Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Transportation election results not so clear cut

While people are justly saying that votes against anti-transit legislation in the State of Washington (a referendum actually against tolling highways, but with anti-transit implications, see "No quick cascade of tolls from I-1125 defeat" from the Seattle Times) and in Cincinnati (a referendum banning spending on rail transit, see "Once Again, Anti-Rail Initiative is Defeated" from City Beat and "How Cincinnati Defeated the Streetcar Haters ... Again" from The Atlantic Magazine Cities blog) and a variety of successful funding initiatives in mostly small places demonstrate a trend favorable to transit, the reality is that the votes were damn close, at least in Washington State and Cincinnati, about 51% to 49%.

Also see this press release, "Election Day 2011 Continues Transit Winning Streak at the Ballot Box: Cincinnati Voters Chose Streetcars; Durham, NC Supports New Transit Investment," from the Center for Transportation Excellence.

While it is great that these initiatives went the way transportation advocates wanted, that's a bit too close for me to feel comfortable about it, or to say that we have a mandate that favors sustainable transportation policy.

What I find more interesting is the vote against the car registration fee for transportation investments in Seattle and the vote in favor of a sales tax to fund light rail in Durham County, North Carolina. Both votes were 60% to 40%.

Now as I wrote on Tuesday, I expected the Seattle car registration fee to fail. Too many people criticized the initiative as ill-defined, and of course the pro-car people said it didn't provide enough money for road and especially bridge improvements.

I didn't have an opinion about the initiative in Durham, other than believing that people in the Raleigh-Durham region, seeing the success of the Lynx light rail system in Charlotte, might want to have access to the same kind of transit service, and therefore would be favorable. The vote in Durham is to be followed next year by a vote in Raleigh/Wake County. (Raleigh voters tend to vote in favor of transportation bond initiatives.) If it passes as well, the light rail plans will go forward.

This demonstrates a couple things, which I hope people take to heart. First, it's important to lead with success, rather than failure, such as with the Lynx system. Second, it's important to build on success. What that means is it's important to do transit (and walking and biking) initiatives first in those places where it is likely to be wildly successful once implemented.
Lynx light rail, Charlotte, NC
Lynx light rail, Charlotte, NC. Flickr photo by Willamor Media.

The Durham Herald-Sun has an interesting piece, "Transit tax opposition centered in outlying area," which discusses where opposition was concentrated, which was, logically, in areas not as urban as the voting precincts that were favorable. From the article:

Unofficial precinct-level returns show the opposition to Durham’s transit tax referendum was concentrated in the northern and eastern-most reaches of the county.

The half-percent local-option sales levy enjoyed majority support in 45 of the county’s 57 voting precincts, and at two of the three early-voting sites the Board of Elections opened for this year’s general election.

The proposal fared poorly in the Rougemont, Bahama and Treyburn areas of northern Durham, and in the precincts in and around the Bethesda area of eastern Durham.

The primary lesson for me is that we need to focus sustainable transportation investments on cities, because urban residents are more likely to be supportive of investments in transit, as well as walking and biking, and it is in cities where transit, walking, and biking has real opportunity to capture trips vis-a-vis the automobile.

The other lesson is that our initiatives need to be really really really really well crafted and marketed. Maybe too that getting citizens to sign off on car registration fees (and gas taxes--which they don't vote on) might be almost impossible.

Failure, like in Seattle, is not an option, especially as the national political environment for sustainable transportation--at least the walking and biking segment--becomes as ugly as many other parts of the political arena (such as health care legislation, "conservatives vs. liberals," etc.).

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