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Surprising many, use of public transportation is way up in Arizona

Diane Brown

Diane Brown

Eight words many Arizonans thought they would never hear: “Public transportation in Arizona is exceeding ridership expectations.”

While the last nine years have seen Arizonans, on average, drive fewer miles each year, transit agencies across our state have seen record ridership.

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail is experiencing ridership numbers that were not projected to be reached until the year 2020. The Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and from 2007 to 2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority also saw its highest monthly ridership. Since 2011, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit tripled. And the Tucson Streetcar, which began operating this past summer, is already exceeding ridership expectations.

Despite a momentous break with historic travel trends in which Arizonans use public transit more and drive less, many transportation officials and policymakers have been slow to recognize the change and have not adapted the way our state invests in transportation.

Today’s outdated spending is particularly misguided, given that younger generations have reduced their driving most sharply and increased their transit ridership the most, signaling future trends. Young people in particular are drawn to urban, walkable locations that have multiple transportation options, such as bikes, buses, streetcars, light rail, and commuter trains. To keep and attract talented workers and businesses to the state, Arizona must provide the transportation options that the millennial generation is seeking.

And let us not forget our state must also prepare for a demographic that is turning 65 at the most rapid rate in American history — and typically seeks new transportation choices. Seniors are increasingly drawn to places where they, too, are not dependent on driving.

Moving in this direction does not mean we ditch our automobiles or stop building and maintaining roads. Arizonans like to have options and many of us value the ability to pack up the car and travel with family and friends to enjoy our state or even having the ability to drive to work.

However, state transportation resources are limited. Federal transportation funds have become even more scarce as the value of the federal gas tax has fallen by about one-third in the last two decades. Not every project with transportation benefits can receive funding, and transportation officials and policymakers need to make hard decisions.

We recommend five ways policymakers can better serve the needs of Arizona’s transportation future:

Revisit transportation plans. Many existing transportation plans continue to reflect outdated assumptions that the number of miles driven will continue to rise steadily over time. Officials at all levels should revisit transportation plans to ensure that they reflect recent declines in driving and new understandings of the future demand for travel.

Reallocate resources. With driving stagnating and demand for transit, bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure increasing, officials should reallocate resources toward system repair and programs that expand the range of transportation options available to Arizonans.

Remove barriers to non-driving transportation options. In many areas, planning and zoning laws and transportation funding rules limit public officials’ ability to expand access to transportation choices. Officials at all levels should remove these barriers and ensure access to funding for non-driving forms of transportation.

Use innovative travel tools and services. New technologies and techniques provide transportation officials with new tools to address transportation challenges. Transportation agencies should encourage the use of car-sharing, bike-sharing and ride-sharing and provide real-time travel information for public transit via smartphone.

Get better data. Transportation agencies should compile and make available to the public more comprehensive, comparable and timely data to allow for better informed analysis of the causes and magnitude of changes in driving trends. Officials at all levels should eliminate inconsistencies in the reporting of transportation data, increase the frequency of surveys that shed light on changes in transportation preferences and behaviors, and use emerging new sources of information made possible by new technologies in order to gain a better grasp of how driving trends are changing and why.

We live in a time of great change and our transportation infrastructure should be ahead of the curve. But that will only happen if we ensure that old assumptions, rules and investment habits are not holding us back.

— Diane E. Brown is the executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, which conducts research and education on issues in the public interest.

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