By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
For a city like Birmingham to be accessible, walkability and connectivity through fixed-route transit, like buses and trains, are paramount, said James Fowler, head of the city’s Department of Transportation.
“We are going to have to grow in a way where we create more walkable [urban] centers that we connect with fixed-route public transportation, and we are doing that, but of course, it’s not a quick process,” Fowler said.
Microtransit, which provides point-to-point, on-demand service to residents of cities across the United States, is growing in Birmingham.
That’s a good thing because it provides people choices, other than just driving themselves, in how they get around the city, Fowler said.
“Anything that we can do to help provide people with options, besides having to own and operate their own car, I think is a real benefit for the city,” he said.
Via, which launched its services in Birmingham in 2019, is a global provider of transit software that was founded in 2012 and is headquartered in New York City.
Via’s software enables transit agencies and municipalities like Birmingham and BJCTA to provide low-cost, on-demand public transportation services, which are designed to extend the reach of existing mass transit offerings.
In Birmingham, the microtransit service that Via enables is run by vans, which have significantly less capacity than traditional fixed route transit, like buses and trains, but could still reduce the need for personal cars on the road, Fowler said.
Fowler said there are numerous reasons that cities like Birmingham should attempt to reduce its “car dependency.”
When cities are designed in “a purely auto-oriented way,” they become more spread out and require significantly more infrastructure, all of which has to be maintained, Fowler said. That cost is prohibitive at some point, he said.
“It’s more roadways, more sidewalks, streetlights, more striping, more signs, it’s more pipes and stormwater inlets and all the things that go along with roadways as we spread out, so it’s difficult for us to afford to grow that way,” Fowler said.
Relying so heavily on personal cars also makes cities less fair, he said.
“If we are dependent upon automobile ownership as our primary mode of transportation, then that’s not equitable because not everybody can afford to use a vehicle. Not everybody can drive a vehicle, so there are many people that are too young or too old, or maybe they have disabilities or maybe, for various reasons, they would choose not to drive,” Fowler said.
Additionally, car dependence leads to increased energy consumption in a country where transportation tops the list of carbon emitting activities, car crashes result in about 40 deaths annually in Birmingham, and car dependence also leaves less access to any other mode of transportation, whether it be transit, walking or bicycling, Fowler said.
“My hope, long term is that we can create more dense places and create more walkable communities where access to other modes is more readily available, so that we won’t have to rely on microtransit too heavily,” Fowler said.