Doolittle: Want more to use public transit? Make pit stops possible

The distance between my house and my office at the American-Statesman is slightly more than 13 miles — that’s about 18 minutes without traffic and up to 50 minutes during the city’s worst rush hours.

I have ridden MetroRail exactly once (during Formula One week), and I can count on one hand the times I have ridden the bus in the past seven years. Am I proud of this? No, but as a working parent of two young kids, I don’t have much of a choice.

The rap against commuters is that they are addicted to their cars and minivans and that they obstinately refuse to try alternative modes of transportation — clogging our highways rather than using the bus, a bike or train.

After all, how hard is it really to restructure one’s commute?

If your commute is a one-stop trip in the morning and the evening at fixed hours, it’s not too terribly difficult. However, that segment of the commuting population is quite small. Only 15 percent of commuters never made non-work stops in 2004, a number that experts say has likely shrunk as commute lengths have grown.

The rest of us have kids to drop off and pick up, doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, dry cleaning , midday meetings, dinner dates and volunteer work. And that is where changing commuter habits hits the skids, and land use planners should pay closer attention.

This phenomena is called “trip chaining,” and it is something that Austin policymakers should pay attention to as we debate urban rail (aka light rail), affordability and the flight of families out of the city’s core.

Even if a commuter only makes one such stop a week, they are much less likely to take public transit, even on days that they don’t make a stop, says Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas. The effect is particularly pronounced for commuting parents, and even more so for mothers who work outside the home. They don’t want to give up the flexibility of making a stop and are always “on call” for that emergency pickup if a child becomes sick, injured or other care arrangements fall through.

“Women workers, especially married women workers, make more of these chaining stops,” Bhat said. “Some it has to do with how the child rearing responsibilities are divided. Some of it has to do that their commutes tend to be shorter, but there is a definite asymmetry based on gender.”

Austin and Capitol Metro have been talking about transit-oriented development for years and have at least six centers in the works — Plaza Saltillo, MLK, Leander, Lakeline, Crestview and Tech Ridge. They all rely on mixed-use development models — residential units combined with office and commercial space. The model does improve urban walkability and biking, but far less attention has been paid to the mix of businesses in these centers.

Typically these developments have been entertainment focused: dining, bars and boutiques. Dry cleaners, doctors, dentists, day care — the businesses that convert trip chaining by car to transit have not always followed.

Take for example development so far at Crestview Station, which is serviced by MetroRail. The sole family-oriented service business so far is Seton’s Comprehensive Care Clinic, a pilot project aimed at children with complex medical issues. The closest licensed day care is a 20 minute walk; the closest dry cleaners is even further. We won’t even discuss grocery stores. Black Star Co-op, Midtown’s largest tenant, has great beer and food (and I have taken my kids), but it’s not a regular pit stop that is going to increase commuting.

Triangle Station, which has become an unofficial bus transit center, has more retail diversity, including a bank, a dentist, cleaners and fitness businesses — plus parking. Central Market is about a mile away (a doable walk, although a challenge with children.) There are day care options within a mile of the station, but in the opposite direction from the grocery store.

If it seems that I’m focusing on the mundane, yes, I am. Life is filled with a list of “have-to-dos,” especially for working families. Even something as straightforward as elementary school, which has built-in bus service, poses a transit challenge. Many of those kids stay at school in extended care programs until 5 p.m. or later, and somebody has to pick them up, usually in a car at peak rush hour.

The only way to reduce road congestion is to give workable options for people to change their routines.

If we are in the business of giving out municipal incentives, let’s incentivize creative solutions that make an impact on transit: add workplace daycare, encourage co-location of specific services in transit hubs, design new transit stations to integrate with retail space in ways that are friendly to young families and the elderly.

If the city is able to get voter and federal approval for rail, the proposed route has some real opportunities: stops at two traditional supermarkets, two medical centers with their accompanying clinics, three major educational centers, multiple major employers, and existing day care facilities within less than a half mile of proposed stops.

The days of the “kiss and ride” are long gone. We need more than just roads; but we need more than just another rail line. Let’s engineer transit in a way that everyone can actually use it.

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