Are You Dense?
The major problem initiating a major mass transit project in Northwest Arkansas, whether it is Green or not, are the expectations of the general American population. In the 50’s and 60’s America decided to move away from railroad transport and rely exclusively on cars and semi- tractor trailer trucks. We even decided to move away from most public transportation like buses or trolly cars (light rail) in favor of everyone owning their own vehicle. There were plenty of unforeseen consequences to this; an over reliance on foreign oil, which led to The Energy Crisis in 1973 and 1978, an increase in wars that drained our nation of young lives and our treasury. Imagine if the $6 trillion spent on war since 2003 had been spent here at home. We would be living in a different country. Oh and suburban sprawl, ugliness on what once was bountiful, beautiful land.
So mention mass transit, or public transit, and the various modes and you run into a lot of objections. Some we can counter with facts, like using mass transit to make America energy independent. Or the efficiency of a motor over an engine (which we will get to in a future post).
Some are harder. Like the objection that seems to crash all hope for mass transit in NWA: lack of density. Sure, density is a problem, if you have people piled on top of each other that isn’t good. But the idea we don’t have enough is a deal breaker for most people.
Is a lack of density the problem? Going back to the NWA Regional Planning Commission report titled Connect NWA here are the four supports for transit: density, connectivity, ease of use, and community support. The definition of density from the report is, “Transit works best when stops are located near a variety of destinations people want to go such as job centers, schools, medical facilities & housing complexes.”
Briefly looking at the other three: Connectivity is the infrastructure of buses, bikes, and trains. Ease of use speaks to the same, if you have to walk 3 miles to a bus stop and wait an hour that won’t work. And community support is where we come in. Also just riding the bus supports public transit.
Density, when you look at the definition, is about concentrations of living spaces, jobs, and places that draw lots of people. Like ball parks, even the Arvest Park is crowded on game day/night as is Reynolds Stadium. Other places where we receive services like medical care, or gyms, or shopping, or movie theaters. Density helps us predict how many people will use the service. The fear is real that if we build it and no one uses it, we are wasting money.
We have about if not over 500,000 people living in NWA. According to Connect NWA we even have areas of high density in terms of population such as the University of Arkansas with more than 20 people per acre. In terms of employment we have the U of A again and the Wal Mart World HQ* both with more than 20 jobs per acre. There are other areas that approach those numbers but they are spread out like Centerton, and some job sites in Rogers and Springdale.
The question isn’t about if we have density, we have some, but do we have enough?
What if we stop worrying if we have density? Instead lets build density. What does that look like? I’ll go into more details in the next few posts but I’ll introduce two ideas here. The first is to build housing that creates density in an area with easy access. In our Facebook group we have talked about how we have the A & M Railroad with the Razorback Trail winding around it. Now in how many places do these areas intersect with streets? If we build housing concentrated around these areas we have density with an easy way to move people around.
And there is another way. I’ve thrown around fancy terms like multimodal transit hubs. It turns out that isn’t just a fancy term. A multimodal hub/station creates density by drawing in people who want to use the various modes of transport available. Someone rides their bike up the Razorback Trail to the commuter train. Someone else gets off a bus and rents a scooter. Or picks up their car in a parking garage. It provides freedom by giving people access to the transport of their choice. I cannot emphasize freedom of choice enough.
But it can mean something else. In Europe there is talk, and trial, to link regional airline travel with very high speed rail. This can cut travel times, make it easier since you buy one ticket not two, and have other tangible benefits like reduced emissions. Imagine you are flying somewhere but flight out of XNA doesn’t’ leave at a convenient time for you. So you go to the station and catch a VHS train to Little Rock, or Dallas, or OK City, to catch a flight that takes you directly to your destination. For the same price as one of those ridiculous low cost flights that have you bouncing around all over the county and three connections. Not only that but with a well planned and developed transit system you can leave your car at home and get to the station in short order. Parking becomes another cost the traveler saves money on. The benefits can grow from there.
Let’s talk building density.
* Another word about Wal Mart HQ. Wal Mart is like having Amazon or Apple or Microsoft right here in NWA. And they are about to go after a big share of Amazon’s e-retail business. That’s big. What isn’t that big is Bentonville. At about 35,000 population it is tiny to support a large company with 10,000 or so people working in one location. And when the new HQ opens, and the competition with Amazon takes off? We are looking at 17,000 people working in a place that frankly lacks the infrastructure to support it. One of the multimodal stations will need to be right next door.