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Inside Innovation: The tug of war between private cars and public transit

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: The tug of war between private cars and public transit

City planners have much to consider in the latter days of the COVID pandemic. One of the major challenges is the future of public transit.

As McKinsey Global points out in a recent report, “a city’s transportation network is its cardiovascular system.”

In Canada, every level of government is involved when it comes to funding transit infrastructure. The investments are in the billions of dollars. Projects take decades to complete and involve a big portion of the Canadian construction industry.

As important as public transit is to major cities, systems have taken a beating lately. Ridership is down for two reasons, less travel to workplaces due to hybrid solutions, and health and safety concerns undermining public confidence.

The result has been an increased ratio of travel by private vehicles to public transit. Yet even during COVID, the number of trips by car for personal reasons has decreased, according to McKinsey, due to an increase in remote work, online shopping and home food delivery.

If the trend towards increased private vehicle transportation continues, public transit will be faced with the challenge of finding ways to lure riders back.

McKinsey surveyed 25 of the world’s largest cities to learn what factors can contribute to an increase use of public transportation while decreasing private automobile use.

First, public transit must be seen as safe. Not surprisingly, confidence in the transit systems is high in Chinese cities due to mandatory mask-wearing, physical-distancing, regular disinfection and other epidemiological safety measures. Unfortunately, not all countries and their citizens are as compliant.

Convenience is vital. In cities like London, Madrid and Paris, McKinsey finds linking city transit to rail hubs, increased bike lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure are part of the success formula.

Affordability is important as well.

“High rates of private-car ownership tend to constrict revenue flows for the public-transport system,” says McKinsey.

As a result, in cities where private car ownership is expensive, public transit rates tend to be low due to higher use.

Linked to private vehicle usage are mandated car parking allocation minimums. These impact project density and land use in commercial areas, shopping malls and restaurant districts.

Car parking is an issue that developers and builders can take to heart. Each parking space takes up around 160 square feet.  Studies in the United States suggest parking allocation policies of the past imposed by municipalities have resulted in the equivalent of eight parking spots at home or elsewhere for each registered vehicle.

In total, that’s nearly 1,300 square feet for each vehicle in the country, an immense amount of land. It’s highly inefficient. In many urban and suburban commercial areas, portions of that land could be put to use as lanes dedicated to bicycles, pedestrians and transit vehicles. And although the public may not realize it, that land is not “free.”

Let’s not forget the environment. Increased private car usage runs contrary to environmental objectives.

Despite the expectation that the environmental damage cause by automobile exhaust today will be mitigated, perhaps even eliminated, by electric vehicles (EVs), there are complicating issues. EVs need roads and parking spaces too. Landlords and owners will be expected to provide recharging stations for tenants or customers. The electricity grid must be cleaned-sourced and built to handle the load demanded by the millions of EVs the Canadian government says will be on the road in 10 to 12 years. None of these challenges will be easily met.

It brings the focus back to improved public transit systems and public policies to incentivize the reduction of cars while improving the business case for increased public transit infrastructure spending.

Planners and policy-makers need to get these inputs correct if they hope to justify the high cost of public transit. In a post-COVID environment, investment in public transit will loom large, not only for those who design and build the systems but for the property developers who plan residential and commercial projects around them.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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