A Mobility Alternative for Livable Communities (Goal 5)

April 8, 2011

Greater Philadelphia grew up around its transit system. It has, in large part, aged around its highways. The result is an increasingly decentralized region where many older, transit-oriented communities have become less economically competitive. SEPTA's social sustainability agenda is about changing this dynamic - reinvigorating the connection between the regional transit system and the communities it serves.

From SEPTA's perspective, the dispersion of regional development creates two inter-related sustainability challenges: first, to support the revitalization of older transit-oriented communities; and second, to provide competitive mobility alternatives to newer auto-oriented communities that were largely built in the second half of the 20th century without transit in mind.

Regardless of how global forces impact future development patterns, the impact of 20th century sprawl will continue to impact the context of sustainability planning deep into the 21st century. SEPTA's ability to serve as a regional sustainability solution for Greater Philadelphia's communities, both new and old, will be defined by its approach to these two issues.

SEPTA's Sustainability Program establishes a strategy to address these challenges by promoting "livable communities." What is a livable community? According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, it is one where: "if you don't want an automobile, you don't have to have one."

Naturally then, a robust public transit system is a central to the concept of livability. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, tangible transit-associated benefits of livable communities include:

  • Lower Household Costs for Residents: Housing and transportation together make up the largest portion of average household costs. And the affordability of housing is strongly linked with available options for transit, walking, and bicycling - which all cost less than owning, maintaining, and driving a car. According to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, transportation costs for American households range from as little as 12 percent of income in well-connected neighborhoods to 32 percent in sprawling suburbs. In Greater Philadelphia, the transit-oriented neighborhoods of West Philadelphia and Northern Liberties have the lowest area transportation costs (12.7 percent and 13.5 percent, respectively),underscoring the positive relationship between access to SEPTA's services with overall affordability. By continuing to support transportation alternatives, SEPTA can further reduce the costs of congestion and travel for all residents, making our entire region more affordable and economically competitive.
SEPTA Saves Commuters Money
Source: American Public Transportation Association
  • More Options for Transportation: By providing residents with safe, reliable, and economical transportation choices, more people will be able to walk, bike, and use public transit to get around - making driving a choice rather than a necessity. SEPTA's vast service network serves as a mobility alternative for residents to use its services to complete journeys to work or to explore all the region has to offer. And while transportation options improve mobility for all residents, this service is of particular value to vulnerable populations, such as less mobile older residents that desire to stay in their homes (called "aging in place").
  • Improved Public Health: A subtle feature of well-planned, interconnected communities served by public transit is the improved personal health of their residents. In part, these health benefits stem from the absence of hazards faced by poorly-planned communities. According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), long commutes and traffic noise can lead to high stress levels for residents, while roadway runoff, air pollution, and dangerous intersections pose direct health threats to everyone in the community. In contrast, well-connected neighborhoods can actually improve residents' health by promoting exercise, offering safe transportation, and creating opportunities for social interaction. As SEPTA achieves its goal of connecting communities, it offers area residents the chance to create healthy lifestyles for themselves.
  • Reduced Cost to Taxpayers: Developing in new areas is far more costly than compact development in the long run. Spread-out development requires significant spending on new infrastructure (including roads, sewer, water, and utilities) and services (such as fire, police, and waste disposal). Compact development in existing communities can save our region costs that local governments or developers - and ultimately residents - would otherwise pay.

Progress To-Date

Here in Greater Philadelphia, SEPTA's Sustainability Program charts out a course to reinvigorate the role of transit in communities across the region, and to take a leadership role in promoting livability from a variety of perspectives:

Equitable Mobility. SEPTA's importance as a regional mobility alternative is perhaps most significant among elderly, disadvantaged and disabled populations. For seniors 65 and older with a valid Pennsylvania Senior Citizen Transit ID Card or Medicare Card, SEPTA is free at all times on bus, trackless trolley, subway, and trolley services (Regional Rail is just $1.00). For senior and individuals with disabilities, "CCT Connect" is a paratransit complement to an already 100 percent accessible bus fleet. And, for transit-dependent city residents and reverse commuters, SEPTA also provides subsidized access to employment opportunities through the federal "Job Access and Reverse Commute" (JARC) program.

Intermodal Accessibility. A transit system cannot achieve full accessibility unless it addresses "the last mile problem" - the challenge of bridging the gap between a public transit stop and a person's final destination. SEPTA has taken a step towards bridging this gap by making its transit system more accessible to non-motorized uses such as bicycling, an increasingly popular mode of regional commuting. According to the US Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey, Philadelphia has the most bicycle commuters per capita of the nation's most populated cities. To support additional growth, SEPTA has worked to make its system more bicycle friendly, equipping all of its buses and trackless trolleys with racks for up to two bicycles, and revising its policies to allow for greater bicycle access on non-rush hour trains.

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). In addition to supporting the presence of existing compact, transit-oriented communities, SEPTA is involved in the planning stages of several new infill projects at transit-oriented locations across the region. In some cases, these projects are being supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Transit Revitalization Investment District (TRID) legislation, which provides municipalities with innovative project delivery tools to plan and finance development projects within one-half mile from a transit station. TOD will help to make the region more livable by concentrating new development in communities that already meet Secretary LaHood's definition of car-free mobility alternatives.

A Plan to Improve Performance

SEPTA's ability to adequately promote these three policy objectives - equitable mobility, intermodal accessibility, and transit-oriented development - will help to achieve its goal of integrating with livable communities. Specific initiatives include:

Develop a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Policy. Despite many limitations on commercial development of SEPTA property, SEPTA can become more proactive in supporting the region's emerging TOD efforts. To become more effective in this capacity, SEPTA should develop a TOD policy that defines the scope and areas of responsibility for SEPTA's potential involvement with development projects.

Create a Transit-Friendly Development Guide. SEPTA can also support TOD by educating planners and potential investors in the characteristics of property in and around its station areas. For example, SEPTA could work with stakeholders to develop a transit-friendly development guide that inventories and categorizes station areas to maximize the potential for each station to serve as an anchor for investment. The guide could be modeled after a document developed by the Chicago Transit Authority in partnership with the City of Chicago in 2009.

Connect with Non-Motorized Travel Modes. In an increasingly interconnected, intermodal world, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility has become a fundamental component of SEPTA's competitiveness as a regional mobility alternative. The Authority has already eased restrictions on bicycle access to its system with a revised "Bike & Ride" policy and is actively partnering with bicycle interest groups and planners to make riding SEPTA a more bicycle-friendly experience. SEPTA will continue to partner with these groups on initiatives to educate the public on SEPTA's bike-and-ride program, continually improve bicycle and pedestrian access to the system, and evaluate new opportunities to support this growing segment of regional commuting patterns.

Support an "Age-Friendly" Philadelphia. According to the Population Resource Center, approximately one in eight Americans are currently 65 or older, a proportion that is expected to grow to one in five by 2030. Greater Philadelphia's ability to adapt to this aging trend, and the resulting decrease in mobility of a growing segment of the region's population, will require a comprehensive strategy for "age-friendly" community development. SEPTA will collaborate with regional planners, the Area Agencies on Aging, and initiatives such as GenPhilly, which a network of emerging leaders working for an Age-friendly Philadelphia that is administratively supported by Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

What's Next

Next week, we'll begin a two-week series taking a closer look at the linkage between public transit and one important characteristic of livable communities: access to fresh food. SEPTA has already been recognized nationally for incorporating public health considerations into its planning process and will be working with regional partners as part of its sustainability program to advance Greater Philadelphia's food system movement.

Next Week: SEPTA Teams Up to Target Food Deserts