance, collaboration, diversity and investment strategies. The model requires the community sector to re-assert its traditional role as defined by economist Jeremy Rifkin. An independent community sector can serve as the fulcrum that balances the public and private sectors, and it has been missing for quite a while.

Our model consists of three components: a community alliance, a community telecenter network and a regional integrated transportation network.  It is based on the concept of full economic integration and participation throughout the service area.

Personal Rapid Transit, for instance, could be used to deliver an on-demand, self-funding, weather-impervious system that connects the region. Coupling demographic redistribution and various telecommuting applications in the urban area can reduce the costs and congestion perpetuated by current schemes. A feasibility study has demonstrated the cost effectiveness of the approach. The table illustrates the obvious benefits of the alternative modes.

How do you implement such a concept? 
Communities should study economic and technologic trends and their implications; only then can they shape a plan for transitioning into new economic structures. The Regional Telecommuting Action Plan is a four-phase program designed to facilitate this: 

1. Occupational Assessment  —  designed to quantify and implement telework focusing on trip reduction.

2. Broadband Collaborative  —  designed to explore other telecommuting applications both for enhanced service delivery and additional trip reductions.

3. Visioning —  designed to engage the community in reviewing the collected data and defining a vision for the region.

4. Implementation  —  designed to identify roles and responsibilities for agencies, employers, legislators and others and to establish a monitoring process to ensure the plan is implemented and updated.

So, who makes the choice?
We can fix the bottlenecks, learn how to use the lanes properly, expand telework and the other telecommuting applications (almost all of which will operate without subsidy) and we can strengthen our families, neighborhoods, employers and region by empowering choice and enhancing productivity and profitability. 

OR

We can increase numerous taxes, add annual subsides at the rate of $1 million per mile for light rail lines and continue to expand urban sprawl while abandoning our rural communities and community transit in general.

Do we want to transform the land forms of the last 100 years, or do we want to apply new systems that will work with those forms?  These questions are too big for consultants; let’s ask the community.

John Sanger is president of Tele-Commuter Resources, a St Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to building stronger communities through telecommuting. The organization offers online policy development forums, employer-based telework implementation programs, regional telecommuting action plans and community development support. Sanger can be reached at  jfsanger@telecommuter.org

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/12/2008 - 05:10 pm.

    I was with you until you started advocating Personal Rapid Transit.

    It has been studied for over forty years and implemented only in one city in the world, a single line in Morgantown, West Virginia.

    Do a few thought experiments, such as imagining a rush hour commute with thousands of people, and figure out how you would prevent either back-ups at the stations (if the station were directly on the line), back-ups at the “on-ramps and off-ramps” (if the stations were off-track), or maintaining a reasonable supply of pods where they were needed. (Remember, they’re supposed to free individuals from having to follow someone else’s schedule, so a potential rider couldn’t guarantee that a pod was available at the right time.)

    Then you’ll understand why PRT hasn’t been put to actual use outside, say, the State Fair gondola rides. It sounded like a great new idea back in the early 1960s, when it was proposed, but practical considerations make it unfeasible outside of limited areas like fairgrounds and parks.

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