Social Sustainability From a Transit Perspective

by Catherine Calvert, VIA Architecture

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Public Transportation Association’s annual conference on Sustainability in New York City. I came away with a clear appreciation of how challenging these times are for transit agencies, particularly in the United States.

The ability to survive the economic downturn has moved very much to the forefront of many agencies’ agendas, and sustainability has had a tendency to fall into the “would be nice to have” category of considerations. As Jay Walder, Chair of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Agency expressed, “we like the concept of sustainability much more when our economy is robust”. And yet, treating sustainability as if it were at odds with financial responsibility is clearly short-sighted.

Sustainability has been described variously as being a three-legged stool that relies interdependently on the “three E’s” (Environment, Equity, Economy) or the “three P’s” (People, Planet, Prosperity). In applying these ideas to public transit systems, it’s often difficult to connect the concepts with the reality of a public agency, particularly in the realm of Social Sustainability (the “Equity” or “Prosperity” aspect). However I particularly enjoyed Mr. Walder’s description of public transit sustainability as a trifecta -- Customer Service, Environmental Benefit, and Bottom Line.

What works well here is that transit agencies are already focused on customer service as a core mission, so equating this with Social Sustainability is an easy conceptual link to make. The other thing I like about this occurred to me once I’d looked up the word “trifecta” – not being a horse racing fan, I was unfamiliar with its exact meaning of winning by picking the first, second and third finishers simultaneously (1). What a great idea – sustainability can only be “won” by addressing all three aspects at the same time.

In North America the most common ways to include Social Sustainability in a transit agency’s operation is to focus on these issues:
  • Mobility – a connected network that allows users to move around a city using a combination of public transportation and non-motorized means of travel;
  • Accessibility – the removal of physical barriers in order to provide access to people with a variety of abilities;
  • Personal Safety – design using principles of CPTED, enabling the physical environment to discourage crime and undesirable behaviors;
  • Security – ability to resist criminal acts by screening technology, presence of security personnel, and physical design;
  • Community investment – the integration of public art into the urban environment, creating alliances with local business, and using station area design to support and reflect neighborhood values.

At the conference we learned that in Europe there is additional focus on education. Maybe we forget sometimes that children aren’t born knowing how to ride a transit system, or that older people have a hard time with evolving schedules and service changes. In Leipzig the LVB transit agency has a specific program that trains 11-15 year olds not only on the logistics of riding transit, but also on how to create a “better transit climate” through responsible behavior and ridership. This agency also provides outreach programs to senior citizens in order to ensure that their needs continue to be met as their own abilities change.

Additional ways to consider the Social Sustainability aspects of transit include the opportunities to connect transit agency activities with broader social concerns. Transit often suffers from the “last quarter-mile” problem, which refers to the distance that a person must travel in order to get to the nearest transit stop. For a variety of reasons, and despite how efficient the transit system might be, this last quarter-mile is often an insurmountable barrier to ridership. This may be due to problems such as missing sidewalks or hostile pedestrian environments, the absence of weather protection at bus stops, or areas which are threatening to personal safety. Brussels-based UITP – the International Agency of Public Transport -- is looking at links between public health concerns like obesity and this absence of transit connectivity. If every trip started with a walk, how much healthier would we be?

Finally, there is opportunity for transit to directly support its communities by sponsoring the work of local charities and non-profit groups. Since 2003 the Dublin Bus Community Support Programme (2) has provided grants to any group that is located within its service network, funded by proceeds from long-term unclaimed change receipts.

Clearly there is much opportunity to expand our understanding of public transit’s role in the social life of our cities, and the ways in which transit can directly and indirectly support our health and values. One of the most interesting things I learned at the conference was that for the first time ever, the percentage of 16 to 19-year olds who are driving is on the decline. The reason – it’s hard to text while you’re behind the wheel. Maybe an oblique way to encourage transit ridership, but an interesting social trend nonetheless.

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