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?

The US Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) is a go-to source for mode share data, even with its limitations (small sample size, exclusion of non-work trips, blind trust in people telling the truth about their behaviors). While it lacks the comprehensiveness of a survey-based travel demand model, the ACS provides reliable, apples-to-apples data for every jurisdiction in the country and is updated every year (Congress willing).

Let’s take a look at some ACS mode share data – “Means of Transportation to Work” – from the recently released 2008-2012 Five-Year Estimates. I'll focus on “active mode share” – the percentage of commuters that usually walk, bike or take transit to get to work. For comparison’s sake, a medium-sized American city with at least one rail transit line and a growing interest in bike commuting – Minneapolis, let’s say – has an active mode share of 24%, comprised of 6% walking, 4% biking and 14% transit. New York City, the obvious champion of carlessness, has an active mode share of 67%, including 56% participation in public transit. Car dependent Indianapolis, on the other hand, fails to reach a 5% active mode share.

Now let’s head to the ‘burbs. To get a meaningful sample size and provide a somewhat uniform comparison, I retrieved data at the county level. Due to having a life, I was not able to test every suburban county in the USA, but managed to investigate 27 that I suspected to be good, bad, or otherwise useful to compare with my own region’s suburbs. I also avoided suburban counties that are mostly urban (like Hudson County, NJ) or mostly rural (like Anoka County, MN). Finally, I provided mode share data for the central city around which these suburbs are situated. So who is the fairest suburb of all?

Metro North commuter rail lines in
Westchester County, NY. Image: MTA
One could be forgiven for assuming that a wealthy enclave like Westschester County, NY is a bastion of latte-sipping, single-occupancy BMW drivers. Perhaps to some extent it is. But Westchester also has the highest active mode share that I could find for a suburban county in the United States: 26%. This figure is higher than the active mode share of many large cities, including one that’s famous for active transportation – Portland, Oregon, which sits at 24%.

Being immediately adjacent to New York City certainly helps the cause. More importantly, three Metro North Railroad commuter lines serve a combined 44 stations in the county’s leafy suburbs, all with direct service to Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan. For this reason, transit represents the bulk of the active mode share here: 21% of all commutes. Biking is a mere blip at 0.1%, but the balance of the mode share, 5% for walking, could be attributed to walkable towns like Rye, Tarrytown, or the increasingly dense and tower-studded county seat of White Plains.

Respectable active mode shares can be seen in other suburban counties next to old East Coast cities with established transit systems: Long Island’s Nassau County at 19%, Montgomery County, MD (just north of Washington, DC) at 18%, Bergen County, NJ (near New York) and Middlesex County, MA (northwest of Boston) both at 17%, and Delaware County, PA (west of Philadelphia) at 13%.

A small handful of West Coast counties also benefit from well-developed regional transit systems and increasing options for biking and walking. In the Bay Area, Alameda County (home to Oakland) is the champion at 17% active mode share, with high tech San Mateo County not too far behind at 13%. Both counties are connected to San Francisco by BART rapid transit. In Oregon, Washington County is flirting with a 10% active mode share.

By contrast, the Midwest and South have very few shining examples of suburban active transportation usage. I thought I would see positive results from the radial commuter rail network of Chicagoland, but two key counties that these railways pass through – Lake County on the north shore and DuPage County on the west side – hover in the 7 to 8% range. Better performance can be found in the Twin Cities, where Ramsey County, MN has a 10% active mode share. Heck, even DeKalb County, GA, Atlanta’s eastern neighbor, has 10% of commuters walking, biking or using transit.

But in most metro areas that people typically associate with driving – Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis, for example – suburban active mode share is in the low single digits:  3% in Montgomery County, TX (home to Houston-area mega-suburb The Woodlands); 2% in Colin County, TX (which includes Plano, the northern terminus of a Dallas-bound light rail line); and a depressing 1.5% in Hamilton County, IN (where Carmel and Fishers residents have almost no choice but to drive).

