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Amid Infrastructure Crisis, Accessibility-Minded Agencies Are Needed More Than Ever

“Transportation agencies know surprisingly little about the people and places that they serve…” said MassDOT’s secretary at a Brookings Institution event in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — Too many U.S. transportation agencies assume mobility, not accessibility, is their chief social utility and are struggling to reinvent themselves amid the current infrastructure crisis, said transit experts Wednesday at a Brookings Institution event in the nation’s capital.

Urban sprawl worldwide has created spatial mismatch—distances between where people live and where they want to go are growing longer—and it’s led to increased reliability on vehicles in unlikely places, said Brookings fellow Adie Tomer during Moving to Access.

The auto industry is putting out more emissions at a time when it should be attempting to mitigate its impact on climate change, and a $1.3 trillion global investment in infrastructure is still needed—one that keeps accessibility in mind.

“Transportation agencies know surprisingly little about the people and places that they serve because they don't need to, to do their job,” said Stephanie Pollack, Massachusetts Department of Transportation secretary and CEO.

A culture shift is needed to get them away from regional travel models that view mobility in terms of number of trips and miles, she added, and instead focus on where people live, work and receive healthcare.

Accessibility has different definitions among transportation circles, but Brookings defines it as the number of value destinations—jobs, schools, parks, stores—individuals can reach in a set amount of time.

When Liverpool, England, considered moving its hospital, the city government considered how it would affect its transit-dependent population’s access to healthcare services, Tomer said. In the end, the city chose to rebuild the hospital in its original location, even though it would cost government more, because the social cost would’ve been too great.

In many locales, accessibility is not factored into policy decisions. That requires expensive new data and software, when a gold standard doesn’t exist and issues with legacy systems abound.

There’s also the question of whether accessibility policies should begin within transportation agencies or those that dictate the siting of affordable housing and health and educational institutions. In the U.S., mayors might be best positioned to break down the siloes between such departments, Pollack said.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, interjurisdictional coordination was needed to first stop rising car use and secondly promote mass transit by reducing intermodal fares for low-income communities. The poor often suffer one hourlong bus ride to work, rather than switching to rail to halve their commute time, so they don’t have to pay two fares, said Juan José Mendez, the city’s secretary of transportation.

"This is the type of behavior we want to change with coordination between governments,” he added.

Today Buenos Aires, a metro area with 14.5 million people, boasts 22 million transit trips a day and a bus rapid transit system that transports more commuters the the London Underground. The city is working on integrating its significant slums into its transportation network, but a holistic approach requires not just opening roads but improving infrastructure and changing land use.

Zoning presents challenges for local transportation agencies in the U.S. because, in not allotting enough mixed-use zones, cities fail to address proximity issues, said Gilles Duranton, University of Pennsylvania real estate professor. Meanwhile, suburbs consume more land than they should.

“They don’t want the riff raff to come to a nice place, but they’re making travel longer than it should be,” Duranton said.

While having a mature transportation system means the U.S. doesn’t need to worry about building out infrastructure as much, cities also have to contend with freeways constructed to segregate minority populations.

In Richmond, Virginia, 24 percent of the city’s west side is unserved by public transit, despite most jobs being located on the east side. Transportation costs thus weigh heavier on the city’s urban poor, said outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Moving forward, transit engineers must consider how transportation projects affect access in the communities they touch. Despite the U.S. “chronically underinvesting in our infrastructure,” Foxx said, few cities are asking what infrastructure they can do without.

"Restoring the old street grid might be as effective or more effective than having that interior freeway there,” he added.

Giving the federal government the flexibility to let states have more of a say in the infrastructure they invest in is a good place to start, and unifying mayors, governors and transportation lobbies will also help.

Foxx closed his portion of the Brookings event predicting that burgeoning technologies like automated vehicles would dramatically change personal mobility, whereas advances like ridesharing have only altered it superficially.

Last year the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Columbus, Ohio $50 million, contingent upon appropriations, in its first-ever federal grant competition the Smart City Challenge. In their applications, 78 cities included accessibility criteria, and Columbus’ included a pair of transportation apps.

One allows for a single payment to cover public transit across all options, and the other schedules and reschedules pregnant women’s doctor appointments should transit run late—addressing the city’s infant mortality rate, which is four times the national average.

Another technology Columbus plans to invest in is kiosks along high-poverty corridors for those lacking cell phones or bank accounts needed to book transportation.

“I think the Smart City Challenge was one of the coolest things we've done,” Foxx said.

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