Cities, Transit, Transportation, United States, Urban Development

How do you build a healthy transit network that enables the economic development of a megaregion while resolving the concerns of local communities it will serve? What factors do you need to consider to develop regional transit lines that riders will use? How do we ensure that the network gets people where they want to go, when they need to get there — all while working within the framework of the local community?

Several years ago, a conversation with a colleague inspired me to explore the answers to these and other questions. After all, developing impactful transit networks is an art and a science requiring insight and analysis to achieve success. New transit systems and extensions require major financial investments from the federal government, transit agencies, states and municipalities. A new tool, Triple A Transit Planning and Implementation (Triple A) — named for its examination of access, availability and advantage — provides information that enables these entities to shape successful new transit lines and extensions that deliver sweeping benefits. Here we offer insights into Triple A and how its use in geographical and geopolitical contexts helps develop successful transit systems.

What is Triple A?

Triple A is an approach to transit development based on the principle that riders will use public transportation if it incorporates the following three elements:

  • Access: Ease of getting to the system through varied transportation modes, including walking, biking, park and ride facilities, transit transfer, taxi and rideshares.
  • Availability: Safe and efficient operations with a meaningful span of service and frequency for a wide range of travel needs. In short, a system that takes riders where they need to go, when they need to get there.
  • Advantage: Transit that competes with the next best travel time option, offering convenience, reliability, cost and environmental considerations.

How was Triple A developed?

My colleague, who I referred to earlier, asked me about the elements that factored into distinct rail transit ridership results for three separate regional rail systems. While the two lines and one extension had opened within a few years of each other, the extension into a new area of the metropolitan region gained fewer riders than the two new rail transit projects. One of the new projects, the Phoenix Central Valley light rail, was highly successful in terms of ridership results. This was surprising given that it was built in a region that historically invested in highway expansion for single-occupant cars, rather than in public transit.

To understand what influenced these results, I studied the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database (NTD), which collects data annually from every transit agency in the country. I examined transit system development information, including station spacing, average speed and the amount of system elevated versus at grade. My findings came down to access, availability and advantage. These factors brought the Phoenix light rail line’s success into clear focus. Valley Metro Rail, the local transit agency, imbedded access, availability and advantage in the Central Valley light rail. Valley Metro redesigned the bus system to make the line accessible. The light rail is available as it operates frequently, running from the suburbs through downtown, connecting two university campuses, as well as an international airport. As a result of effective station spacing, the line also offers the advantage of comparable travel time. With that in mind, Triple A became a principle that could be applied across transit systems to develop effective new lines, systems and extensions.

Understanding Triple A in a community context

While the broad principles of Triple A are part of an effective design tool, they do not work in a vacuum. While new transit often extends across a megaregion, transit is decidedly local with local community impacts. Further, each community has its own unique context comprised of different geopolitical ecosystems, geographies, land use policies and funding capabilities. Communities also have different geophysical potential for constructability, which factors in space, potential ridership and land use policies. Balancing this community context with Triple A elements empowers agencies to establish the best local delivery and overall route and line development. Putting this into a three-part Venn diagram, the transit “sweet spot” is the intersection, based on community context, of access, availability and advantage.

Before transit boards make decisions about station placement, they must understand the impacts on their constituencies and work to resolve community concerns. On the local level, agencies planning to build stations within a community must lay the groundwork months ahead of these decisions through consensus building, speaking at community board and grassroot organization meetings, actively listening to local concerns, and making concerted efforts to meet local community needs.

I used active listening in conjunction with the Triple A method in Seattle helping a regional transit agency, Sound Transit, pass an $18 billion funding initiative. In what was then my capacity as Sound Transit’s planning and development director, I worked directly with the executive director of Transportation Choices, a major community-based statewide coalition and was able to listen to and resolve local community concerns. Now, as a transportation professional at AECOM, I am part of a team of technical and policy analysis experts who can use this experience to support transit agencies across the United States and around the globe.

Triple A, in its flexibility, can be adjusted to address local context considerations. Using these principles together with the community context can inform transit agencies, helping them avoid the extremes of lowest cost-lowest benefits and highest cost-lowest benefits. Triple A allows agencies to strike the perfect balance and deliver transit services that generate regional and local benefits for years to come.

Originally published 10.29.2020

Author: Greg Walker