Nextransit Blog

Transit isn’t just for commuting

Transit-oriented cities love to brag about the percentage of workers that take transit to work, rather than drive. In fact, here in Cambridge, we love to brag about how fewer than 50% of Cantabrigians commute by car. While this statistic is already a bit skewed as 1/3 of our population is made up of students, the true key word to notice in there is commute. You’ll frequently see US cities talking about how many people commute via car vs. transit vs. bike.

While this is absolutely a great thing, what’s really important isn’t just how many people don’t want to hassle with traffic en route to work, but how many people feel that they can access the things they need in daily life via means other than car ownership. For example, of the non-student population of Cambridge, there are about 1.4 cars per household. When comparing to the average cars per household in European cities, inner cities have ~ 0.5 cars per household, while exurbs have just shy of 1.4. So one of the best cities in the US for commuting by means other than car, still comes in with over 3 times the car ownership of a European city, tying with the exurbs.

This isn’t to say that Cambridge should be compared to inner London or Amsterdam, but it’s important to look at the differences. One of the key distinctions is precisely how accessible basic needs are. It may seem reasonable to walk 15 minutes to catch a train which takes 20 minutes to get to work, when you’re doing it as part of a commute. But if you have to walk 15 minutes to catch a train every time you want to pick up chips and salsa for a gathering of friends, it’s a very different story.

American cities are often built around a dense downtown “financial district,” which is bustling during the day, and often somewhat dead at night. Our financial districts rarely have high residential density, but favor offices and daytime commercial enterprises. Likewise, our transit systems are generally built around this downtown area, designed to provide a means for outlying residential areas to access the downtown workplaces. But our transit utterly falls apart once you reach those outlying residential areas, generally requiring most residents to own cars.  The transit maps above highlight this: a dense center with lots of stops and lines, and long tails that branch out to the farther edges.

This model forms the cornerstone of much of our transit-oriented policy: commuting.  But even people who commute to work via transit in the US generally own cars at home for everything else. This is one of the major reasons that, despite transit ridership being up, car ownership has continued to rise (albeit at a much slower rate today than a few years ago).

When we talk about economic opportunities of a transit-oriented city, it behooves us to link the parts of our lives that go beyond our workplaces. Not only do we need higher densities of basic needs like groceries, laundry, hardware stores, and pharmacies, accessible primarily by walking, but also an easy way to access more luxury needs like specialized stores, great restaurants, and parks and nature. We can’t expect to live in a neighborhood that has everything within a 10 minute walking distance, but we can (and should!) demand to have our basic needs within walking distance, and our second-tier desires easily accessible without a car. After all, life isn’t just about commuting to work.

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