I spent a morning and afternoon last week attending the American Public Transportation Association's Sustainability and Public Transportation Workshop, the third in a series of sustainability forums from the little-known but massive (seriously: there were hundreds of people in the auditorium) public-transportation advocacy group.
What struck me most throughout the day was how much approaches to sustainability varied from one transit system to another. The differences, of course, are all about context: geographical, historical, and political. Some cities that were represented on the panels have well-established, heavily subsidized public transportation systems (New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority); others (such as Denver's Regional Transportation District) are just now starting to make the kind of investments they'll need to get people out of their cars and reduce global warming in the next 10, 20, and 50 years.
• In Salt Lake City, Utah, Utah Transportation Authority officials purchased 185 miles of railroad right-of-way from Union Pacific Railroad for commuter-rail operations, bringing the miles of commuter rail in the region to more than 200. The transportation agency operates the rail line as commuter rail during the day, and as a freight line from midnight until five in the morning. In addition, UTA general manager John Inglish said, "we've essentially become a major trail developer," adding trails in the right-of-way adjacent to the rail lines.
• In dusty Tempe, Arizona, a small city outside Phoenix that comprises five percent of the region's population but uses 17 percent of its transit, the regional transit authority has instituted a bus-wash water recycling program that reclaims some 72 percent of the water used for washing buses. Previously, the transit agency had used 150 gallons of water for every wash. With the new recycling system, the agency saves 107 of those gallons for reuse, which works out to a water savings of nearly 5 million gallons a year. The agency's goal is to eventually reclaim 90 percent of the water it uses to wash its buses.
• Here in Seattle, a private developer--Dale Sperling of Unico Properties--eliminated so-called "early-bird" parking discounts at all his downtown Seattle buildings. Early-bird discounts, which usually apply between 7 and 10 in the morning and 6 or 7 in the evening, encourage car commuting by providing a financial incentive to drive. But Sperling didn't just get rid of parking; he provided all his tenants with 15-day free transit passes--a wonderfully progressive application of the passive aggression known around these parts as "Seattle Nice."
Not every innovation, obviously, will work everywhere--cities that are traversed by hostile railroad companies are unlikely to be successful brokering deals to allow commuter rail on that right-of-way, and small towns, unlike big cities like Seattle, rarely lack for inexpensive parking. But many innovations that make transit more sustainable can be adapted and adopted by other transit agencies--agencies that, thanks to what one panel participant called the "jealousy factor," will come under increasing public pressure to become more sustainable themselves.