Sunday, January 12, 2014

Suburban active mode share: Let's kick it up a notch

We planners get excited about mode share – the proportion of trips taken by different modes of 
transportation such as driving, transit, walking and biking. Mode share is often a source of bragging rights (Portland’s 6% bike commuting mode share is the highest of any major American city) or grounds for shaming (only 2% of Indianapolis commuters ride transit). Why does mode share matter? Because the better job we do with reducing driving (especially driving alone in urban areas), the more progress we make on reducing carbon and particulate emissions, alleviating traffic congestion, reducing transportation costs for people and governments, and leading healthy, active lifestyles.

A woman walks onto a MAX light rail platform in
Washington County, OR. Image: author
News stories about mode share typically boast of various large cities curbing their driving habits and successfully getting people to walk, bike and take transit. And good for them. But how are the suburbs doing? If much of the growth we’re expected to see in the 21st century is to occur in the suburbs of major cities, it is critically important that we plan for different ways of getting around. It’s easy enough for large cities, with their established transit systems, walkable street grids and dense development patterns, to cajole people out of their cars. The suburbs, however, face a tougher climb. Destinations are dispersed. Cul-de-sacs and looping streets thwart convenient walking and biking. Sidewalks, bike lanes and transit service are riddled with holes, if not absent altogether.

But some suburbs offer a respectable array of multi-modal travel options that inspire many of their residents to trade car keys for bike locks or transit passes. A handful of suburban counties actually outperform car-centric city jurisdictions elsewhere in the country (Bergen County, NJ’s transit commuting rate is thrice that of Houston, for example). How do they do it?