New York’s MTA Director of Sustainability speaks at USGBC forum

The USGBC Cincinnati Regional Chapter teamed up with the City of Cincinnati, Duke Energy and Structurepoint, Inc to present an open forum discussion with the public regarding the role of mass transit and sustainability in Cincinnati on Thursday, October 1 at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati. New York City’s Director of Sustainability Initiatives for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Projjal K. Dutta, started off the discussion with a presentation about the importance of mass transit sustaining the growth and density of cities. He compared the transit system in New York during the early 1900s to its growth in the 1940s. As the city grew to its outer boroughs, the subway tracks followed as well.

In cities with well established public transit systems, the social stigma associated with riding public transportation is non-existent. The man making 2 million dollars a year rubs shoulders on the subway with the guy who panhandled enough to pay for a ride. As Dutta said, “in Munich, you can own a Mercedes and still take the U-Bahn in to work.” The ultimate result is to give citizens a choice in how efficiently they want to travel, not to force them to choose only one option.

Bicyclists embrace at Philadelphia City Hall’s subway station entrance.

Dutta also spoke of how we should view public transit. Is transit a social good, like clean drinking water, or should it be viewed as a business model in which to make a profit? He talked about other country’s methods for generating revenue for their public transit; be it selling the land on either side of the transit to developers, or raising the gas tax to use it for transit funding (Ohio’s gas tax is by law used only for highway maintenance and highway patrol). In any account, it is a hard issue to tackle.

After his presentation there was an open discussion between members of the audience and a panel of representatives from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, The Banks development team, and the City. Questions ranged from the panelists real feelings about the Cincinnati Streetcar, to the maintenance costs for transit and how that is affecting the systems we already have.

TANK and SORTA are both optimistic about the long term future. TANK is currently working with Northern Kentucky University on several new pieces of technology to improve efficiency and convenience for bus riders. Metro and TANK are both planning new hubs to improve cross-county travel from east to west. As has been previously noted, SORTA’s short-range financial outlook is “dismal.” The difference between the Metro bus system in Cincinnati and TANK is that the Northern Kentucky system gets money from the county for operating costs, and SORTA gets no money from sales tax in Hamilton County.

Pedestrians, buses, trains and bicyclists peacefully coexist in Chicago.

One audience member wondered aloud why we couldn’t just use an integrated bus system (as opposed to rail) to drive up development and save on infrastructure costs. Mr. Dutta succinctly stated, “there is no better marker of intent than putting rails into the ground.” Bus lines can easily be changed, where as developers can be certain that a streetcar or rail line won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

The unanimous agreement from the panelists was that sustainable transit is not only attainable but absolutely necessary in Cincinnati. When we put all our eggs in the highway basket, we can’t properly sustain this city. Todd Kinskey, the director of the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, finished up the discussion by saying “there’s no choice but to get out of the car. We keep ripping out neighborhoods and building highways. Why add another lane of traffic when it’s just going to get clogged?”

What sort of crisis is it going to take to get the majority of Cincinnatians to wake up and realize that the automobile is not the end all be all of travel? Apparently the economic disaster that has been the last year was not enough. We need to take the steps forward now to invest in our future, before we wake and realize that the way we do things now is not enough. Integrating all forms of transit- cars, rail, bikes, buses and people – is the most successful, sustainable option for our fantastic city.