Idea of the Day: Mobility versus access

11 Feb

Red line train at Civic Center Station

Among the un-read content languishing on my RSS feed was this examination of the two overlapping services that users expect from transit, why they aren’t interchangeable, and how more of one reduces the need for the other.

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit proposes that by providing or increasing mobility – in this context, the ability to travel a certain distance quickly and easily- transit makes more of a city accessible to more people. But, Walker says, by stimulating increased commercial and residential density, well-executed transit encourages increased access – in this context, the ease with which a person can arrive at a desired destination.

That’s where things get interesting.

From the post:

Mobility is how far you can go in a given time.  Access is how many useful or valuable things you can do.  If a new grocery store opens near your house, that doesn’t improve your mobility but it does improve your access.  You can now get your groceries closer to home, so you don’t need as much mobility as you did before.  You can also improve your access by working at home instead of commuting, downloading music instead of going to a CD store, and moving in with your romantic partner.  In other words, a lot of the work of access is simply about eliminating the need to move your body around the city in order to complete the economic and personal transactions that make up a happy life.

Juxtaposing mobility and access brings to mind Atlanta’s several far-flung patches of “drive-to urbanism.” These developments sometimes skip right over the step in which transit generates increased density, instead introducing ready-made density in areas with sparse transit coverage. In another city or another economic climate, transit coverage might be expected to eventually catch up and complete the picture. Right now, though, the result is often lively, pleasant, somewhat isolated places that are only easily accessible to people who live nearby or who can drive there.

But as more of these islands of increased density appear throughout the city, access to them will increase for more people. That will, as Walker said, reduce the need to move bodies around the city to get to what those developments offer.

Atlanta has seen significant mixed-use and transit-oriented development in the last ten years. It has also seen not only the absence of development of transit itself, but a significant reduction in service. Will car-banism continue to reign or is it just step on the way to something better?

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