|“You haven’t done anything to really damage your opportunity for success, like so many I work with,” Tumlin told the crowd at the Getting Transportation To Work Commuter Summit on June 4. “You can make this city even greater for its residents.” (Photo: Gary Howe)|
Back in 2009, some of the bumpers on Bay Area Transportation Authority buses in Traverse City were held together with duct tape. Today, after new management, financial restructuring, and a new culture of accountability and partnership, the 75-strong BATA bus fleet is taking more commuters than ever before to and from their jobs.
BATA did this by adding routes and providing services that “fit residents’ lifestyles,” according to Carrie Thompson, BATA’s business development director.
This caught the attention of Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting who has developed master plans for cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver and Abu Dhabi. It is fortunate “you have a transit operator that really gets it,” he recently told participants at a commuter summit hosted by the Michigan Land Use Institute. BATA recognizes that transit “is not just a simple service that provides for people who have no other choice,” he said. “Transit is what people choose to ride so they can make effective use of their time.”
Baby Boomers and their parents were raised on the idea that the “city of the future” would involve heavy dependence on automobiles—a dream that turned into a nightmare with congested streets and frustrated drivers. Millennials, though, have a different attitude. For them, public transportation is not only a way to get to where they’re going, but it’s a way to socialize and get out of their bubbles.
Take, for example, the biotech company Genentech, based in South San Francisco, Calif., where constructing a new parking deck is outrageously expensive. Genentech decided to give $5 a day to any employee who does not drive to work. So, the free GenenBus service was born. And, says Tumlin, those who were using the buses found they were getting promoted more often than those who were not. Through the buses, social networking—the old-fashioned, face-to-face kind—was happening across divisions and departments. Employees knew what was going on in other research units.
Often, the beginnings of solutions to traffic congestion and lost worker productivity come about as a result of initial problems with parking. Genentech tackled parking and ended up with a wider solution. On a municipal scale, the city of Ann Arbor, dealt with a big parking headache about a decade ago, and through that came a model for how to build a proper commuter transit network.
Mary Sell, commuter services specialist for Ann Arbor’s getDowntown program, explained that when a major downtown parking deck closed for repairs 10 years ago, it created a big problem for people who depended on it for parking. The solution they came up with was the Go!pass program, which encouraged commuting by allowing free rides on AATA buses. Businesses could buy the passes for their workers at $5 a piece, with the requirement that if they bought into the program, they would have to provide the passes to all of their full-time workers.
The program was successful, increasing ridership and leading to an even more-comprehensive public-private collaboration known as getDowntown Ann Arbor.
Google, a major employer in Ann Arbor, goes even further, paying their workers up to $50 a month if they opt not to use parking.
Arriving on Google’s coattails, more tech companies have moved into town, with workers coming in from Boston, New York and other East Coast cities, where car ownership is not practical. They are expecting the same level of mass-transit services even in Michigan.
Michigan presents its own set of problems and opportunities, Tumlin said. The problems come when rural roads are forced to become business strips, with giant bottlenecks in front of giant parking lots. Wide lanes, big shoulders, curves in order to accommodate driver error—these are characteristics of rural roads. In urban situations, though, they actually encourage driver error by encouraging increased speed and more inattentiveness.
What is sacrificed is walkability.
In Traverse City, he said, the city should be commended for recognizing that “cycling is essential to your economic development strategy,” and for creating a walkable downtown business district. That said, though, the city’s best assets—the Grand Traverse Bay and its river—are blighted with parking lots on its shores.
Move parking away from the waterfront, he said. Make it a few blocks away and have visitors walk through the downtown business district to get there. While they’re downtown, they’ll spend money on local merchants. He likens it to the difference between Los Angeles and San Francisco. LA has a traffic nightmare because its sports and entertainment venues are giant structures with giant parking lots. Visitors spiral in, and spiral out.
In San Francisco, parking is scattered and visitors wind through the city to get to venues.
But, he said, it’s not too late to change things here in northwest Michigan.
“You haven’t done anything to really damage your opportunity for success, like so many I work with,” Tumlin said.
If the city takes advantage of its current success without creating more regional traffic problems: “You can make this city even greater for its residents.”
Howard Lovy is a freelance journalist in Traverse City.