Photos courtesy Utah Transit Authority

Photos courtesy Utah Transit Authority

Transit agencies here and around the world have no choice but to face “the toughest mile” head on. The challenges of “first/last mile” accessibility can make or break a system because few are going to ride a system thought unsafe and difficult to use. You may very well be eliminating the riders who need you the most. The first/last mile term refers to that portion of a transit trip from the rider’s origin (home) to the transit station, and then from another station to their final destination (work, school, etc.). This is often known as the toughest mile in transportation — and with good reason.

Transit is the preferred mode in many cities. For an important segment of our ridership — the economically disadvantaged, folks with disabilities and others who depend on transit to get them to work — it is the only mode. However, even the best systems have access barriers for riders to these much-needed transit networks. These barriers include everything from missing sidewalks to poor street connectivity. Stops can be unimproved, uncomfortable, and unprotected.

ID strategies, prioritize projects
When barriers exist, people may choose an unsafe alternative, like crossing a street mid-block without any signal, for example. Ultimately, the failure to remove obstacles can cause customers to choose not to use transit at all and add to all the corresponding problems that entails. To maintain and increase ridership, transit agencies must now begin to address the concerns of their riders relative to system access. At the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), we recognized the need to address this issue several years ago, and began a journey to understand and overcome the first/last mile challenges we and most  transit agencies face. The first step was a First/Last Mile Strategies Study. The main purpose of this study was to identify a list of strategies and prioritize those projects that would be most effective in enhancing accessibility, and thereby, increasing system ridership as soon as possible. In other words, how could we make a difference and how could we do it quickly?

Outside of increasing the number of transit riders on the system, improving first/last mile solutions has other benefits as well. For example, many of the tactics raised by the study would be effective improvements on the connectivity of this network, to be sure. However, constructing better connections for transit users accessing the stations also would improve safety for transit users, as well as others who live and work in the station catchment areas, by providing separated pathways, better visibility, or easier and more direct routes to the stations.

In 2014, UTA began the study, along with our partners at the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), and Mountainland Association of Governments (MAG) — our regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). We focused on identifying first/last mile solutions around our fixed-guideway transit stops — 68 stations in total. The Wasatch Front is situated between two mountain ranges in Central Utah and includes a high percentage of the state’s population in the metropolitan areas that include Salt Lake City, Provo, and Ogden. This roughly translates into UTA’s service area. There is a long tradition in the area to work collaboratively with partner agencies. This successful working collaboration was the first and a most necessary first step toward a realistic and impactful outcome. We have learned that our successes are sweeter and more plentiful when we work together in the best interest of the communities we represent. These relationships also provide comprehensive tools that allow for more standardization. This provides both cost savings and shared expertise between jurisdictions. We began our assessment via an open procurement process, we selected a consultant team, led by the local office of Fehr & Peers and managed by Maria Vyas. This team provided technical expertise and analysis throughout the study process and helped to facilitate discussions about the pros and cons of various solutions.  

UTA solicited feedback from various stakeholders on the First/Last Mile study, including bikeshare and carshare groups.

UTA solicited feedback from various stakeholders on the First/Last Mile study, including bikeshare and carshare groups.

Data collection
Data collection for the First/Last Mile Strategies Study encompassed a range of types and sources, including ridership and station characteristics, as well as survey information solicited online and from on-board riders. Data collection was comprehensive and also included peer consultations; reviews of future population and employment growth; future Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plans; and reviews of strategies being used locally, nationally, and internationally.

First, the station audit data allowed us to group “like” stations together into typologies. Pertinent information included adjacent roadway and intersection conditions; presence of amenities like bike racks, lights, accessibility and signage; access mode split; parking availability; residential density; and employment density. We also utilized information from a previous study, Utah’s Collaborative Active Transportation Study, to assess bicycle and pedestrian network connectivity around transit stations.

A major early component of analysis was to understand the relationship between UTA’s first/last mile strategies currently in place and their impact on ridership. Average daily boardings and alightings data were provided by UTA for all TRAX (light rail), FrontRunner (commuter rail), and MAX Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stations, for the period of August 2013 through April 2014. This was supplemented with additional information on ridership characteristics from the on-board survey. All of this information was compiled and used to help us group the stations together, based on “like” characteristics.  

Strategy ‘toolbox’
Therefore, based on what we know had impact; we were able to create a strategy toolbox. This included potential projects we might want to implement in our region. Six typologies were created to represent each of our 68 stations. They ranged from highly dense urban areas to sprawling auto-centric locales. Then a comprehensive list of tactics was created and ranked based on the following criteria:

•    Ability to improve safety
•    Ability to increase ridership
•    Ease of implementation
•    Success at peer agencies
•    Cost
•    Stakeholder support

In addition to consulting with our study partners, we solicited feedback from other stakeholders including bikeshare, carshare, the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, advocacy organizations, health departments, the SLC Accessibility Council, and other interested parties to gauge the level of support for different strategies. The resulting list also was ranked. These included:

•    Wayfinding and information
•    Bike network improvements
•    Pedestrian network improvement
•    Access connections
•    Crossing treatments
•    Bike-sharing programs
•    Car-sharing programs
•    Station/stop enhancements.

Once we had a final list, those strategies were advanced to the next level of analysis, including cost estimation and recommendations by typology. Every station was assigned to a typology and every typology received a set of recommended improvements.

Operationalize recommendations
Almost immediately after completing this work, we began Phase II of the study, which took these high-level recommendations and operationalized them. For example, if pedestrian network improvements were recommended at a particular station, the Phase II work would take that information and provide very specific details making them much easier to implement. In Phase II, we identified the type of improvement, the specific location of that improvement, the jurisdiction that owned the area of improvement, and a planning level cost estimate for that strategy.

While this work was being done, UTA simultaneously was working with the regional partners on a funding plan. Prior to completion of the Phase II work, the TIGER Grant Notice of Funding Availability was announced and this was one funding source we wanted to try. The partners agreed that we should attempt to complete the Phase II work in time to put together an application for the grant. To accomplish this goal and complete the work ahead of schedule, we worked with the same consultant team at Fehr & Peers, this time led by Kyle Cook. Concurrently, UTA, UDOT, WFRC and MAG met with the cities and counties with projects located close to transit stations to identify a list of projects we would include in the application. Our focus was on those improvements that would reduce barriers to transit station access, particularly for disadvantaged populations (low income, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities), connecting them to job centers, educational facilities and human services. Ultimately, the application included 343 separate projects in 26 cities across six counties and two MPOs that totaled nearly $90 million. We asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for $28 million to supplement already-committed local funds.

In August 2016, UTA was notified that it was the recipient of a $20 million grant award for first/last mile projects in the region. This was one of the largest awards in the country for TIGER 8. Considering the competitive nature of this grant process — 585 applications totaling more than $9.3 billion, with only $500 million available — we are extremely honored to have been selected. We are confident that our application was so well-received, because of the wide-ranging collaborative nature of the application participants, as well as the positive regional impacts to both safety and accessibility.

Now, we begin the challenging work of implementing this program of projects. The effort, led by UTA, in partnership with UDOT, WFRC, and MAG, will bring many needed access improvements for those using the transit system on foot or by bicycle. We currently are working through a process to prioritize and rank each of the individual projects; confirm, and re-evaluate, if necessary, the cost estimates; and assess project readiness. It is our intention to fill as much of the funding gap as possible to build as many projects as we can. Collectively, we believe we can accomplish this goal because we are working together for the benefit of the region and everyone is on board.  

Jennifer K. McGrath is an active transportation planner for the Utah Transit Authority.