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Fixing Transportation May Be the Most Important Job Cities Have

City and industry officials gathered in Sacramento, Calif., for day two of the annual Meeting of the Minds Summit to discuss the problems and opportunities in the transportation sector.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Reversing decades of car-focused transportation in the United States will have to be led by cities. And if they can effectively get people out of their cars, this could be one of the biggest steps toward sustainability and slowing climate change.

Cities “need to be the captain of your entire system,” said Andreas Mai, executive vice president of market development and innovation at transportation company Keolis. “And when I say, ‘entire system,’ I mean entire system. Every piece of the road, including parking, including biking, including e-hailing.” 

Mai joined Waffiyyah Murray, coordinator of the Better Bikeshare Program in Philadelphia; Thomas Stokell, CEO of bike advocacy group Love to Ride; and Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle for a panel discussion about sustainable travel behavior strategies at day two of the Meeting of the Minds annual summit in Sacramento. Jessica Roberts, principal of Alta Planning + Design, moderated the panel. 

Mai's comments were echoed earlier by Matt Cole, president of Cubic Transportation, a transit software company, who said public transit agencies need to take the lead in developing a culture of multimodal transportation, not the private sector.

“We think transit needs to be the backbone of mobility as a service,” Cole told attendees from around the nation and beyond.

Seattle is often looked to as the success story in the world transit and transportation. King County Metro is one of the few transit systems in the United States not losing ridership. And even though the city has more cars-per-capita than Los Angeles, 50 percent of commuters who work in downtown get there via transit, said Hopkins. Groups like Commute Seattle have been able to work closely with large employers like Amazon to build in transit passes into their employee benefits programs. Which is why 60 percent of the fare-box revenue comes from employers, Hopkins pointed out.

“And that’s how we’ve been able to shift behavior, by deputizing companies, and all working together as a community,” he said.

A message often echoed during the two-day summit was, cities can and should play a significant role in reducing the effects of climate change, and become more resilient. The message was all the more topical with the release recent release of a major climate report issued by 13 federal agencies, warning that if significant steps are not taken to curb greenhouse gases, the U.S. economy will suffer.

To change transportation behavior, a major contributor to planet-warming emissions, cities will have to lead the way in changing public policy, perceptions and culture around transportation.

“Transportation and land management isn’t hard,” said Hopkins. “It’s not hard. We know in our cities what to do. The principles haven’t changed in 100 years. What is hard, is the hard political choices to do it.”  

Transit and biking advocates like Hopkins stressed a need for urgency, but at the same time advised incremental steps.

“It really is a ratcheting process,” said Hopkins. “Less a catastrophic event, people’s behavior doesn’t change overnight.”

Starting about 25 years ago, Seattle began the process of moving the mobility needle in a more sustainable direction. Businesses got behind public policy efforts to reduce traffic.

“It’s all about partnerships,” said Hopkins. “As we move forward, like with shared mobility and transit agencies, partnerships are going to be key.

“Congestion is a little like pollution,” he added. “No one person can fix it. But if everyone is charged with the responsibility, we can get it to go down.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.