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GUEST COMMENTARY: Better public transit will benefit Columbia

Saturday, March 5, 2011 | 4:36 p.m. CST; updated 3:50 p.m. CST, Sunday, March 6, 2011

2011 would be a great year to start a serious community conversation about expanding transit services in Columbia.

So say officials with Columbia Public Works, the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department, Columbia Special Business District, Central Missouri Community Action, Columbia Housing Authority, the PedNet Coalition and dozens of other government agencies, private businesses and non-profit organizations. Collectively, this group has developed and signed on to the Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit (CoMET) Community Vision:

  • "A modern, efficient transit system will enrich the lives and support the successes of all individuals, organizations and businesses in Columbia by providing a reliable, convenient transportation service that promotes health, opportunity and sustainability."

Thursday evening at the Healthy Community Partnership's annual meeting, the CoMET campaign was launched with the goal of tripling Columbia Transit’s service within three years. This would enable the agency to increase bus frequency, extend evening and weekend service and expand its service area, or some combination of these improvements. You can sign on as a supporter and learn more about the CoMET Team’s strategies to achieve its goal at pednet.org/comet.

In fact, Columbia Transit has been expanding its service for several years. According to a recent study by MU public health graduate student Craig Hermann, total hours of operation have increased 11 percent since 2007, and this has been accompanied by an even larger increase in ridership. The CoMET campaign will reinforce and strengthen this expansion, so transit in Columbia will eventually be a viable alternative to the car for everyone.

One of the great strengths of a campaign to expand transit is that everyone benefits whether they use transit services or not. Just imagine what rush-hour traffic on West Broadway would look like if 30 out of every 60 cars were replaced by one bus.

In addition to reducing congestion, the CoMET campaign will reap many other individual and community benefits.

Personal finance

With unrest in the Middle East and the global economy picking up, gas prices are only going in one direction, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect $5 per gallon this summer.

Gas prices are only one part of the cost of owning and operating a car, estimated by the American Public Transportation Association to average $9,000 per year. (That’s $18,000 per year for a two-car family.) With a reliable, convenient transit service, two-car families could become one-car families; in many parts of Columbia, families on a budget could live well without a car.

The dollars saved can be spent on more productive sectors of the local economy, such as healthy, local food and better housing.

Public spending

In a time of tight government budgets, it is important to recognize that a large-scale switch to transit will also have a positive impact on public spending.

Since the private automobile is an extremely inefficient mode of transportation, requiring enormous investments in infrastructure, it is quite easy for local governments to save money with smart transportation policies.  Research by the group Reconnecting America has shown that residents in transit-oriented developments drive fewer than one half as many miles as residents in other parts of the same region.

This reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) creates enormous savings in road construction, maintenance and widening costs as well as parking infrastructure — public money that can be invested in education, economic development or transit services.

Health and fitness

The public health benefits are numerous.

Replacing a lot of automobile trips with a few bus trips improves air quality, impacting millions of Americans with asthma and other respiratory diseases. During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, increased transit services and temporary ordinances restricting the use of single-occupancy vehicles led to a 23 percent reduction in automobile emissions and a 44 percent reduction in asthma cases, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Because every bus journey involves some walking at either end, improving transit services not only increases physical activity but builds it into people’s daily routines.  According to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, transit users spend more than three times as many minutes per day walking compared with the general population.

And a good bus service enables people without a car (often the same people as those with most health needs) to get to health screenings, doctor's appointments and grocery stores.

Economic development

When IBM Corporation negotiated its move to Columbia last year, city bus service to its new facility was an important factor in the decision. Excellent transit systems have long been associated with “quality-of-place” and “livable city” metrics, and hence,  with successful economic development.

As Columbia continues to grow, it is important for transportation policy to address the current trend toward increased traffic congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that across the country, transit saves 646 million hours annually in wasted economic output during commute times. With increased services here, Columbia can enjoy some of those economic gains.

Environment

Finally, there are critical environmental benefits to using transit.

Transportation represents about one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and taking transit offers an immediate and substantial opportunity for anyone wishing to reduce his or her energy use and carbon footprint. Switching a daily 20-mile round-trip commute from automobile to transit can create a 10 percent reduction in household carbon emissions, far exceeding the combined benefits of adjusting thermostats, weatherizing one’s home, using energy-efficient light bulbs and replacing a refrigerator.

For all these reasons and many more, it makes good sense to get on the bus and sign on in support of CoMET at pednet.org/comet.

Ian Thomas, PhD, is executive director of the PedNet Coalition.


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Comments

Christopher Foote March 6, 2011 | 1:31 p.m.

Sounds good. If we want to be revenue neutral I would support transferring funds from building new automobile infrastructure to increased buses and other alternatives. Eventually market forces will dictate we do this anyway (oil is a finite natural resource), it makes sense to be ahead of the curve.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz March 7, 2011 | 12:13 a.m.

To be revenue-neutral, one would have to assume that Columbia Transit would not require any additional subsidization from the transportation sales tax (at about a million dollars per year, if my memory is correct) nor an increase in fares from the increased number of passengers.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz March 7, 2011 | 12:14 a.m.

Correction: That should be an increase in the individual fare paid by the increased number of users.

(Report Comment)

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