If you hovered above most American cities between the hours of 7 a.m.- 9 a.m., it would appear that car ownership is widespread. And it is. However, digging into the data will tell you a different story about the growing inequities in transportation and its impact on how we work and live.
In the U.S., 20 percent of people living below the poverty line report having no access to a personal vehicle, meaning they have to commute to work via public transit. According to Bethia Burke, President of Fund for Our Economic Future, people without a car often have difficulty finding quality employment due to a lack of personal transportation.
“Access to transportation is a critical factor for equity,” according to Burke. “Many residents, often in communities of color, face the paradox of ‘No car, no job. No job, no car.’ They’re essentially stranded because public transit doesn’t reach the suburbs where business growth has expanded in recent decades, and they can’t afford a car to get there.”
Unfortunately, public transit systems like buses and light rail have taken a significant hit since the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Ridership hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels, which presents challenges for many communities, particularly small and medium-sized cities when it comes to serving poor and under-represented populations.
And the timing couldn’t be worse. Inflation in the U.S. has led to a steady climb in the costs of nearly every consumer good, including transportation costs. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, new car costs rose by 11.4 percent between June 2021 and July 2022. Used car costs rose 7.1 percent during that same period. Both statistics are driving people who can’t afford cars to depleted transit systems throughout the country.
The city of Fort Collins, CO (pop. 168,538) understands this dilemma all too well. According to Fort Collins Transit Planner Seth Lorson, the city’s bus system isn’t only hindered by a drop in ridership, it’s also impacted by “a huge shortage of operators,” causing them to offer fewer routes, less frequently.
“In 2022, we had 40 percent turnover in bus operators and are currently 20 drivers short, which is about 19 percent of the workforce,” Lorson said. He pointed to the lack of available and willing workers, as well as “the long time” it takes to hire and train drivers as reasons for the driver shortage.
Fort Collins officials hope that this is a bump in the road in a plan for equitable transportation that was initially established at the beginning of the 21st century. City leaders at the time became concerned with how population growth, which had climbed steadily through the 90s, would impact traffic in the region. Fort Collins had grown from 88,889 in 1990 to 122,239 in 2000. In response to this growth, Fort Collins’ city council approved the Mason Corridor Vision Plan in 2000. This master plan called for the transition of Mason Street, a north/south corridor, to become a transportation hub with capacity for bus, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic, including biking trails and an updated transit system. While voters turned down initiatives to fund the project twice, the city garnered funding from the federal government, including a $54 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Project development began in 2011 with the city’s MAX Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) bus service launching in 2014.
“Our transit ridership was about 2 million prior to 2014. And then once the [bus rapid transit line] was implemented, it quickly doubled to over 4 million riders. Obviously, that was pre-pandemic,” according to Fort Collins Senior Transportation Planner Melina Dempsey.
The shortage of operators highly affected ridership, as did changes brought about by the COVID pandemic, including the mass adoption of remote work arrangements. In 2019, there were 4.5 million riders on the city’s bus system, but ridership fell to only 1.75 million in 2022. Decreased ridership led to fewer routes being implemented which greatly impacts Fort Collins’ ability to provide enough bus access for the city’s vulnerable residents.
Now more than three years removed from the onset of the COVID pandemic, Fort Collins has a plan to breathe new life into its public transit system. Seeing the importance of equitable transportation for its residents, they are making it a point of emphasis in the revitalization.
The city developed a master plan to outline a long-range vision for land use and transportation. City transit planners went into vulnerable, lower-income neighborhoods throughout Fort Collins to gain perspective on the needs of riders.
One major change Fort Collins implemented during the pandemic is going fare-free, which they are now exploring as a permanent change. The city determined that going fare-free is cheaper than collecting fares from riders because they must pay staff to collect fares, as well as purchase and maintain automated ticket vending machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain. Lorson said there were “so many steps required for collecting fares that we’re finding that it wasn’t worth it…we’re creating unnecessary barriers.”
