Second Virtual Transportation Forum focused on post-COVID transportation

by: Michael Hintze, AICP and Patrick Lynch, AICP, Chapter Transportation Planning Division Liaisons

On February 25th the Transportation Planning Division’s second Virtual Transportation Forum was held with over fifty participants from across the state. It focused on transportation post-COVID, with a panel discussion that included Andrea Weckmueller-Behringer, Executive Director of the Walla Walla Valley MPO; Matt Herman, Transportation Planner at Clark County; Chris Long, Traffic Engineering Manager at City of Bellevue; and Karl Otterstrom, Director of Planning at Spokane Transit Authority (STA). The panel offered diverse perspectives in answering questions about how their agencies have changed the way they do business as a result of COVID, and what they anticipate being the greatest challenges facing their agencies and how they will meet these challenges. 

Some key takeaways included:

Equity is front and center – Panelists discussed how equitable public outreach and engagement has been a challenge even with the many virtual tools that are now commonly used. Andrea mentioned that certain populations are better reached through in-person interactions and discussed how visually impaired community members are challenged by virtual platforms. Matt spoke about Clark County’s efforts to establish goals and targets around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for its planning efforts and recognizing that assessing whether it is meeting these goals should not be the role of the County but rather should involve entities outside of the County organization.

Multimodal access – Jurisdictions are seeing strong support from businesses to improve transit access and walking and biking networks. The City of Bellevue is focused on adopting a multimodal level of service standards to guide its decisions around right-of-way allocation and system performance. Clark County has converted many of their collectors with parking to collectors with bike lanes. Transit – Consistent with other shared modes, public transportation has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Karl discussed STA's experience, reflecting back on the last twelve months and looking to what lies ahead for the Spokane region. During the height of the stay-at-home orders in late spring of 2020, STA experienced a steep ridership drop of approximately 70%, however it has since steadily grown to approximately 50% of typical ridership. The decreased ridership eventually led to service reductions, especially transit service-oriented to university students. Even with the decrease in total ridership, the pandemic has shown that transit is, and will continue to be, a vital service for the City’s essential workers and economically disadvantaged populations. Moving forward, STA will be reassessing the current transit landscape while realizing that the tried-and-true solutions of frequency, reliability, and speed will continue to be important strategies. The question moving forward for the transit community will be “How does public transportation redefine itself within the new modalities of the future?”

Silver linings – The pandemic underscored the importance of walkable communities and supported efforts already underway to improve walkability. It has forced public agencies to be creative and experiment with new approaches for allocating the right-of-way to support public health and economic development goals. Clark County moved forward with a requirement for developments in close proximity to transit stops to provide a pedestrian accessway to promote walkability and access to transit.

The next Virtual Transportation Forum will be held on May 20th at 12:00 pm. Topic ideas for the Forum or for future Washington Planner articles related to transportation are welcome and can be sent to TPD chapter liaisons Michael Hintze ([email protected], or Patrick Lynch ([email protected]).