Redefining SEPTA's Role for 21st Century Sustainability

February 4, 2011

Last week, we took a look back at how 20th century sprawl eroded SEPTA's competitiveness as a regional transportation mode of choice. This week, we look forward to the emerging 21st century trends and how they might shape SEPTA's future.

Demographic shifts are beginning to have a profound impact on the competitiveness of transit as a mode of choice. The gradual aging of the American population, combined with an emerging generation of highly mobile and tech savvy young adults, is changing the ways in which transit is used and perceived. The net result is a heightened standard for "quality of service" that will challenge transit agencies deep into the 21st century.

Two features define this heightened standard more than any other: access and integration.

Societal Demands

Access. The advent of the information age, and an individual's almost unlimited access to knowledge, has created an unrelenting demand for access to real-time information at virtually anywhere and 24/7. This is especially true for the transit riders of the future - the current 18-to-29 year old generation of "Millennials" that are, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report, more likely than any generation in history to be "always connected" through the internet, social networking, and cellular-based media.

Meeting the needs of these 50 million young adults as they transition into the workforce will require faster and more convenient transit than ever before. This so-called "Now Generation" has been raised, to a greater extent than any generation before it, with an expectation of constant access to the world through the internet and the automobile. For this segment of the population, transit will be judged not solely on its ability to move people from point A to B, but also by the quality of the overall "transit experience."

On the other side of the demographic spectrum is the baby boomer generation, Americans born between 1946 and 1964, whose wave of retirements over the next two decades is expected to trigger a shift in regional travel patterns and overall levels of economic activity. While broader impacts remain to be seen, on the transit industry the net impact of this demographic trend will be an increased demand for flexible, responsive services to a less mobile population.

Integration. Standards have also been raised by the growing popularity of alternative travel modes. Travelers interested in linking transit trips with bicycling, walking, and car-sharing options are demanding that transit adapt to a new role not simply as a service provider, but as an integrated "mobility alternative" that connects - and often competes - with a variety of other travel options.

The importance of this role of mobility alternative will only grow if recentralization development patterns in fact take hold. A 2010 Environmental Protection Agency report on residential construction trends suggests that this shift has already begun in many U.S. regions, with associated reductions in car ownership. And there are indications that they may accelerate in the future: Pew's study notes that Millennials may be more eco-conscious and urban-oriented than previous generations, finding that nearly one-third (32 percent) live in central cities, compared to less than one-fourth (23 percent) of Depression-era young adults.

Taken as a whole, transit's competitiveness will increasingly depend on the speed and seamlessness of its connectivity. For SEPTA, this is both a risk and an opportunity. The riders most likely to be lured by technological connectivity - such as real-time information - and mobility connectivity - such as enhanced bicycle facilities - tend to be younger and have many years of potential transit ridership ahead of them. An emerging success story is the Northeast Corridor's inter-city bus industry, which according to the New York Times has managed to attract younger travelers by complementing express service and competitive pricing with a comfortable interior environment featuring free internet and electric outlets.

Policy Shifts

Emerging societal demands have begun to impact the direction of transportation policy - and therefore the context of SEPTA's sustainability planning - at the federal, state, and local levels.

Federal. In Washington, surface transportation policy is established by a multi-year reauthorization bill. The most recent version of this legislation, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - Legacy for Users" (SAFETEA-LU) expired in 2009. While Congress continues to wrangle over reauthorization, federal agencies have begun to adjust allocation of their existing resources, signaling an anticipated change in approach for the new reauthorization bill.

From a sustainability perspective, the best example of this new policy approach is the "Interagency Partnership on Sustainable Communities." Unveiled in June 2009, the partnership was formed to better coordinate federal transportation, environmental, and housing investments. Since then, the partnership has integrated policies, planning, and funding opportunities available through the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Together, the agencies have adopted six overarching principles:

  • Provide more transportation choices: Develop safe, reliable and economical transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote public health.
  • Promote equitable, affordable housing: Expand location- and energy-efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation.
  • Enhance economic competitiveness: Improve economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers as well as expanded business access to markets.
  • Support existing communities: Target federal funding toward existing communities - through such strategies as transit-oriented, mixed-use development and land recycling - to increase community revitalization, improve the efficiency of public works investments, and safeguard rural landscapes.
  • Coordinate policies and leverage investment: Align federal policies and funding to remove barriers to collaboration, leverage funding and increase the accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth, including making smart energy choices such as locally-generated renewable energy.
  • Value communities and neighborhoods: Enhance the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe and walkable neighborhoods - regardless of whether they are rural, urban, or suburban.

DOT, HUD, and EPA have collectively awarded billions of dollars through competitive grant programs to projects that have advanced these principles, with hundreds of millions more planned for future fiscal years.

State. When the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed Act 44 in 2007, SEPTA received, for the first time in its history, a reliable dedicated source of funding to meet operating and capital needs. But financial stability is now in jeopardy. A new $450 million gap in the Commonwealth transportation funding program has created a $110 million hole in SEPTA's capital budget. From an economic perspective, sustainability at SEPTA begins and ends with replacement funding for Act 44, which only funded one-half of the Commonwealth's identified transportation funding needs in the first place.

Despite the funding gap, PennDOT has begun to shift some of its existing discretionary resources to promote the same focus on livable, sustainable communities as the federal government. Its "smart transportation" initiative incorporates sustainability principles into its project planning and implementation by embracing the evolving financial, technological, social, and environmental contexts in the communities it serves. The Pennsylvania Communities Transportation Initiative (PCTI) has provided more than $80 million over its first three years, specifically targeting:

  • Projects which support local economic or community development projects and that encourage walkable, multimodal, mixed use developments or corridors, or incorporate brownfield or greyfield redevelopment opportunities.
  • Enhancing and utilizing the existing transportation network infrastructure capacity to reduce the demand on the region's transportation network.
  • Improving regional connectivity (i.e., more integrated use of arterials and secondary roads to relieve congestion on state highways, multimodal circulation improvements, sidewalks, paths).
  • Roadside improvements (i.e., transit and bicycle amenities, streetscape improvements, parking).
  • Improvements to support transit oriented, brownfield and greyfield developments.

While programs like PCTI will never replace Act 44 in scale, it does represent an evolving mechanism by which SEPTA can promote its sustainability agenda - and particularly its efforts to partner for transit-oriented development - in the midst of significant financial constraints.

Local. At the city and county level, sustainable transportation policy is reflected in the tremendous leadership that Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties and the City of Philadelphia have exhibited in pursuing economic, social, and environmental sustainability objectives.

In particular, the City of Philadelphia's award-winning sustainability plan, Greenworks Philadelphia, set forth an agenda to become "the greenest city in America" and positions public transportation as a key asset. SEPTA is an active participant in the Mayor's Office of Sustainability Working Group and Mayor's Sustainability Advisory Board. It remains a committed stakeholder in achieving its objectives.

SEPTA's key role in Greenworks implementation is emblematic of its broader leadership position as a sustainability solution for the region. SEP-TAINABLE embraces this leadership position. Next week, we'll describe SEPTA's own sustainability program and how it is designed to directly support other strategic and sustainability initiatives at SEPTA and throughout its region.

Next Week: "Overview of SEP-TAINABLE: The Route to Regional Sustainability"