This Thanksgiving season, I’m reflecting on new things to be thankful for. Since joining Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, Inc. (Foursquare ITP) in July, I am thankful to be able to contribute to our work in providing sustainable transportation. I am also thankful for sustainable transportation options in general.
Thankful for Transportation Options
I am fortunate to live in the DC area, where not having access to a car does not mean you are stuck at home. Even in this area, however, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone has access to multiple modes they can rely on to get to the places they need and want to go.
During the early days of the pandemic, my family *was* stuck at home—not due to a lack of transportation, but because like most people, we were limiting our exposure to the virus. During that time, we decided to get rid of one of our two cars. Before the pandemic struck, we didn’t take much time to think about our transportation patterns, and I would argue that most suburban families don’t have the time (or think they don’t have the time) to ponder alternative modes of transportation. (Anecdotally, I know this is true, since almost every household in our neighborhood owns at least two cars.)
As a family of two working parents and two small children still in car seats, we assumed having two cars was necessary for our way of life. Work, childcare, and basic household chores consumed our time and left us with no additional time to wonder what our lives would be like with fewer vehicles. But once we weren’t going anywhere, my husband and I realized that it was a good idea to give up one of our cars. Initially this was a cost-saving measure; more than a year later, we have yet to replace it. While this decision was conscious for us (and a relatively easy one to make), we realize that this decision doesn’t come easily to everyone. For many, it may not even be an option.
Thankful for Proximity to Public Transportation
I am thankful that we live within walking distance of a Metro station, as well as near several bus stops where we can catch either the Metrobus or Montgomery County’s Ride On bus. This is one reason we can get by easily with just one car. My husband and I are teaching our children to not only utilize these alternative modes of transportation, but to embrace them. (And for the most part, this comes naturally. They already have a favorite restaurant. They couldn’t care less about the food—it’s their favorite because they can watch the Metro go by while we have dinner!)
My son was thrilled to take Ride On for the first time earlier this year to run errands. We also take the Metro regularly, although it can be a challenge to be completely car-free for these outings since some of these errands involve large things to carry or specifically timed appointments. Let’s face it—public transit isn’t always the best option for this. Foursquare ITP is dedicated to helping agencies improve their services, and we recognize that addressing the public’s resistance to utilizing public transit should be part of the planning process.
Thankful for the Ability to Plan
While I am fortunate to live close to several bus stops, it can be frustrating to wait for the bus to come, particularly with impatient elementary school-aged children. Relying on public transit also takes more planning than hopping in the car. If we need to catch a bus at a specific time to make an appointment, for example, we need to check bus schedules, time out how long the walk would take (always longer than I think thanks to easily distracted children!), and then be prepared to wait. There is no question relying on public transportation takes more time and energy than driving places, especially during off-peak times. I am thankful that I have the option to plan ahead and that I can teach my kids to do the same.
Many people cannot or do not plan around public transit due to its inherently frustrating limitations. Agencies could improve their public transportation networks by ensuring they serve the needs of their community to encourage people to drive less often. Through our work in many places, including Baltimore, MD; Jacksonville, FL; Hampton Roads, VA; and Muskegon, MI, Foursquare ITP has helped redesign transit networks to slowly turn this desire into a reality.
Thankful for an Urban Area
Finally, I am thankful to live in a close-in suburb, where access to public transportation is available. Of course, living near accessible transit is expensive, and not everyone can afford to do so. It’s no secret that the farther out people live from a city center, the worse public transportation is.
In rural areas, accessible transit is not an option at all. For most people in rural communities across the country, having access to a car is essential for traveling anywhere. I experienced this reliance on cars firsthand. I lived in Bath County, Virginia as an AmeriCorps volunteer long before microtransit options were available.
About a 90-minute drive from Roanoke, Bath County is a very rural area in the Appalachians with a population of less than 5,000 people and no traffic lights. There was no public transportation of any kind while I was living there (nor is there currently), so you had to have a car to get around. I was often required to travel for my position as a reporter, so I would not have been able to perform my job without one.
While living there, I often wondered what people would do if their car broke down. In some areas, there were miles between the nearest neighbors, so carpooling was essentially non-existent. Additionally, I don’t remember seeing a single public sidewalk. As is typical in rural areas, transportation in Bath County was nearly exclusively conducted in personal cars. This was quite a shame—not just because having more than one option would have been convenient, but also because Bath County was absolutely beautiful.
There were excellent places to hike, freshwater lakes to swim in, and breathtaking views of the mountains. Unfortunately, the beauty of these areas was slightly tarnished by the adverse environmental impacts from all the cars.
Access to public transportation should not be reserved for city-dwellers. Foursquare ITP has developed a Multimodal Transportation Plan for Virginia to help rural communities in the state like Bath County develop more efficient and sustainable transportation options.
I am thankful to be part of Foursquare ITP’s efforts in advancing sustainable transportation throughout the country. I look forward to helping our team improve options for all communities!