In Southern California, the concept of public transportation is beyond foreign; it is seemingly impossible, but the city of Ventura is generating public awareness to combat that belief.

Round one took place March 27, when the city welcomed Charlie Hales, a transportation industry expert, to City Hall to speak to the public about the social, economic, environmental and political landscape making transit a topic of general interest.

Hales’ visit was the latest lecture in the “Ventura on the Move: Mobility Options for Ventura’s Environment” series. Tom Mericle, the city’s traffic and transportation engineer, said the series is intended to open up discussion about implementation of a new transit plan.

Hales, a former commissioner of planning and transportation in Portland, Ore., was invited to address the realities of expanding Ventura’s public transportation system.
“We want to create a blueprint for how we resolve short-term and long-term needs,” he said. “Rather than have a normal development plan where developers pay to widen streets, we are trying to increase ‘walkability’ in the city, decreasing reliance on any single mode of transit.”

Such a goal may be difficult in a city like Ventura, Hales said.

Largely responsible for Portland’s streetcar renaissance, Hales is widely credited with sparking the modern streetcar revival. In Portland, he helped raise $58 million in bonds to improve 114 parks, was instrumental in creating the Portland Streetcar and worked on citywide light-rail projects. He has also consulted on the development of transportation plans in cities throughout the country including Boulder, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz. In all of the cities he has worked with, he admits there was a significant amount of resistance to transit, particularly from the more affluent. He also said a barrier exists in motivating middle- and upper-class people to use transit, whether it be an over-reliance on their personal vehicles or the inconsistencies in transit schedules and the time wasted waiting for a train or bus.

But Hales commended progress the city of Ventura has made in recent years, especially complementing the increased use of technology through the introduction of the “Next Bus” system, an online portal through which riders can see when the next bus will arrive at a given stop.

“Making transit easy to use is great, Hales said. “Technology is so important in making transportation easier and removing that barrier, encouraging the middle class to use transit.”

The message doesn’t seem to be resonating in Ventura, though. Gold Coast Transit, which connects Oxnard, Ojai, Ventura and Port Hueneme, saw a little more than 3 million riders last year, while the Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority, the county’s intercity bus system, saw 200,000. Although ridership has begun to increase, both systems are still recovering from massive ridership losses after a 2002 fare increase, according to statistics Mericle provided at the event.

Two key factors are generating discussion about mass transit and making it a more socially acceptable trend, he said. First, the next generation is adopting a more urban lifestyle that is more conducive to public transportation, and second, “mega trends” and “big picture issues” such as global warming and the implications of peak oil have recently become topics that are being taken more seriously.

“We are using a fossil fuel to fuel our economy, and that fuel does have a danger of running out,” Hales said. “There is now a national understanding that we are running out of the fuel that powers our system.”

Hales is full of ideas for how municipalities can invest in prolonging the seemingly inevitable by investing in transportation that is cost effective and safer for the environment. It is a heavy investment, he said, and municipalities often bear the responsibility for generating interest in transportation and finding funding. Although he said there is never a set number on the cost of developing, operating and maintaining rail systems, he quoted the light-rail project in Eugene, Ore., at roughly $6 million per mile and noted another in Ohio that cost as much as $24 million per mile.

But Hales also said cities that benefit most from transit tend to be cities with a higher density in population rather than areas that are comprised primarily of single-family homes.

“Ventura has a great walking district downtown,” Hales said. “You are a great place for getting off of the ferocious highway and a great place for circulator transit. Light rail may not be the answer for a low-density area, but transit can be used as a funnel to get people downtown and for getting them around once they are there. But it is expensive, and it may not be the best answer for the moment, unless funding starts falling from the sky.”

City officials were quick to stand up for the density of Ventura and to justify the need for continued discussion about transit.

“The most recent census showed that the majority of people that live in the city [of Ventura], work in the city,” Mericle said. “So its really an issue of changing people’s attitudes. We are in a fact-finding mode, and we plan to hold a series of meetings over the next nine months to see if this plan is feasible for our city.”

Hales encouraged this proactive stance, saying the federal government is recognizing the importance of developing transit systems and, in a switch from the trends over the past 10 to 15 years, funding has been granted recently for cities that present solid plans.

“The question really comes back to how much community support there is,” said City Manager Rick Cole. “COAST [Coalition for Sustainable Transportation] in Santa Barbara advocates more for transit in Ventura than even the people in Ventura.”

He urged those in attendance to involve other people in a dialog about the need for transportation, saying that by engaging more people, there is potential for community groups to generate more public interest.

Mericle expanded on that thought.

“If the environmentalists in our area drew the connection between preservation and transit, if the socially conscious drew the connection between a living wage and transit, if we were all able to connect up the people who care about these things we can get something done,” Mericle said. “We need to develop a plan, and that’s going to take brains, involvement and money.”