Three Steps for Public Transit to Capture the Benefits of American Re-urbanization

America is living in the Age of Re-urbanization.  A new major demographic trend is impacting suburban and small town growth in all parts of the US—Millennials by the millions are flocking to large to mid-sized cities searching for mixed use, walkable communities. In fact, since 2011, large metropolitan cities are growing faster than their suburban counter parts.  This seismic demographic shift creates substantial market opportunities for public and private sector organizations that serve urban centers.

Year to Year Congestion Trends in the US

Source: USDOT

American reurbanization creates substantial opportunities for growth for public transit agencies. Public transit, with smart public policy and funding decisions, stands to gain substantially from the reurbanization of America. Public transit works best where the density of population makes the economics of transit more attractive.  Economics is not just the cost of services but also the value of skipping long commute times behind the wheel of a car. American reurbanization brings not only opportunities but threats to growing regions and states. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s 2016 Urban Congestion Trends Report provides the current status of congestion and reliability in 52 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The graphic above provides 2015-to-2016 congestion trends from Federal Highway Administration’s Urban Congestion Report (UCR) and illustrates how growing regions like Columbus, Raleigh, Indianapolis and others are struggling to manage traffic congestion. Growing regions need public transit options to adress challenges brought on by growth.  Public transit organizations need to take three steps to capitalize on the reurbanization of America.

  1. More state funding should connect residential communities with job centers thru public transit.  The number one goal of public transit needs to be connecting residential communities with job centers. State government should be a partner in building this connection. According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, Ohio’s 61 transit systems (27 urban and 34 rural) provide 112 million passenger trips annually. ODOT provides these public transit systems with $ 33 million annually in funding through three programs: Public Transit Assistance, Specialized Assistance and Technical Assistance Programs.  Local communities are permitted to enact local “piggyback” sales taxes approved by voters for transit programs.  According to a recent report, Ohio is far behind Michigan ($200 million), Minnesota ($340 million), Pennsylvania ($840 million) in public transit spending.  States looking to capture job growth and address the economic loss caused by growing traffic congestion need to recognize investing in public transit is as critical to a region’s success as additional highway funding and should not only increase transit funding but create innovative programs to fund local workforce development strategies connecting workers with existing urban, suburban and rural job centers.
  2. Become a Smart City. Urbanization is not the only economic trend impacting future growth and development. Automation and artificial intelligence are creating winners and losers among regions and states.  While it is easy to focus on the job loss caused by automation, regions would be better off developing the billion dollar autonomous vehicle market or building a sensor network that not only helps create the next generation transportation network that can also support the provision of essential local government public services impacting safety, utility, street light and traffic management systems.  Public transit systems need to lead the Smart City strategy by being innovators and offering new ride sharing services focused on a new generation of riders. Public transit needs to be about more than traditional buses and rail service but needs to focus on smart transportation systems directly tied to innovative and smart cities.   Public transit’s role in building a Smart City will require innovation when it comes to developing new modes of public transportation more attractive to a new generation of rider. Riders need to be connected to the Internet and be open to new, innovative technologies generated by the Internet of Things, and ride sharing, and bikes may need to be added to complement existing bus and rail service.
  3. Build Private Sector Partnerships through Transit Oriented Development. The future success of public transit is not just tied to public funding and high-tech innovation. Building private sector partnerships is an important element to public transit’s success.  Public transit needs to build networks in partnership with a region’s real estate development community.  Creating a Transit Oriented Development land use strategy puts that partnership in the city code and creates incentives for development tied to transit—ensuring that the public transit system can connect with the riders looking for a way to work and play. A Transit Oriented Development creates communities with an average 2,000 feet walking distance to a transit stop and core commercial area. Transit Oriented Developments capitalize on and promote mixed-use developments within walking distance of residential areas and multimodal, interconnected transportation network through land use regulation by following urban design guidelines and encourages a more pedestrian and walkable community. Canton, Massachusetts created Transit Oriented Development zoning scheme and ensured residential developments were connected to transit. Failure to connect the boom in urban residential projects with transit illustrates a missed partnership opportunity with the private sector that will harm public transit for decades to come. 

Public transit can be reborn through the reurbanization of America but it won’t happen without funding and smart strategies designed to build partnerships and connect riders with jobs.