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Northwest Arkansas needs mass transit

ORT, Razorback blend is a good idea

Every city in this extremely rich nation should be able to offer all its citizens a high quality of life. An essential ingredient is easy access to "alternative" modes of transportation: sidewalks, trails, bicycling, mass transit. In particular, people who desire to do so should be able to live comfortably downtown without needing to own a car. One of the many advantages is financial: The average American family spends $9,000 per year on each car it owns. So transit can provide a significant "subsidy" for downtown residents by making car-free urban living feasible. Strong "transit cities" such as my boyhood hometown, Philadelphia, demonstrate that this benefit noticeably reduces poverty and improves economic well-being. But the advantages of transit go far beyond economics. Alternative transportation provides health, efficiency, decongestion, reduced pollution, reduced energy use, reduced parking needs and (speaking as a bicycle commuter) great joy.

Northwest Arkansas cities have made giant strides in bicycle trails spanning not only the cities but also, thanks to the 36-mile Razorback GreeNorthwest Arkansasy, the region. The GreeNorthwest Arkansasy has in turn stimulated alternative transportation in individual cities, improving our quality of life while alleviating the danger, ugliness and boredom of the omnipresent automobile.

But our region has always had a conspicuous blind spot, namely mass transit. It was obvious decades ago that Northwest Arkansas is perfectly aligned for regional transit, yet all we've ever been able to imagine is ever-more-expensive roads and highways, now and forever. Where is the vision?

Years ago, Northwest Arkansas began imagining regional bicycle trails and now, thanks to farseeing leaders, thoughtful philanthropists, and energetic citizens, we have them. People also imagined regional transit, specifically commuter rail or Bus Rapid Transit from Greenland to Bella Vista, yet our transit infrastructure has gone from bad to worse.

Now two visionary leaders, Joel Gardner of Ozark Regional Transit and Adam Waddell of Razorback Transit, have proposed to the Fayetteville City Council's Transportation Committee a service improvement in Fayetteville by blending their two bus lines. Wait times will come down from 60 minutes to either 15 or 30 minutes and times of operation will expand. Most importantly, all buses will be free, enabling more efficient boarding and greater equity. Razorback Transit is already free, and the proposal asks Fayetteville to put up an additional $25,000 to support ORT for the rest of 2018. These improvements are a terrific start, although they are not sufficient, not even for Fayetteville alone. This excellent plan is scheduled for discussion at the City Council's Aug. 7 meeting.

The geometry of Northwest Arkansas is perfect for commuter rail. Nine cities separated by an average 5 miles with a total population of 320,000 (in 2016) lie along a 45-mile line from West Fork to Bella Vista, with another 200,000 outside these cities and within Benton and Washington counties. Commuter rail would be the ideal "backbone," with slower bus routes forming "ribs" branching out into our overly numerous suburbs. Such a system has been discussed for years, with at least one beautifully detailed published proposal by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, but the required financing has not been forthcoming.

Bus Rapid Transit has been proposed as a less expensive replacement for rail. BRT would need to go through the middle, along U.S. 71, so as not to simply connect the Interstate 49 suburbs rather than the actual cities. As with commuter rail, slower "city buses" would move passengers out to surrounding suburbs. The viability of a regional system stems from the narrow width of the population bulge along the central backbone. If we're ever to have viable regional transit, the last thing we want to do is sprawl our cities wider than they already are. Run properly, the buses would be frequent, inexpensive and faster than a car. They should travel along dedicated express lanes with traffic lights that switch to green as a bus approaches and make infrequent quick stops for passengers.

The Community Design Center proposal pointed out that commuter rail would make cities more compact by drawing housing and population inward toward transit stations. BRT would have a similar effect, reducing car travel and increasing the practicality of walking and bicycling. In this manner, transit gets us out of our cars and civilizes us.

The proposed ORT-Razorback cooperation could blossom into something even more wonderful than our trails: mass transit serving the entire region. This will allow us an escape from the car culture to something faster, safer, healthier, cheaper, less polluting, less congested ... and a lot more fun.

Commentary on 07/31/2018

Print Headline: Region needs mass transit

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