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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Region's growth will demand more mass transit

by Greg Harton | August 8, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Can you ever imagine yourself catching a ride on a bus when you've got a perfectly functional car sitting in your driveway?

What would it take to make mass transit a viable option to get around your town or even between some of the major cities of Northwest Arkansas?

Convenience and ease of use have to be the primary considerations for people who already have transportation options. Well, at least when there's not a worldwide pandemic going on. Perhaps prospects for bolstering the use of mass transit in Northwest Arkansas are fairly low while all of us ought to be concerned about any indoor gatherings with folks we're not all that familiar with.

Northwest Arkansas recently got high marks in U.S. News and World Report's list of best places to live. I think most of us can appreciate why. But folks who study economic development, population growth, home ownership trends and other growth-related issues say our region's improved spot on that list is, in part, the result of other communities slipping. Why are they slipping? Because they have not found the solutions to the negative impacts growth can bring, such as housing costs spiraling out of control or traffic congestion that turns a daily commute into an exhausting routine.

Earlier this year, reporters here at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette examined the region's growth and the potential it has to create housing, transportation and other issues. Such growth can be beneficial; it can also cause problems.

"No city in the U.S. has done this successfully," were the cautionary words of Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, back in March.

Will Northwest Arkansas be able to?

Sprawl, which demands more time in automobiles and exacerbates traffic difficulties, hasn't proven the best development pattern in other towns. Urban planners don't suggest every neighborhood or commercial area needs to consist of high rises, but they do suggest key areas of Northwest Arkansas' growth need to go up rather than out. That will put more people per acre, which helps create more efficient application of municipal services. It also makes mass transit more manageable by concentrating people rather than spreading them out.

Part of a strategy to limit the negative impacts of growth is to give people better options for living close to where they work. Another key component will be having a viable mass transit system. The region is served today by the Ozark Regional Transit Authority. Joel Gardner, the agency's executive director, said busing is part of a mix that includes automobiles, biking and walking.

"Ozark Regional Transit being that fourth leg in the transportation stool, I guess I'll call it, is right now the weakest," Gardner said. "We don't have everything that we need to effectively move people throughout Northwest Arkansas, but we're getting there and we hope to get there over the next 10 years and provide Northwest Arkansas a great transportation system."

Developing a more robust mass transit system means giving riders at any stop a chance to get on a bus -- big or small -- once every 12 to 15 minutes, Gardner said. Today, the system's buses get back around to any given point every 30 minutes to an hour. People who have other options simply won't wait that long. People who don't have other options will just take what they can get.

On my podcast, Speaking of Arkansas, I interviewed Gardner about the future of mass transit in Northwest Arkansas. You can listen to the interview at http://nwaonline.com/publictransit/ .

Whether any of us today believe we will park our cars and use public transit, development of a robust system to efficiently move people around Northwest Arkansas is important to everyone who lives here, now and in the future.


Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

Print Headline: Growth will dictate more mass transit

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