Multimodal Complete Streets

By James Sinclair

The “first-mile/last-mile” problem refers to the challenge of public transportation passengers to reach either the home or office after leaving the bus or train station. This can be especially challenging if the station is more than just a block or two away. Some commuters may take a taxi or a shuttle bus if one is available, but many end up walking for most if not all of the remaining journey – and an increasing number are bicycling. To help solve the “first-mile/last-mile” problem for commuters, infrastructure should therefore be built to accommodate a wide range of transportation options, especially between stations, residential neighborhoods, and workplaces. A Complete Streets policy can help do just that, by committing to, as New Jersey’s Complete Streets policy says, “enabling the safe access and mobility of pedestrians, bicyclists, [and] transit users of all ages and abilities.”

Complete Streets are helpful for many reasons. A Complete Street provides safe, attractive infrastructure for all transportation modes, including automobiles, pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation passengers, and for all ages and abilities. It provides choice to commuters, allowing them to select the most convenient transportation mode for them to access a bus or train station. This makes it safe and easy, for example, for a pedestrian to walk to a bicycle share station or a motorist arrive to a park and ride lot.

Bicycles parked at an NJ Transit train station. These multimodal commuters are not properly counted in surveys

The number of people who commute by foot or by bicycle to public transportation is typically underreported. The United States American Community Survey (ACS) only counts one mode of transportation used during a commute, asking how the respondents “usually” got to work the previous week. A person who bicycles to a train station would only be counted as a train passenger, since the ACS restricts respondents to selecting the mode that they use for the longest portion of their trip. Therefore, people would identify themselves as a train passenger in this situation despite the important role the bicycle played in the commute.

Some commuters take their bicycles with them on the train

It is partly for this reason that in 2013, the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center (BPRC) published a benchmarking report to gather bicycle use information about these public transportation commuters. The report found that at many of the most well-used NJ TRANSIT rail stations dozens of passengers arrive by bicycle during the morning commute hours (6:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.). This is despite the fact that, as the report notes, some of these bicyclists are riding to stations with limited bicycle parking, little bicyclist infrastructure en-route, and poor lighting during some parts of the ride. Surveys and studies have shown that when infrastructure problems like these are fixed, bicycling increases substantially.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) has recognized the importance of the relationship between Complete Streets and multimodality. NJDOT awards grants to transit villages for multimodal improvements.  In fiscal year 2014, $1,000,000 worth of grants was distributed to four projects to improve pedestrian infrastructure at transit villages across New Jersey.

Many buses support bicycles as well

In addition to transit village improvements, NJDOT has had a Safe Streets to Transit  (SSTT) grant program since 2006. The goal of this program is to assist municipalities in improving pedestrian access to transit. The program notes the importance of a well-integrated, multimodal transit system. The SSTT program funds a wide range of programs, from pedestrian lighting to intersection safety improvements to major sidewalk reconstruction.

Providing adequate infrastructure for all modes of transportation at and around stations – including sidewalks and bicycle lanes, pedestrian-scale lighting, and adequate bicycle parking – helps solve the “first-mile/last-mile” problem for commuters. By giving them the option to select their preferred transportation mode, commuters will gain better access to the public transportation system that is so vital to job access in New Jersey.

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