APTA Annual Meeting - Atlanta, GA


10-11-04

Jennifer L. Dorn
Administrator
Federal Transit Administration

APTA Annual Meeting
Atlanta, GA
October 11, 2004

Introduction and Acknowledgments

Thank you for that kind introduction, Dick [White]!   I’m so pleased to be back here in Atlanta.  Many, many thanks to APTA and to our local hosts, Nat Ford and Michael Wells [MARTA Chair], for their gracious hospitality.  We are all so proud of the progress that transit has made in Atlanta. 

For many of us, being here in Atlanta brings to mind the determined Scarlet O’Hara of Gone with the Wind … The Scarlet who makes her clothing out of curtains, does her own potato farming, and perseveres with vision, courage, and just plain hard work.   That is what leadership looks like — rolling up our sleeves, asking the toughest questions of ourselves and our industry, and not sugar-coating the answers. 

APTA’s new chairman, Dick White, is certainly not known for “sugar-coating.”  I know that Dick’s forthright manner and emphasis on “getting down to business” will serve APTA and the transportation industry well.  We are looking forward to working closely with you, Dick. 

And what more can I add to the accolades offered on behalf of George Dixon?  His enthusiasm for our industry has been contagious… and he has kept his eye – and ours -- on the reauthorization ball.  Thank you, George, for all that you have done over the past year – and throughout the years – to further the cause of public transportation in America.

And many thanks, of course, to Bill Millar, APTA’s iconic president, who has served as mentor to me and to many of you… And who has helped ensure that the American Public Transportation Association continues to be an important resource to the entire transit industry.

I also bring greetings to you from Transportation Secretary Mineta.  As you know, he continues to be a staunch advocate for transit, and we are so fortunate to have a leader with his experience, perspective, and credibility.

I first addressed the annual APTA conference in October 2001.  By then, I had visited just a smattering of innovative transit systems across the country.   I told you that getting first-hand insights like those would continue to be vital to me as I did my job at the FTA.  Well, I was right about that.  Over the last three years, I have learned so much from you, as we have done challenging, innovative, and transformative work together. 

Actually, I think its fair to say that, since that conference in 2001, we have changed the national conversation about transit, and we have changed the paradigms that shape our industry.  We no longer measure our success by the number of buses we run or the amount of track we maintain…  We measure our success by the number of people who choose to ride our transit systems.  Two years ago at this forum, I asked you to help me change America’s mind about transit – and increase ridership on public transportation. 

You have impressed me with your enthusiasm for making this goal your own, and taking the lead in meeting it.  In fact, increasing ridership is the number one goal of the new APTA Strategic Plan.  And I am pleased to announce a new FTA national webpage -- “Innovative Practices for Increased Ridership” – that showcases your efforts, and demonstrates the creativity, imagination, and energy of our industry.  Thus far, over 250 transit agencies have shared their own proven local strategies to increase ridership on FTA’s new Ridership webpage.  These programs are a wonderful demonstration of the creativity, innovation, imagination, and energy of our industry.  

The national conversation about transit has changed in other ways, as well.  We are less reluctant to talk about the risks associated with major transit projects.  We all recognize that any major construction project entails risk – and transit projects are no different in this regard.  Building tunnels, acquiring property, and navigating the unpredictable process of public involvement are all risky ventures.  But instead of shying away from conversations about the risks involved, we are now embracing risk management.  We know that this is the surest way to produce projects that are delivered on time, within budget, and with the ridership projected. 

And we have changed the conversation about public transit as a transportation option.  Ten years ago, our industry tended to think of it as a contest between roads and transit.  The roads versus transit approach assumed that demand for transportation is finite -- a zero-sum game.  But that has changed, and especially so in the last several years.  There has been a real shift in the transportation paradigm. 

We know that there is plenty of transportation demand to go around.  And we are moving beyond the mode wars, toward a truly “intermodal” future.   It is a future where integrated, sensibly-designed transportation networks dominate…. Networks where roads, rail, buses, bike paths, and pedestrian walkways work together to create transportation options and minimize congestion in our communities.

We are also opening the door to new partnerships to maximize the transportation services available to people with disabilities, older adults, and individuals with low incomes.  At the Federal level, 11 departments and agencies have rolled up their sleeves to do something about obstacles that discourage or even prevent coordination among human service transportation programs at the State and local levels.  And new conversations are taking place at the planning table in States and communities around the country – conversations that tackle tough issues like equitable cost sharing among transit and human service agencies.

