Access: A Better Way To Think About Transportation

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Jarrett Walker at Human Transit shared a really good way to think about transportation: access. Instead of focusing on the number of riders, how many square miles are served, etc., he argues that we should be thinking about what the transit system actually gives them access to.

“Access isn’t a new idea, but as our data gets better it’s becoming easier to measure, and it could potentially replace many other measures that are groping toward the idea but not quite getting there.” Walker said.

He introduces the concept as “the wall around your life.” He obviously doesn’t mean this literally, as nobody is actually confined by a transit system. One can always take a cab to the nearest airport or drive and go much further (if they have time). What it measures is what a transit system gives a person access to in a certain amount of time, and the time people are willing to budget to getting somewhere will vary.

For example, if you are commuting to a job, people often want that to be within 45 minutes, but that can vary from person to person and from job to job. For recreation and for things like going out to eat, someone’s time budget could be much shorter. Thus, access needs to be measured against what someone will be doing and estimated.

When you figure out everywhere a person could go given a certain amount of time on the transit system, and then determine what jobs, schools, grocery stores, and recreation lies within that area. The area won’t be a circle, because of transit routes. It also might not even be contiguous, because some forms of transit will be much faster, and then have their own “island” of access near the stops that are within the time allotted.

“But the key idea is that we have only so much time. There is a limit to how long we can spend doing anything, and that limit defines a wall,” Walker said. “We can draw the map of that wall, and count up the opportunities inside it, and say: This is what someone could do, if they lived here.”

The reason this is important is that it gives people a reason to actually use transit instead of needing or wanting to use other methods. If a job or educational opportunity is within the “wall,” someone can realistically use transit to get there. If it’s outside the “wall,” then they’ll have to move, use a car, or call for Uber. Or, worse, just not take advantage of the opportunity. Not great.

More importantly, what’s measured can be improved.

“In the first draft of our bus network redesign for Dublin, Ireland, for example, we found that the average Dubliner count reach 20% more jobs (and other useful destinations) in 30 minutes,” Walker said on his blog.

Walker says this all matters because every other measure of how good a transit system is will follow access. If access is poor, ridership will be poor. If it’s good, ridership will grow as people realize that it’s actually useful to them. As ridership improves, emissions improve (assuming the transit system is actually filling vehicles and/or uses clean technologies to move), and people in the area will have greater economic opportunity.

Equity and racial justice are also heavily affected by transit access. When people in parts of a city don’t have access to as many opportunities, they end up being disadvantaged. Land use ended up excluding them, and if we adjust land use and transit, they can get their access back. Ultimately, the more people have access, the more freedom they have, and that’s something everyone wants.

He goes on to compare it to other measures of transit success and explains some of the limitations of thinking in terms of access. I’d suggest reading the whole thing here.

This Is All About Freedom

One of the reasons I think this is a superior way to measure transit is that it looks at the amount of freedom that a transit system gives people.

Personally, I live in a smaller city with very limited transit, but I’ve lived in larger cities where transit is better. In a smaller city like mine, the city doesn’t give much in the way of freedom. Riding the bus (that’s all they have here) is seen as a bad thing. It’s something the “poor” uses. You might be able to use it to get to a job if you’re lucky, but you’d better have an extra few hours in your day to use the bus system. You almost never see anyone on it headed to go out to eat or to go do something fun because it doesn’t lead to much of that.

If the local transit people thought more about what people could reach with the system, they’d have a better time getting people to actually use it. It wouldn’t be seen as an inferior option for the “poor.”

I compare this to a better transit system in Phoenix that I’ve used a few times when I was renting a car out on Turo. I’d pick people up at the airport and give them the car, and then ride the train and bus back home out in Chandler, and it only took about 25 minutes in most cases. The system was actually useful, because the “wall” was most of the metro area.

More importantly, they had a decent mobile website that let you plan a trip and see exactly how long it would take you to get there, what you’d do when you need to switch vehicles, etc. I was actually able to see my access, and knew where it could go.

I have to admit my experience with transit systems is pretty low, but what he’s saying actually fits what I’ve seen. If you can get to more places, it’s useful and you want to use it. If you can’t get to as many places (or don’t know where it could get you to), then you can’t really find it as useful.

Now, if transit systems could help me get over my germophobia, that would be quite useful, too. But, that’s probably a topic for another article (or the comments).

Featured image: an illustration of access, provided by Jarrett Walker.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1773 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba