I emailed the Orange County Board of Commissioners a letter supporting the light rail connecting Orange and Durham Counties and am posting that letter publicly below.
Dear Orange County Board of Commissioners,
I am writing in support of the proposed light rail line connecting Chapel Hill and Durham and in support of the other increases in bus service that are called for in the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan.
On a personal level, I have used public transportation for most of my life, to varying degrees. I grew up in a poor family in Cleveland, OH supported by my father’s minimum wage job. Our cars back then tended to be unreliable and I often had to walk long distances and/or take the bus to accompany my mother as she did her errands. I started working during summers at the age of 14 and walked, biked, or took the bus to my summer jobs. Access to transit (and to biking and walking infrastructure) helps poor people get to jobs. Transportation is typically the second largest expense for poor families, after housing.
As an adult, I took my passion for the importance of public transportation into my professional life. I used to work for Transportation for America, a Washington, DC based organization dedicated to promoting a smarter, more efficient transportation system. I have worked with transit agencies, public health organizations, social justice organizations, economic development organizations, and local governments of different sizes and types (from tribal governments in rural areas to large cities) on shaping transportation policy so that the needs of all Americans in all areas are met. We do not all have the same needs and I have never advocated for a one-size fits all approach to transportation. I do believe that the proposed light rail line connecting Chapel Hill and Durham is a good idea, as are the other proposed increases in bus service for the region.
The Triangle area is projected to have high levels of population growth over the next few decades. Our roads are already highly congested during rush hour. If all of the new residents rely primarily on single occupancy vehicles as their means of commuting, our roads will become unbelievably choked. If we look at the experience of other metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta, that dealt with similar levels of growth in the past and tried to adjust through building new roads, the end result was massive suburban sprawl, development patterns that left people with few choices besides personal automobiles, and continued congestion. Sprawl is expensive. When we build out our region in dispersed ways, we continue to increase the services needed (in terms of sewage lines, water lines, road maintenance, garbage collection) for those new developments but the tax revenue collected from low-density areas is less per acre than it is in denser areas. According to a report by Smart Growth America (where I used to work) that was funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, dense, walkable neighborhoods generate 10 times as much tax revenue per acre as traditional sprawling suburban neighborhoods do.
Additionally, there is broad agreement among public health experts that the most important factors in determining a person’s health are not the individual choices we have often been taught to focus on but rather environmental factors. While these environmental factors extend beyond transportation to issues such as food deserts, transportation is an important factor. When people engage in regular exercise as part of their daily life, through activities such as walking or biking, they are much more likely to be healthy. A built environment that fosters active transportation is key to this. Built environments that have appropriate infrastructure for biking and walking as well as cars and dense, walkable neighborhoods promote active transportation. People who typically take public transportation for the daily commute are much more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical exercise over the course of their week. In Charlotte, after the light rail system was put in, it was found that people who took the light rail regularly lost an average of over six pounds from before the opening of the light rail station and after.
Additionally, there is evidence that there are generational shifts that favor denser development with good access to public transportation. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute looked at data from the USDOT on driver’s licenses and found that there has been a noticeable decrease in the percentage of people under the age of 35 who have driver’s licenses, compared to those same age groups in 1983. I graduated from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2015. The most desirable areas for our recent graduates to move to were dense metropolitan areas with good public transportation. If we want our area to continue to be attractive to young professionals, we need to consider these shifts.
Together with helping to attract young professionals to our area, public transportation promotes economic development in other ways as well. Promoting foot traffic helps increase the visibility of small retail businesses and restaurants. There are jobs created by public transportation, both directly (through construction of the light rail and jobs operating and maintain public transportation) and also indirectly (through businesses that see an increase in business due to public transportation). A study by DPFG for GoTriangle estimated that 20,000 new jobs would be created in Orange and Durham Counties through the creation of the light rail system.
If we consider the true cost of car-centric development, we need to consider the cost of providing services over a more dispersed area, the public health costs associated with a car-centered built environment that discourages active transportation, the repair and maintenance of an ever-expanding road network, and the costs to our environment. In contrast, denser development patterns that focus on public transportation networks are a cheaper way of accommodating growth over the long-term. Because transit-oriented development costs less overall in the long-term, it also frees up public revenue for spending on other social programs.
A good public transit system has both “arteries” along its main corridors and “capillaries” in terms of bus routes that connect to the larger routes. We should support both. I have heard concerns that spending money on light rail will mean less funding for local bus routes. That is not what the current Orange County Bus and Rail Plan calls for. I support the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan, in its expansion of bus services and its support of light rail.
 Fulton, W., Preuss, I., Dodds, A., Abetz, S., and Hirsch, P. (2013). Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development. https://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/app/legacy/documents/building-better-...
 MacDonald, J. M., Stokes, R. J., Cohen, D. A., Kofner, A., & Ridgeway, G. K. (2010). The Effect of Light Rail Transit on Body Mass Index and Physical Activity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 39(2), 105–112. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2010.03.016
 Sivak, M. and Schoettle, B. (2016). Recent Decreases in the Proportion of Persons with a Drivers License Across All Age Groups. Report No. UMTRI-2016-4. http://www.umich.edu/~umtriswt/PDF/UMTRI-2016-4.pdf.
 Bishop, W. and Gallo, L. (2015) Consideration of Economic Development Potential: Light Rail Transit in Orange and Durham Counties, North Carolina. http://ourtransitfuture.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/D-O-LRT-Economic-....