What are planners and designers doing to solve the so-called “last-mile” problem regarding transit?
—Ginny R., via e-mail
Solving the “last mile” (or “first-mile”) problem—that is, getting transit riders from their bus stop, train station or ferry terminal “the last mile” to the doorstep of their home or workplace—has plagued urban planners since the dawn of public transportation.
“Most people in the United States are ‘comfortable’ walking less than a quarter mile to or from public transit stops,” says Alex Gibson of TransLoc, which works on solutions to transit problems using app-based technologies. “The problem arises when a potential rider is further than a ‘comfortable distance’ to the necessary fixed-route stop.”
Widespread suburbanization across the U.S. is part and parcel of the problem, given that fewer and fewer of us now live within walking distance to public transportation options. The result is more private cars on the road (and the accompanying carbon and air pollution) and underutilized public transit systems.
So, what can be done to overcome this last-mile hurdle? Some municipalities and counties run feeder buses that circle the ‘burbs and bring riders right from their homes or a nearby corner to a transit hub. Likewise, Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services can help transit riders fill in this gap, especially in a pinch. But these are hardly the most cost- or energy-efficient fixes to the last-mile problem.
One time-tested solution is bicycles. Many regions have stepped up their commitment to installing more bike lanes accordingly. While a bike, either the traditional kind or one of the new battery-assisted models, works fine if you have somewhere safe to lock it up or can bring it inside, folding bikes may be a better option for “intermodal” commuters (who pair biking with a bus or train or ferry). Hip London office workers swear by their folding Bromptons. Another increasingly viable option is hopping on a pay-as-you-go share bike which you can pick up in one part of town and drop off in another. Beyond bikes, e-scooters—check the Stigo E-Scooter and Segway’s new MiniPro—are gaining traction and market share across the country.
And let’s not forget about the oldest last mile option of all: walking. Denver, Nashville and Los Angeles have made strides in fixing infrastructure to encourage transit riders to go the extra mile on foot. “Because most riders in high ridership systems walk to catch buses and trains, transit stops must be supported by well-designed streets and sidewalks,” reports the Transit Center, a foundation that supports transit reform advocacy. “Yet many cities in America have built streets without sidewalks, or allowed property owners to encroach on or neglect them.”
Even more important than spiffing up sidewalks would be macro-level changes to how municipalities manage development. “Transit-oriented development and zoning changes are other highly effective strategies that put more people within walking distance to transit,” reports Angie Schmitt of StreetsBlogUSA. “Removing barriers to walking and transit-oriented development are likely to yield better ridership and financial return on investment than others designed to draw transit riders from suburban environments—the transportation equivalent of swimming upstream.”
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