And, of course, who among us could have imagined the new reality of post-September 11th  transit security.  Unlike many other industries that have struggled against adaptation and change, the transportation industry -- and transit especially -- has embraced the critical changes necessary to preserve our freedoms.  Every workday, our transit systems safely move more than 14 million passengers in an inherently open travel environment  -- an environment that is the very definition of a classic high risk, high consequence target for terrorists.  But you rose to the occasion, with the courage to set aside old assumptions and adapt to new realities.  And, today, our transit systems are, indisputably, safer and more secure than ever before.


A New American Dream

There have indeed been dramatic changes in this industry.  But, if the past is prologue, perhaps the biggest changes for the transit industry still lie ahead. 

A century ago, a critic for the Literary Digest wrote skeptically about a strange new American invention.  “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage,’” he wrote, “is at present a luxury for the wealthy.  Although its price will probably fall into the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”  … Well, not quite.

But the author can perhaps be forgiven his short sightedness. Who could have imagined -- in a world of streetcars and the intercontinental railroad, in an America of walking trails and unpaved roads -- that the automobile would fundamentally rewrite the American landscape, in just a matter of decades?

When we think about the American Dream, we tend to think about the post-World War II vision.  The American Dream was something that Americans would DRIVE to.   In the popular lexicon, the American Dream meant a two-parent family with two children (one crew-cut boy and one pig-tailed girl, of course), and a dog -- all ensconced in a suburban tract house with a big yard surrounded by a white picket fence… and a roomy automobile parked in the garage to carry Dad to his job in the city each day.

The post-World War II baby boom went hand in hand with the suburban boom.  By 1950, the national suburban growth rate was ten times that of central cities.  The compact row house of the city was becoming a thing of the past.  In-fill development in our cities just wasn’t suitable to mass-produced housing, so it didn’t happen.

That version of the American Dream responded to the desires of a nation of young families seeking housing, space, privacy, and a homogenous community in which to live.  But, in fact, that was only one interpretation of an American Dream that is as old as America itself. 

The real core – the values inherent in the American Dream – do not describe a location;  they run much deeper than that.  The American Dream really speaks to:  ownership, opportunity, security, and community.

The American Dream existed well before the automobile and the suburbs and the postwar baby boom.  And it will endure long after the baby boomers, the suburbs, or even the automobiles, fade away.   And, as shocking and as radical as the idea of a “horseless carriage” was in the early 1900s, I believe we are on the cusp of an equally dramatic reinterpretation of the American Dream today… as a new generation of Americans puts its own stamp on the American Dream.

The American Dream: Coming Soon to a Location Near You

In communities across the nation – from Atlanta to Portland to Los Angeles – we have already seen that American homebuyers, investors and developers are crafting a new version of the American Dream.  Their version of the American Dream includes the timeless elements of ownership, opportunity, security and community that have been embraced by every generation of Americans.  But their interpretation of the American Dream doesn’t involve a car in the suburbs. … They are building and buying homes near transit.

President Bush understands that homeownership is a cornerstone of America’s vibrant communities, and that it helps families build stability and long-term financial security.  Indeed, his economic policies have kept both taxes and interest rates low – and, as a result, the overall US homeownership rate hit an all-time high of 69.2 percent in the second quarter of 2004. 

Transit skeptics tend to be fatalistic about Americans’ housing preferences. They believe that the American Dream has only one script.  But to many Americans today, the good life means not having to get into your car to get to work, BlockBuster Video, Starbucks, McDonalds or the doctor’s office.  They live in communities where transit – and transit-oriented development – has hung a figurative sign on suburban sprawl.  And the sign says:  “The American Dream – Visit us at our New Location.”

The New American Dream: Same Idea, Different Place

Behind these dramatic changes in the American Dream are dramatic changes in the American population.  The population groups that currently have the greatest preference for housing located near transit are precisely the population groups that will grow exponentially in the next twenty years.

The AARP reports that fully 71 percent of older households want to live within walking distance of transit.  Imagine that:  71 percent! 
And, older Americans are one of the fastest-growing population groups in the country.  Within a single generation, almost 35 percent of Americans will be over age 65.  

Older Americans -- the fathers and mothers of my own generation, whose childhood memories include the Great Depression – place a high value on independence and self-sufficiency.  They dream of autonomy.  The last thing they want is the nightmare of dependency on their children to drive them to get a prescription filled or pick up a gallon of milk.  

No wonder the vast majority of people surveyed by the AARP want to live in a transit-rich environment!  Their dream includes living in a place where they can maintain an active life without relying on a car, or a child, for transportation.  As one real estate developer told Newsweek last week, “Who ever imagined that suburban flight would be round trip?"

Our population is becoming increasingly diverse, as well, especially as a consequence of immigration.  Barring any dramatic changes in policy or world events, almost one-third of growth in our population by 2025 will come from the immigration to our country of people of Hispanic and Asian origin.  Many of these “new” Americans arrive with aspirations to secure their foothold in the American Dream by saving to buy a home.  Their version of the American Dream is often a safe, urban community where they can put down roots, and still maintain ties to their country of origin. 

