Transit Miami attended this year’s Walk 21 conference, combined with EMBARQ’s International Walking and Livable Communities Conference, in Mexico City. This is the first of several posts sharing what we learned in the conference and experienced in the city, and any applications they might have for Miami.

During Tuesday’s keynote session, Jim Walker, President of Walk 21, shared London’s success story of preparing for a multimodal London Olympics. London set about accommodating people’s trips to and from the Olympics, not simply accommodating traffic. This approach incorporated transit, bike, pedestrian, and auto modes–but merely as choices in the main goal of getting to their destination. Rather than splitting planning efforts into approaches for one mode at a time, London’s planners and advocacy groups focused efforts on trips to be taken by Olympic athletes, workers, and spectators in addition to citizens of London going about their daily business. Through this process they effectively created an atmosphere where everyone felt comfortable using transit. “Games lanes” were created to reassure those who felt that the automobile was the only method that would get athletes and VIPs  to their games on time, but it was reported in several sources that some athletes did feel comfortable using transit. It seems that London came close to their goal of no additional car trips due to the Olympics by accommodating so many on public transit, on foot, or on the bike.

One key aspect of London’s plan involved providing information to promote walking, bicycling, and transit both to visitors and residents. They installed general wayfinding signage that still stands today, as well as Olympic-specific wayfinding signage. Both focused on the destination, not the mode, but incorporated the modal options for getting there. To further encourage spectators to ride or walk to the games, they offered guided rides and guided walks to Olympic venues. They created a trip planner mobile app, walking and cycling maps, and provided bicycle parking and even free maintenance for over 2500 bicycles. They targeted local businesses with a campaign to reduce, re-mode, or re-time their trips, and worked with 550 businesses to develop travel plans that fit with those goals.

No plans are perfect, and London’s preparations for the Olympics had their share of kinks. In order to guarantee a minimum travel time for the “Games lanes,” engineers removed some pedestrian crossings. These “Games lanes” prioritized automobile modes over pedestrian and transit modes, exactly the wrong direction for a progressive city like London, and reflective of the priorities that road building agencies like our own Florida Department of Transportation have traditionally embraced.

Even worse than a slight delay to pedestrians, at least one cyclist was killed by a construction vehicle working on facilities for the games. In response to this, every construction worker was required to take a cycling course in order to better understand the operational needs of a cyclist in traffic. This is an excellent idea for every driver since there are plenty of cyclists killed by–well, pretty much any sort of driver. For a local application of motorist education, the Florida Department of Transportation is working with the DMV as part of its statewide pedestrian and cyclist safety initiative (the “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow” campaign), to better incorporate information on driver-cyclist interaction into the Florida Drivers Handbook and create an online training course that could be used for motorists receiving tickets for infractions that endanger pedestrians or bicyclists.

Olympic spectators were given transit passes as part of their tickets. While Mr. Walker did not elaborate on this much, it is worth pointing out that when a transportation service is made free, or at least made to appear free by hiding the subsidy, people are more attracted to it. One great example in our area is the Miami Metromover, paid for by a sales tax but by all appearances “free.” Metromover grew from about 5 million riders in 2002, when it was made free, to over 9 million riders in 2011. The Jacksonville Skyway, a similar system, has seen their ridership skyrocket 61% since recently eliminating fares. Also noteworthy is Gainesville’s Regional Transit System, which struggled to gain ridership in its early days. Then the University of Florida incorporated transit costs into student fees and struck a funding deal with RTS for all students to ride free, and ridership blossomed. Thanks to this continuing policy, RTS boasts the highest number of annual passenger trips per capita of all Florida transit agencies (62 trips per person, compared with 28 for Miami-Dade Transit, or 22 for Broward County Transit, per the National Transit Database 2010 report). Lest I forget (I wish I could!), our “free” highway system subsidized by gas taxes, local property taxes, and income taxes has become such an attractive subsidy that anti-tax Libertarians refuse to give it up.

Back to London and the Olympics. Despite a few setbacks, London moved in a multimodal manner during the Games. According to Mr. Walker, 35% of people changed their behavior through these efforts. The lasting legacy included the additional infrastructure built, as well as an improvement to the city’s economy. Since the Olympic preparations improved infrastructure on the neglected east side, the long term hope is that the games would serve to improve the quality of life of these London residents.