Active Transit Solutions for the Last Mile Problem

One of the great things about city life is how close you are to everything and everyone else. In many cities, most people can get by without owning a car and just rely on some combination of walking, biking, taking the bus or train, ridesharing, and even scootering. Many people use public transit already, but that number could be increased if we had a way to make it more convenient for people to get to a public transit stop. Imagine you lived a mile from the closest Metro stop - would you walk that mile both ways, every day? Some people would, some people would take their car or a rideshare. Now imagine if you had a bikeshare dock just one block away or if there were always shared e-scooters parked outside your apartment door - that takes your twenty minute walk to a 5-10 minute ride. Now would you take the Metro every day? Research has shown that public transit ridership does increase with these transportation additions, and that they could be valuable to solving what transportation planners call the last mile problem.

The last mile problem - or the first mile problem - is the issue of getting transit riders from their home to the transit stop when they live about a mile away from the nearest stop. Depending on who you speak with, the distance people are willing to walk to get to their transit stop varies from 0.25 miles to one mile, and the number of people willing to walk to access public transit decreases with additional distance.

So, how should cities convince people that live in the 0.25 - 1.5 mile range that public transit is worth walking to and that they should ditch their car?

A study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recently mapped the downtown districts of cities across the globe with a new metric: People Near Rapid Transit (PNT). The metric measures how many people live within short walking distance, defined as 0.6 miles, or 1 km, from public transit, in the downtown and metro area. Where I currently live, the Washington, D.C. metro area, only scored 12% on the PNT metric. The main reason for the low score is the large amount of sprawl in the area, which makes public transit less convenient and therefore encourages car use.

Despite the sprawl in the Washington, D.C. metro area, I believe that there are some targeted policies that can improve transit ridership through tackling the last mile problem. The first is bike sharing. Washington, D.C. was actually the first city in North America to launch a bike sharing system, all the way back in August 2008. They first offered 120 bikes at 10 stations and had about 1,600 people join the program during the first two years of operation. Today, Capital Bikeshare has over 4,300 bikes available at 500 stations across six jurisdictions. Capital Bikeshare is constantly expanding and adding docking stations to new neighborhoods, and offers a great way to get from a neighborhood underserved by transit to a convenient bus or Metro line. I also think that Capital Bikeshare is a great solution to the last mile problem because of its affordability. A yearly membership costs $85 per year and includes unlimited trips under 30 minutes.

However, even bikeshares have their limitations. As I discovered this fall while commuting to downtown D.C., bikes are nearly impossible to operate safely (or in any sort of dignified fashion) in heels and a pencil skirt. Also, the 1.5 mile haul from my apartment to my metro stop is not very flat - and sweating through my blouse as I pump my way uphill on a three-speed bike is not how I like to start my mornings. Thankfully, as if specifically listening to me (or to what I’m sure are the thousands of women who have shared this experience) this September, Capital Bikeshare rolled out electric bikes in a small pilot program. They added 80 e-bikes to their fleet, and the e-bikes do not cost any extra to rent. The first time I rode on an e-bike I felt like Superwoman coasting up the hills on my way home, barely breaking a sweat when normally I’d be huffing and puffing at an embarrassing rate. E-bikes open up bicycle commuting to a whole range of people that would not normally consider commuting by bike because the distance is too great, their outfit is not sweat proof, or they don’t feel like they’re in great shape.

The second solution to the last mile problem that I am excited about is e-scooters. E-scooters make trips much less physically intensive then bicycles - even e-bicycles. The main barrier to e-scooters being the best solution for the last mile problem is that they do not have a dedicated place to be ridden. This is a problem created by both car drivers, riders, and planners. E-scooters are supposed to stay on the streets, and in bike lanes when available. Many riders don’t stay on the street, and are not particularly good at staying out of pedestrians way on the sidewalk, which gives them a bad reputation among walkers. Unfortunately, sometimes, the sidewalk is the best place to ride your e-scooter. I have personally been nearly run off the road or clipped by a car while riding an e-scooter in the street without a bike lane, and it’s terrifying. Since then, I’ve realized that sometimes you have to take refuge on sidewalks.

One possible solution to this issue is to create additional active transit lanes on the street, similar to bike lanes. These lanes would function similar to lanes on the highway, with the left lane for faster active commuters, think spandex warriors on lightweight road bikes, and the right lane for slower active commuters, including tourists on bikeshare bikes and people on e-scooters. The addition of an active transportation lane to cater to people of different speeds would signal that active transportation is a priority for the city, and would encourage those who are nervous about biking or scootering by giving them a clear cut path.

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