The composition of American households is also changing. The traditional nuclear families that made up 40 percent of households in 1970, now comprise less than 25 percent of households.  And that percentage is expected to decline even more.  In just one generation, the “typical” American household won’t have children living in it.  In fact, nearly 70 percent of households will consist of singles, empty nesters, and couples without children.   And these are groups with a proven preference for our cities and the transit options they provide. 

Young professionals and empty-nesters are seeking connections, not isolation.   Their interpretation of the American Dream includes a community where they can enjoy a sense of belonging and safety, but where they can also reap the benefits of a lively, more diverse neighborhood.  -- and live a “mixed use” life that combines interesting housing options with the amenities of the city. 

Reinterpreting the American Dream for New American Realities…

It is not just demographics that are driving these changing desires, however.  In a world of instant communication and growing global competition, Americans are working harder and longer hours than ever.  And time is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity for all of us. 
We certainly don’t want to spend any more time than we have to just “getting there.” 

Unfortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute’s Annual Urban Mobility Study recently delivered some sobering news.  The number of hours that the average peak-time commuter in this country has lost to congestion has tripled over the last 20 years -- from 16 hours in 1982 to 46 hours lost annually in 2002.  That’s more than a whole work week – or a whole vacation week!    

There are clear signs that people are getting tired of the isolation that the car culture tends to create, and they are growing weary of having to get in the car for even the simplest of errands… The fact is, a gallon of gas for a gallon of milk is a terrible exchange rate.

Fortunately, there are alternatives.  Americans are fine-tuning the Dream to suit a new moment, and a new generation.  And in this version of the American Dream, time is on public transit’s side.  Instead of driving, many people think it’s time to start riding to the American Dream. The demographic and cultural changes taking place in America point directly to a transit-rich, urban vision of the American Dream for the 21st century. 

For transit leaders, there is an exciting new tool that can help us achieve this vision.  With funding from FTA, the Center for Transit Oriented Development has created an exciting new database that combines Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and data from the 2000 U.S. Census.  With this database covering 42 metropolitan areas, city planners, local real estate developers, and others can identify the potential and make plans for transit-oriented development.
 
The Center recently released a study in which they used the database to conduct a national market assessment of the likely demand for housing near transit in the next two decades.  Even using a very conservative methodology, they reach what the authors call a “staggering” conclusion.  They project that, over the next 20 years, at least a quarter of all American households are likely to seek housing near transit.  There is, in fact, the potential to more than double the amount of housing in transit zones in the next twenty years.
 
If — and it is a big if — the demand for such housing can be met in Atlanta and other communities throughout the country, transit oriented development has the potential to become an unprecedented catalyst for economic growth… and for the realization of this generation’s American Dream.

 We can all point to wonderful examples of transit-oriented development – in communities where transit has spurred increases in housing and thriving businesses.   Here in Atlanta…and in Portland, Oregon; Charlotte, North Carolina; Arlington, Virginia; and Dallas, Texas … transit agencies, local elected officials, developers, and investors have recognized the potential and seized the opportunities that transit creates.  

But, in most communities, transit-oriented development has not yet caught fire… it is the exception, not the rule.  Something has gotten lost between the paper world, where transit-oriented development makes sense… and the real world, where elected leaders, transit agency officials, developers, investors, and community activists must work together to bring transit-oriented development to life.   As transit advocates, solving that disconnect is our next challenge.

 I know that we ask you, as transit agency officials, to do a lot of things – the most important of which is running a good transit system!   And I’m sure many of you are asking yourselves, “Why should housing development and economic development be MY responsibility?   I’m not a development expert!”   

I believe that transit’s stake in housing and economic development is pretty high – because the more development takes place around transit, the more people will ride transit.  But you don’t have to be the development expert.  You just need to be the community leader -- just as you have been in so many other arenas.
  
We’ve already seen dramatic changes in the transit paradigm. We’ve moved from counting buses to counting passengers, from risk-avoidance to risk-management, from competition to collaboration, and from the idyllic world of pre-9/11 to the security-conscious world of today.  We have had challenging moments — but we have never stopped talking, or working toward shared goals. 

And, embodied in these changes, is the quality that I admire most about this industry and the people who lead it:  You have the quiet courage to change your assumptions and look at the world anew.   And I know that you have the leadership skills to broaden the conversation about transit even more…  To initiate a conversation that will embolden others in your community to see the potential of transit as a lynchpin for economic growth and community success.

In the vernacular of Gone with the Wind, I know that the transit industry will succeed because, “Frankly, my dear, we DO give a damn!”