Transit agencies and advocates focus attention on last-mile solutions

By Chris McCahill

With transit systems gaining riders, and new systems being launched throughout the U.S., many service providers now face the challenge of ensuring sufficient access to transit stations. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Metro Transit partnered with a local car-sharing company to provide access to both services using a single card. In Denver, a recent survey suggests the answer may be as simple as investing in sidewalks, signage and lighting near stations—particularly in low-income areas.

For new and growing transit systems, first- and last-mile connections to stations are often the key to attracting and accommodating riders. For instance, ridership along central Connecticut’s new busway, CTfastrak, has surpassed expectations, but many of its stations now face parking shortages. This could be because people are using the system in unanticipated ways, because parking prices are set too low, or simply because there aren’t convenient ways of accessing the stations other than by driving. These issues could deter potential riders over the long run.

Metro Transit, which serves the Twin Cities area, has tapped into one potential solution by partnering with car-share provider Hourcar and integrating carshare access into its Go-To transit cards, thereby allowing travelers to switch effortlessly between different modes using a single piece of technology. Someday, arrangements like this could let travelers access and pay for many different options, including bike-shares, taxis, or ridesharing services, with a single account.

For many, however, including people living in low-income neighborhoods, the solutions are often more basic. That’s according to a new report from Mile High Connects, a coalition of transit advocates in the Denver metropolitan area.

The coalition held focus groups with 22 organizations and surveyed 48 individuals from those groups to understand the top needs and priorities in providing first- and last-mile connections. Sidewalks were rated as the most important improvement, followed by pedestrian crossings, wayfinding, lighting, and other safety measures. Car-sharing was rated lowest. Dace West, the group’s executive director explains:

“Much of the focus is on new technologies—things like car share and bike share. And it was really fascinating to hear that for a majority of folks the thing that is most impactful is just sidewalks. And that in many cases there aren’t really steady and reliable funding streams to be able to address that very basic need in many communities throughout the region.”

One-time investments can have a major impact, according to the report, but there are no dedicated revenue streams supporting this type of work. This lack of permanent funding hits low-income neighborhoods hardest, according to survey responses. The report holds cities and counties most responsible for funding these types of projects, but also recommends working with the transit authority, the MPO, transportation management associations, and developers on an ongoing basis.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.