Visualizing the Portland region’s transit orientation. Image from Portland’s Metro.

Last week, transportation planners and advocates came to DC for Rail~Volution, a conference committed to “Building Livable Communities with Transit.” DC was lauded for its general walkability throughout the 4-day conference, along with 34 other places around the region, many of which have grown up around Metro stations.

Panels, charettes, and mobile workshops covered all things rail, bus, bike, and pedestrian. Of particular local interest were the lessons gleaned about living car-free, working with younger generations, choosing words wisely, and utilizing new technology.

The car-free lifestyle pays off

Swearing off a car can reap tremendous savings: from $8,000 to $12,000 a year, according to New Jersey parking consultant James Zullo. A car-dependent suburban lifestyle can eat up to 25% of household income versus a slim 9% in a walkable community.

Being able to walk to shops, restaurants, school, and home is good for the economy, too. Ilana Preuss of Smart Growth America says the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda makes 20% more revenue per square foot than the store in a Rockville strip mall. According to Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, the easiest way to reduce your carbon footprint (by as much as 80%) is to move to a walkable community.

Who wants to be walkable?

Millennials,” that’s who. Young adults have been “scarred by recession,” said Manuel Pastor, Director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. He said they no longer see home buying as a good investment, but still want to live close to where they work and play.

Pastor had a warning for government officials and planners: the only way members of Generation Y will stay in walkable communities after they have children is if they also have access to good schools.

Words matter

To tell the story of what makes a community great, you have to choose your words wisely, with your audience in mind. “No wonk terminology!” cautioned Preuss, whose group has recently done some catchphrase polling. Words that frequently garner negative or confused reactions include: mixed-use, density, transit, and infrastructure. Only 36% of those surveyed like the phrase “compact neighborhoods,” while 80% are fond of “walkable” even though the two terms refer to an identical concept. 

Additionally, to get folks to listen, speak truthfully and in terms they care about, i.e. the economy and family. People love hearing that government will “use the money it has more effectively” and that “making great places is the key to turning around the economy.” Busy parents will listen if you tell them that by driving less, they’ll have more time with their children.

New tricks to consider

Work on making the SmarTrip card smarter. A number of presenters talked about including bike share, car share, bus and rail fare, and even car parking on one card. The idea, says Rob Inerfeld of Eugene, Oregon, is “for seamless bike, ped and transit links.”

Visualize data for instant understanding.  Examples from the Portland metro area and i-SUSTAIN in Seattle are aesthetically stunning. As Inerfeld says, good use of technology “de-risks the planning process.”  By feeding government data into a visualization program such as Google Earth Pro, planning is more likely to happen according to facts rather than hunches or politics. Powerful, slick social media tools such as the MindMixer virtual town hall display opinion data using simple, colorful icons.

Become a “New Rail~Volutionary.” The Rail~Volution Filmfest featured a video about one municipal transit system which held a mobile concert as a way to entice new riders. That’s just one creative tactic of the New Rail~Volutionaries, a national network of professionals and advocates passionate about creating livable communities. We need to get on board here in the DC region.

It all starts with you

Finally, readers of Greater Greater Washington got props from assistant editor Matthew Johnson during a panel on the power of blogs to influence policy: “Our comment threads are often more informative than the posts in which they appear.” By joining in on, and often driving (pun intended) the regional conversation, you are an integral part of making the Washington, DC region even greater.