On top of going fare-free, Fort Collins also plans to expand the MAX BRT system to the North College Corridor, which is home to a heavy concentration of underserved, low-income, and immigrant populations. Transportation projects take a long time to finalize, but the city is prioritizing the North College Corridor to expand coverage to underserved populations in the neighborhood. “The MAX took 20 years to implement. So…we’re doing a phased approach to try to get this to happen [in the neighborhood] much, much sooner,” said Lorson.
Fort Collins also plans on implementing micro-transit “innovation zones” later in 2023, which they will finance through a state grant. The city received $60,000 in funding from an Office of Innovative Mobility (OIM) grant via the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). They also recently applied for a $4 million Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) ATTAIN grant, which would be used for planning/implementation.
These innovation zones are focused on areas that can’t support high-frequency bus routes due to low population density. Without regular bus access, residents in these areas are often left without reliable public transportation. These low-density neighborhoods tend to be clustered on the outskirts of the city, away from the city center. While they aren’t the poorest neighborhoods in the city, innovation zone residents without access to reliable vehicles currently have limited public transportation options.
The city’s innovation zones will expand service to low-density neighborhoods by utilizing “micro-transit”, which are budget-friendly transit options that are smaller than a typical city bus. Lorson explains that the city plans to provide residents in low-density areas with “small shuttles that [will] go around, be on call, and provide people with transit service, kind of like our Dial-a-Ride service that we have for disabled citizens, but for every person, no matter what.”
Image courtesy of MarekPhotoDesign.Com via Adobe Stock
Fort Collins consistently ranked as one of the most bike-friendly cities in America. The city’s residents, utilizing over 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes, bike to work at 11 times the national average. Designing a bike-friendly city is important from an equity standpoint as it allows residents to access jobs, schools, parks, shops, and other public spaces without the need of a car.
When asked what other cities can learn from Fort Collins’ success as a bike-friendly city, Cortney Geary, the Active Modes Manager for Fort Collins, emphasized the importance of community engagement.
“I think it’s really a combination of developing the infrastructure, the bike network, pairing that with education and engagement, and then the right policy landscape to support those modes of transportation that are most equitable, cost-effective, environmentally friendly,” Geary said.
She cited several programs and initiatives the city implemented to increase bike ridership. There is a Safe Routes to School program, which teaches students how to safely bike and walk to school. The Bike Ambassador and Bike Buddy program utilizes community members who are passionate about teaching fellow residents about the ins and outs of cycling.
Fort Collins also has up to 80 bike-towork day stations, while many cities only have one equivalent station, usually located in their downtown area. In Fort Collins, they are spread throughout the city, which encourages residents in all neighborhoods to bike, walk, or take a scooter to work.
Bike-to-work stations are sponsored by local businesses and organizations and provide free breakfast to bicyclists, walkers, and scooterists. Ultimately, the primary reason why Fort Collins has so many of these stations compared to other cities is that there is such high demand and community buy-in. Bike-to-work stations are a major grassroots effort led by local businesses, organizations, and residents who are passionate about cycling.
Community engagement and education are essential because an engaged and educated population usually demands change and actionable improvements. This is certainly the case in Fort Collins.
“I think [increased infrastructure] comes with funding, both funding for that infrastructure, having the dedicated funding sources, pursuing grants to do those projects, but also funding the staff. There are comparable cities of our size across the nation that don’t have the equivalent to my position,” said Geary. “If you don’t have the staff capacity to run these programs, you won’t see the level of success that Fort Collins has had.”
“All [of our] programs and education have really built up a culture and community support and awareness for biking here. And that creates this body of people who are demanding improvements to the infrastructure and electing leaders who are funding and supporting that infrastructure,” according to Geary
This is a sentiment that resonated throughout the city’s leadership and has led to even greater support for transportation equity through cycling. Mayor Jeni Arndt, as a candidate in 2021, expressed support for increasing bike access, telling Bike Fort Collins that she is “all in on bikes.” She is particularly concerned about increasing access and safety for students. “I still find it a bit astounding that we don’t have wide, safe bike routes to all schools. That’s where we build lifelong bicyclists,” she said.
Achieving equity in transportation is an issue all cities face. What makes Fort Collins’ solution so relevant and effective is that it’s a true community solution. Through local government and business community support, as well as advocacy from the residents, the city is working to provide access to transportation and a higher quality of life for all citizens.