Sustainability in a "Fast and Ever-Changing World"

January 28, 2011

Last week, we described how at SEPTA sustainability is not about "going green." It is a strategic imperative. Only through proactive sustainability planning will SEPTA be able to confront the economic, social, and environmental challenges facing the organization and region. These challenges are far too great to allow external influences to determine our fate.

How great? A May 2010 Harvard Business Review article makes the case that these challenges are nothing short of generational, and that sustainability is in fact an emerging "mega-trend" that will serve as a determining factor in the viability of organizations for years to come:

"Most executives know that how they respond to the challenge of sustainability will profoundly affect the competitiveness - and perhaps even the survival - of their organizations. Yet most are flailing around, launching a hodgepodge of initiatives without any overarching vision or plan. That's not because they don't see sustainability as a strategic issue. Rather, it's because they think they're facing an unprecedented journey for which there is no road map."

SEP-TAINABLE is our road map, a guide for SEPTA to navigate the evolutionary and iterative process that sustainability planning represents. Over time, this process will help build the organizational capacity to ensure long-term competitiveness for both SEPTA and its region.

But a road map is only useful for those with the knowledge and tools to follow it. Sustainability planning, in other words, must be context-sensitive - grounding initiatives in constraints imposed by an ever-evolving external environment. Only with a pragmatic approach to these constraints can sustainability planning truly shape strategic decision-making.

Over the next two weeks, we're going to take a look at the various external trends that are shaping SEPTA's sustainability plans. Today, we'll focus on how our region's historical development patterns have eroded SEPTA's competitiveness as a transportation mode of choice over time; next week, we'll shift to a discussion of how societal and policy shifts are slowly beginning to reverse that trend.

20th Century Sprawl Limited Transit's Competitiveness

SEPTA's role as a sustainability solution is crucial for a region whose sprawling development patterns have had a profound impact on overall mobility. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) highlighted the impact of this trend in its most recent long-range plan, Connections: The Regional Plan for a Sustainable Future. In it, DVRPC paints a troubling picture of population and land use trends. Between 1930 and 1970, the region's land developed at three-and-a-half-times the rate of population growth. Between 1970 and 2005, the land development rate actually accelerated - to seven times the rate of population growth.

The implications of sprawl are far-reaching. Most relevant to SEPTA is the reduced competitiveness of its radial rail transit network, which reached maturity well before 20th century auto-oriented development patterns had begun to erode the region's dense urban core. Today, the rail system adequately serves a shrinking share of the region's population as decentralized population and employment centers have located farther away from transit hubs.

The resulting erosion of transit options and access has perpetuated a dramatic shift to automobile use. According to DVRPC, between 1980 and 2000, the number of automobiles in the region increased by 37 percent and the number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT) increased by 52 percent, despite a population increase of only seven percent. The end result is a region whose average commute time ranks among the longest in the United States.

SEPTA has taken strides to adapt with expanded bus services and parking capacity to complement its existing rail network. Still, transit ridership steadily declined between 1990 and 2005, as auto-oriented land uses strained SEPTA's competitiveness with the car. Even despite a recent rebound in ridership, transit's regional mode share remains more than 50 percent below its peak mid-20th century levels.

21st Century Trends Will Shape Future Sustainability

Looking forward, the impacts of sprawl will be exacerbated by a widespread aging of Greater Philadelphia's population, which DVRPC forecasts to accelerate between now and 2025, when one in five of the region's residents will be over the age of 65. DVRPC expects the aging trend to be especially strong in suburban communities, where a large proportion of "baby boomers" are expected to "age-in-place." Limited transit access in many suburban and exurban communities could significantly constrain the mobility of a rapidly growing segment of the region's aging population.

Recognizing the vital linkage between mobility and land use, DVRPC's Connections Plan investigated three "what if" scenarios for future growth:

  • Recentralization: return of population and jobs to the region's currently developed areas
  • Trend: DVRPC Board-adopted population and employment forecasts
  • Sprawl: acceleration of development into currently undeveloped outlying areas

The analysis, which forecasts the same gross population and employment for each scenario, found that in 2035 the recentralization scenario could add more than 190,000 new households and 257,000 new jobs in areas with existing transit access. Alternatively, the sprawl scenario would decrease transit access by 159,000 new households and 83,500 new jobs. By focusing development around transit nodes, the recentralization scenario could increase transit ridership by 14 percent, reducing regional vehicle miles travelled (VMT) by 1.7 billion over trend.

SEPTA's ability to achieve its vision to be the region's premier choice for transportation will be shaped in large part by how future development patterns play out. Recentralized development would improve transit accessibility, promote ridership growth, and, as DVRPC concludes, support the many associated economic, social, and environmental co-benefits:

"Based on analysis of different scenario impacts to land use, transportation, the environment, and economic competitiveness, the Recentralization scenario offers the best solutions for a sustainable future. This scenario offers a superior quality of life by increasing mobility choices, preserving more open space, and reducing demand for energy, which lowers household and business expenses. Denser, more compact, mixed land uses can shorten distances between origins and destinations, which encourages alternative forms of transportation. Less energy use helps to reduce CO2 emissions, making the region more sustainable. By spending less on replicating existing infrastructure, more money can be invested in green and energy-efficient technologies or alternative fuels. This, in turn, will help ensure that the region remains economically competitive in a fast and ever-changing world."

Next Week: "Redefining SEPTA's Role for 21st Century Sustainability"