Transcript: Transit Tomorrow Interview

ZM: This is Zoe Miller, and I am the Director of Community Engagement at the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

RH: And I'm Rick Harbison, and I'm a Senior Planner at GPCOG and PACTS.

Wonderful, thank you. And so today we're talking about Transit Tomorrow, a draft plan that GPCOG has recently released to the public. And so the first question I have is, what actually is Transit Tomorrow?

RH: Transit Tomorrow is a long range public transportation plan. So the idea is that it's a 30 year vision for what we'd like our transit system to be in the Greater Portland region.

ZM: As a region, we haven't had a shared vision for how we want to see public transportation grow and how we can achieve the improvements and the expansions that will give us the system we really need. And I think the goal is that getting on the same page with our vision across this pretty broad region of 18 cities and towns will enable us to start making moves in the right direction.

That's really helpful. And how do you even go about writing a plan like this? What's the process?

ZM: The plan really has relied on great outreach to the different stakeholders and members of the public, and so there were a number of different audiences who were really critical to connect with around this. We talked to municipal staff and elected leaders, we talked to folks from large institutions in the region, we talked to people who depend on public transportation, and we talked with businesses and organizations who are looking to get their clients and their workers to be using public transportation. So the issue of, how we can have public transportation that works really well and gets people to choose it over driving a car and works really well for the people who depend on it because they can't drive, it really requires us talking to a really broad range of people and having them on board and figuring out… How do we create recommendations and actions that can move the needle on this?

So from that outreach and the research that you've done, you created this plan that outlines four main goals for the public transit system in the Greater Portland region. One of the goals is to make transit easier. So Zoe, what exactly does that mean to make transit easier?

ZM: At the heart of it, it's looking at, how do we make it better for the people who depend on it because they can't drive or can't afford a personal vehicle? We want to get more people using it who currently are choosing a personal vehicle but have an interest in public transportation. And we also want to make it possible for some of the folks who right now may be using paratransit or depending on friends and neighbors for rides to get them onto fixed route transit. I think the way we do that is through better coordination, more modern customer service, where people have come to expect that they can, just with one click, get the information that they need. We want to make that the case for public transportation. And also to provide some nudges, so whether it's that employers are now providing just as good incentives for taking transit as previously they would have provided for you to park your car, or making it a lot more fun and interesting to be using transit. And I think that some of how we do that is through good infrastructure, and other pieces of it are really more about the stories that we tell about transit and the way we help people understand how to use it.

To build off of what you said about the infrastructure and making those improvements, Rick, want to tell me more about the goal of increasing frequency of transit?

RH: There's this idea in the transit industry that says frequency is freedom, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. If you want to go out and catch the bus to get to work and the bus leaves every hour, there's gonna be a lot of pressure for you to get to that bus on time. And there's probably gonna be a little bit of stress and anxiety about, “Oh, did the bus...did I miss it? Did it come early? Is it running late? Am I gonna have to wait an hour for the next one?” So if you have a train or ferry that comes more frequently—in our plan, we have 15 minutes as kind of the gold standard—it just solves a lot of problems. You don't have to fret about the schedule, about if you're going to make a connection. You just show up and go. So improving the frequency is one of the biggest things you can do to get more people using transit and for it to be seen as a reliable and easy way to get places.

Right, and so how do you actually do that? What are some of the strategies that you recommend in the plan?

RH: Our next step is, we have a new study called Transit Together, which is happening in this next year, and we're really going to look at all the routes from a regional perspective and see how well they serve people in their daily needs. A lot of the routes haven't been changed in a really long time, and as you know, people’s travel patterns change, more people might move to a certain area, more jobs might develop in other areas. So it's important to take a fresh look at how the routes are serving people's needs.

One of the other goals is to improve rapid transit opportunities. And the first question I have is, what exactly is Rapid Transit?

RICK: It's both frequent and fast, and has the capability to transport many people at the same time. So I guess the key difference between rapid transit and just having more frequency of the transit system is that rapid transit systems have their own designated travel lanes or their own right of ways, so they can bypass congestion. So the types of modes that we're thinking about with rapid transit are bus rapid transit, light rail, or commuter rail are the three ones that are top of mind. And bus rapid transit is fairly new. Bus rapid transit is basically buses that operate kind of like trains. You have your own dedicated bus lane that's paired with intersection treatments where you'd have a signal priority for these buses. So the idea is that it's fast so that if you have the choice of, “Okay, should I take my car? Or should I take transit to work?” and suddenly transit is as fast or faster than taking your car, and when you get to your destination, you don't have to park your car or pay for parking, that can become a default option for people.

