June 22, 2015 5:10 pm Leave a Comment
Americans have been driving less every year since 2007. This shift has been accompanied by regional and local planning efforts that are increasingly focused on giving residents transportation options that go beyond the automobile. There has been lots of positive momentum around transit expansion, planning for complete streets, and adopting initiatives aimed at making streets safer for people who ride bikes and walk. As planners, advocates, and their allies continue to make major multi-modal policy wins, groups are now focusing on the next big challenge. How do we translate successful experiments and policies at the local level to scalable interventions with adequate, sustainable funding? And how do we ensure that these interventions are implemented in a manner that reduces the systemic inequalities that characterize our existing transportation network?
At the local level, we’ve seen a number of plans and initiatives that have pursued multi-modal and active transportation investments. In California alone, local revenues accounted for “nearly half of the $20 billion spent on transportation” during the 2005-06 fiscal year. Following Sweden and New York’s lead, San Francisco was an early adopter of the Vision Zero campaign. The initiative envisions zero fatalities or injuries related to traffic accidents through improved street design, increased education, and enhanced enforcement of safety laws. San Jose recently adopted a similar plan and Los Angeles is considering committing to Vision Zero as part of the city’s multi-modal Mobility Plan 2035. In addition, cities across the state are adopting plans that aim to increase the share of cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders to achieve greenhouse gas reduction targets. In LA, the city’s Sustainable City Plan aims to have these trips represent 35 percent of all trips by 2025.
So there’s a lot of momentum and planning afoot, with much of the innovation bubbling up from the local level. What seems to be missing from the equation, however, is a consistent pool of adequate funding to implement these multi-modal projects. Although 20 percent of California trips are made on foot or by bicycle, the state’s preeminent source to finance active transportation projects, the aptly named Active Transportation Program, represents just one percent of the Caltrans’ annual budget. The fund provides $300 million biannually, but due to its popularity, more than $800 million worth of projects were left unfunded during the last round. And, although local taxpayers are willing to pitch in to expand transit, the federal investments in transit continues to make up just 20 percent of total spending on surface transportation, even as people are driving less and in spite of steadily increasing transit ridership.
While the prospect of significantly increasing funding at the federal level isbleak, California’s cap-and-trade program represents a sustainable (and growing) revenue source to fund transit operations as well as capital projects. And even though the Active Transportation Program’s funding isn’t being augmented, Caltrans has pledged to adopt “new transportation funding programs to strengthen leadership in multimodal transportation.” (Perhaps the 2014 report that criticized the state agency as “out of step” with best practices has forced the organization to undergo some bureaucratic soul-searching.)
Finally, as we continue to implement projects and enact policies, let’s ensure that multi-modal transportation investments reduce inequities rather than perpetuate them. Policies like Vision Zero rely on enforcement to ensure that all road users are safe. But selective enforcement and efforts to place the onus of safety on the most vulnerable road users only serve to discourage active transportation and foster resentment between law enforcement and the communities they’re supposed to protect. Likewise, we need to critically examine who benefits most from new public transit investments. The sales taxes used to finance these methods tend to affect low-income taxpayers more acutely, but the benefits created by many new transit projects disproportionately accrue to more affluent individuals.
As we move toward a more multi-modal future, it’s encouraging to see that policies and programs are gaining traction. And, at least at the state level, there’s positive momentum to identify and secure sustainable funding sources to advance these types of projects. Let’s be sure that as we implement these projects we add value by ensuring that the benefits of a more robust transportation network accrue to the communities that need it most.