oklahoma city: 450+ turn out to talk about transit

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!

13 Responses to oklahoma city: 450+ turn out to talk about transit

  1. Erik February 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    The transit service figure isn’t showing up – would love to see that.

  2. Peter Laws February 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    We enjoyed having you! I, too, was surprised to hear Dr Shadid’s criticism of the streetcar but he laid out his case well.
    Oh, and thanks again for signing my book. I think my fellow planning grad students were jealous. 😀

  3. Sean Nelson February 27, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    It perplexes me why there seem to be so many “downtown streetcar” debates going on. It’s a topic that’s come up in Vancouver BC, as well. It never seems to make any sense because downtown is almost always the area best-served by transit to start with, and it seems to me that the money would always be better spent by improving the ability of people to move around the region rather than giving them even more ability to move around downtown.
    I think the crux of the matter is that the advocates of attractions like this are really thinking in terms of tourists and not transit. That’s a completely different debate, although perhaps by dressing it up as transit the advocates are more likely to get public money to pay for it.

  4. Peter Laws February 27, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Regarding OKC CBD versus the region, the money in question is Oklahoma City’s and theirs alone – it’s raised via city sales tax. Yep, we need regional transit solutions here in Central Oklahoma (1.3M in the MSA) but this money is the city’s – period.
    But there are sure better ways to get more bang for the buck even within those constraints … as outlined in part by Dr Shadid last evening.

  5. UrbanEdm February 27, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    @Sean Nelson, While I agree that the focus on “streetcars” is surprising, you might be surprised at the improvements that can be made by investing in downtown transit.
    I use my own trip time as an example. My office is on the southwest edge of Edmonton’s downtown, and my previous home was 7.5km south, in a direction where I could get out of the CBD on a dedicated right of way (in this case, an light rail line). My expected trip time was 25 minutes, but if timing worked perfectly and I didn’t have to wait for my transfer, I hit times as low as 14 minutes.
    I now live 2.2km west of the office, in a dense residential area that’s essentially the residential extension of downtown. My expected trip time is 20 minutes with no transfers that might move faster. 30% of the distance, 80% of the travel time.
    It’s no shock that the southbound services are packed far away from the city core, and the western services are 3/4 empty by the time they drop me off, still in the heart of the city.
    So yeah, investment in a slow streetcar that still stops every 1.5 blocks and gets stuck in traffic is a waste of money. But if that same streetcar stopped a little less frequently and had a dedicated right of way, there’s plenty of service improvement (and related ridership increases) to be had by spending money in the downtown.

  6. Anthony Vallone February 28, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    hats off! Wow…300 IS a lot.

  7. Stephen J. Levine, MD February 28, 2013 at 6:35 am #

    As a person who has been interested in Public Transportation in Central Oklahoma since 1977, I enjoyed your talk and felt you raised some very important issues, Mr. Walker. Tremendous thanks for coming.
    I really liked where you emphasized transit goals rather than transit modes. As a person who has been involved in Medical Informatics (specifically Blood Bank Informatics) for nearly 24 years, I have learned the extreme importance of defining project requirements before addressing solutions. I have all to often heard people talk about technology as an end in itself rather than as the best solution to a particular problem. Your emphasis on defining goals was very refreshing in that regard.

  8. MLD February 28, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    OKC usually ends up on my list of “embarrassingly awful” public transit cities. OKC is the 51st largest Urbanized Area but provides half the transit service of other similarly-sized urban areas, even ones that we wouldn’t consider “transit-rich.” Albany, another state capitol that is smaller than OKC, has 6 times the transit ridership because they provide 3-4 times as much service.
    Probably before jumping on the streetcar bandwagon, OKC should consider trying some downtown bus routes that come more often than once every 25 minutes during rush hour.

  9. Danny Theisen February 28, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Thanks for the inspired words and thoughtful ideas, Mr. Walker. It was also great to see the big turn-out for the evening.
    Hoping that this means some momentum will build for changes in Public Transportation for Central Oklahoma.

  10. Kerry D February 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    “Probably before jumping on the streetcar bandwagon, OKC should consider trying some downtown bus routes that come more often than once every 25 minutes during rush hour.”
    We tried that – it didn’t work. The streetcar is not a tourist attraction shuttle because for the most part OKC tourist attractions are not downtown, they are in the Adventure District 5 miles NE of downtown. At one time downtown OKC and the downtown adjacent neighborhoods had 77 miles of streetcar lines. In addition, OKCs biggest challenge is over coming its low population density and large land area. That is why it is critical to build a downtown and downtown adjacent population centered on a dedicated and stable transit system with rails in the ground. Bus routes can change on a whim and no one is going to build a 300 unit residential complex because it is near a bus stop.

  11. Carl February 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    No, Oklahoma City has not tried to have a decent bus system – I can promise you that. The replica trolleys running circuitous routes every 20 minutes is not an honest effort.
    “Bus routes can change on a whim”
    In places where there used, oh no they can’t.

  12. Carl February 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    If Oklahoma City thinks a streetcar is all that spearates them from having a decent transit system, they’d be wise to look east to Little Rock. Anyone consider Little Rock’s transit system decent?

  13. Jeffrey Bridgman February 28, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    It was exciting to see so many people interested in transit show up.
    Ed Shadid made an interesting point about OKC’s streetcar having no plan for covering operation costs, which would likely get pirated away from the buses, and would probably end up in court as a Title 6 violation.
    Also, unlike other urban cores where the investment in downtown is captured through property taxes, OKC *only* has sales tax for revenue, so there’s no way to capture the value the downtown streetcar generates to help pay for the operation costs…
    So even the economic argument for a streetcar fails pretty significantly in OKC.

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