And I'm curious to know if there are particular areas in the region that you think might be a really good fit for rapid transit like you've described?

RH: There's four key corridors that we've identified. One’s going from Portland up to Brunswick, kind of along that 295/Route 1 corridor. Another goes from North Windham kind of down 302, route 302 to Portland, and then across Casco Bay Bridge into South Portland. Another major connection is the Gorham/Westbrook to Portland connection, kind of traveling out on Brighton Ave, Route 25. And then the last one is a pretty big connection between Biddeford/Saco and Portland. So you have several major routes going in that direction—I-95, Route 1, the Downeaster line. This is where the major movement of people is happening in our region, and this is where rapid transit could really make a difference.

Well, thanks for that. And I want to move to the next goal that the plan outlines, and that goal is to implement transit friendly land use policies. And I'm just curious to know, what's the link between land use and transportation?

RH: We're assuming that the region is going to continue to grow. Anecdotally, at least, it seems like with the pandemic, we're still seeing growth, perhaps even more growth. So then, in the case that we continue to grow, the key questions for us are really, where do we want to grow, and how do we want to grow? And from a transit perspective, the type of land use that allows transit to be most viable is higher density neighborhoods, places where there's good access, where it's really easy to walk or bike around, and where there's a mix of uses—housing, businesses, services, education, you name it—a mix of uses that support transit. Our main priority really with the land use recommendations is that we want to expand housing choices and jobs near transit. So instead of growing outward into the suburbs and rural areas, we want to encourage infill development and really try and thicken up our existing neighborhoods in urban areas to make them both more sustainable and transit-friendly in the long run.

Thanks for sharing more about these goals and how you might get there. I'd like to sort of take a step back and just hear your take on this question of, why does public transportation in the Greater Portland region matter?

ZM: Transportation in general, and access to transportation, is underlying everything in our society. It determines what we're able to do for our education, for work, for our recreation, for being social with people. And we know that the way we're currently getting around our communities, which is primarily people in personal vehicles, is not great for our environment. As a region, we need to look at how we can do better, how we can get more people access to opportunities and quality of life, and how we can get more people out of their personal vehicles and onto public transportation. I think of it as being not just win-win, but win, win, win, win, that when we do that, it’s better for the environment, it’s better for equity, it’s better for economic development, it’s better in so many ways. And so, when we can get people around, spending our money more efficiently on public transportation, I think we also stand to benefit as a society in that we have people coming together in different ways. You know, I think that they're socializing with people who they wouldn't otherwise ever talk to or meet. There's a myriad of benefits to it, and I think that we're really in a moment where I think people across the board are eager to see us have better public transportation. We know that our young adults and twentysomethings are waiting a lot longer to get a driver's license, and so they want public transportation. We know we have folks that are living longer than they did before, and they're getting to a point where they can't drive their own cars anymore, so we need to think about how we get them around. At GPCOG, we see public good public transportation as a resource that helps everybody in our communities.

RH: It really is a long range plan. It’s looking at 30 years out. And so, we do see the pandemic as a crisis that we can then move on from and learn some lessons from. Ultimately the long term trends like growth in our population, and the equity impacts and environmental impacts of transit, are really the foundation for Transit Tomorrow. The pandemic certainly threw a wrench for transit operations temporarily, but long-term, looking to the 10 to 20 year timeline, we’re thinking a little bit further beyond the pandemic. So I think we're always going to have this issue, even 30 years from now, of, how do we get people to where they need to go, and a lot of people where they need to go? And I think transit is always going to be a better answer because it's more efficient for getting people where they need to go.

As you mentioned, this is a 30 year plan, and you acknowledge in it that it's ambitious. And so where do we even begin?

ZM: So I think of this plan as being like a compass. Yes, there are really specific actionable items that we've outlined, and at the same time, I think we haven't had a compass for transit. We haven’t known where are we trying together to get to. I think this plan is intended to provide that for us, and one of the really important next steps is to share this and have as many people as possible champion it, because any plan is just as good as the people who are willing to get behind it and push it forward. We're trying to get this out in front of as many different people as we can. If they can share their thoughts about why they think these things should happen or what they think we should know about potential pitfalls or opportunities, we want to hear that. We want people in the community to join us in moving this forward. You know, this isn't GPCOG’s plan or PACTS’ plan. This is really the Greater Portland region's plan. And so we need municipalities and businesses and health care institutions and organizations and individuals of all different kinds to be with us on moving this forward.