So what are the lessons? What do suburban counties with high active mode shares have in common, and what can other counties and regions do to be more like them? I would suggest the following:

Strong central city.
It may be out of suburban jurisdictions’ control and contrary to their economic development goals, but the fact of the matter is that a strong central city encourages transit and bike commuting from the suburbs. This is especially true when downtown parking prices and bridge/tunnel tolls further discourage driving, as in large cities like New York or San Francisco. Transit works very well when it connects suburbs to a dense, job-rich central city like spokes on a wheel. Encouraging more growth in a region’s central city may be a tough sell for suburban mayors, but it is a sound regional transportation policy.

Extensive network of efficient trains.
The most “active” counties tend to have multiple, well-established passenger rail lines that offer travel times competitive with or better than peak-hour drive times. Nassau County features a whopping nine branches of the Long Island Railroad. Five BART rapid rail lines converge in Alameda County. Bergen County has four NJ Transit rail lines and Westchester has the aforementioned three Metro North lines. These transit systems attract suburban riders not just because they’re convenient to many locations; they’re also fast and reliable due to exclusive rights-of-way, grade separation and appropriate station spacing. Systems that rely on mixed-traffic bus, light rail and streetcar service with tightly-spaced stations – such as Portland’s system – are slower and more prone to run-ins with cars and pedestrians. These travel time and reliability issues may deter some commuters.

Walkable, mixed-use towns.
Downtown Westwood, NJ from the train station platform.
Image: Keller Williams Valley Realty
Step off a train in Bergen or Westchester counties and you will most likely find yourself in a walkable town or neighborhood with a small business district (with at least one pizza or bagel joint) surrounded by tree-lined residential streets. This is an ideal arrangement that encourages transit ridership, promotes walking, and stimulates neighborhood and business district revitalization. Towns like Westwood, NJ and Pleasantville, NY owe their function and form to the railroads that arrived in the 19th century.

While newer suburban regions can’t replicate the exact feel of a 19th century railroad town, they can certainly work to create walkable, dense, mixed-use communities, with or without rail transit. Hillsboro, OR is currently a high performer in this regard – its Orenco station area is filling in with hundreds of apartments and dozens of new retail spaces in four-story mixed-use buildings within a stone’s throw of the light rail station.

Transit-oriented employment.
A new light rail line connecting job-rich Bellevue with Seattle is
scheduled to open in 2023. Image: Visit Bellevue
The suburbanization of employment has caused commuting headaches for many Americans (cue the opening scene of “Office Space”). But if suburban employment hubs are sited along transit lines (or vice versa), it not only reduces driving trips; it can also double transit agencies’ return on investment by filling trains in both directions. Suburban counties with major employment hubs near transit lines seem to benefit from this practice. In Washington County, OR, large Nike and Intel campuses sit within a mile of MAX light rail stations (and that last mile is made easier through employee shuttle buses and bike share programs.) Many other suburbs are either increasing employment density near transit stations, or threading new transit lines through existing job hubs. White Plains, NY and Bellevue, WA, offer respective examples.

Bike/transit coordination.
Some suburbs are catching onto the urban bicycle renaissance. In doing to, they are making efforts to provide easier transitions between bicycling and transit. Three east bay BART stations offer BikeStations with secure self-service or valet bicycle parking. Washington County now has two Bike & Rides, a similar concept. More common in the latter location, however, is to bring bikes on MAX light rail trains, ideally using one of the eight bike hooks provided on each trainset. This practice has become so popular that demand far exceeds available space. Some cyclists have fashioned their own portable bike hooks to hang on the train’s metalwork.

Bikeway network investments are also important. This means providing safe, continuous bike lanes and pathways leading to transit stations. In Clackamas County, OR, the southern terminus station of the under-construction Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail will connect directly to the recently completed Trolley Trail, extending the effective reach of the system.

If suburbs can work with their regional partners to do these and other things, they may be able to kick their active mode shares up a few notches, reverse their auto-oriented reputations and, in doing so, create some nice places to live and work.

The table below provides active mode share figures for selected suburban counties and their "parent" cities, including those discussed in this post. All data is from the American Community Survey 2008-2012 Five-Year Estimates, Table BO8006 -  “Sex of Workers by Means of Transportation to Work.”

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