In the two years that I've been on the public lecture circuit, I've talked with audiences in major cities all over North America. Usually, these have been public events, well-promoted through both social and conventional media. I've done such events in big transit-friendly cities like Washington DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, places where you'd expect transit to be a popular topic.
But the biggest crowd I've ever seen was yesterday, in Oklahoma City. At least 450 people (based on sign in sheets) turned out to hear both my keynote speech and some constructive fire and brimstone from City Councilor (Dr.) Ed Shadid.
Oklahoma City has some of the worst figures in America for public health outcomes such as obesity. Possibly related, it also appears to have the lowest level of transit service. Here's how it stacks up with its nearby neighbors:
These are among the lowest levels of service I've found in the US, and far lower than what you'd expect in other countries. Oklahoma in general is way behind its equally conservative neighbors Kansas, Arkansas and Texas. In Oklahoma City, these numbers translate into a small collection of routes mostly running every 60-90 minutes, all running to a single hub downtown, and designed primarily for coverage rather than ridership. Given such minimal service, it's not surprising that the city also ranks dead last in transit ridership among US metro areas.
The city is currently in the midst of trying to develop a downtown streetcar, but there's definitely some tension between how much should be invested in that when investment in the bus system is so low.
I was invited to Oklahoma City by City Councillor (Dr.) Ed Shadid, who is taking a high profile on transit issues. During my visit I ran a workshop for some key stakeholders — similar in format to my interactive Network Design course but using the city's geography — where we explored the streetcar alignment but where most interest was in how the bus system might evolve. I also had a chance to have great 1-1 conversations with a number of civic leaders on the issue.
At the public event last night, Shadid surprised many (including me) by openly challenging the streetcar as a near-term priority and emphasizing the need to improve the bus system. My own presentation (video soon I hope) steered away from the technology wars by focusing, as I usually do, on the underlying choices that the community will need to think about regardless of the technology used.
Oklahoma City faces some tough choices about transit. Even as the streetcar appears inevitable to many, a bus network study is underway to show the benefits of investing in the basic bus system. I hope my workshops helped stakeholders and activists think about the problem from several points of view, so that they feel more confident in expressing their own values.
Thanks to everyone I met in OKC! It was a great trip! And thanks especially for cancelling the blizzard!