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Revitalization of Transportation in Centre County

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Posted: May 6, 2015

by Colleen McGowan

Accessible transportation to and from work, school, and everywhere in between has become a necessary aspect of the lives of American people. As a nation, automobile use as the primary means of transportation has rapidly increased with the subsequent rise of suburbs. In Pennsylvania's Centre County alone, the increase of people living within the county and its suburbs has caused a spike in automobile use without the opportunity to use alternative transportation systems. To begin to address these issues, the county must strengthen community development techniques to reduce the number of cars on the road, increase mass transit opportunities, and promote walkability.

Automobile-reliance as a significant aspect of American culture is the leading cause of this dependence on cars and lack of alternative transportation. After World War II, homebound soldiers began to move to the growing and moderately-priced suburbs as a place to settle down, rather than return to the cities. With funding for higher education as a part of the GI Bill, soldiers were able to receive better schooling paired with unprecedented economic affluence. Thus, soldiers were able to afford these homes and the transportation costs of automobile use to get to them. Furthermore, the introduction of the Interstate Highway System by President Eisenhower in 1956 allowed for greater ease in mobility between the suburbs and cities. Professionals began to use their cars as the most accessible and convenient form of transportation.

Still to this day, the majority of Americans commute to work by use of automobile. Concurrently, it is the primary means of transportation among residents of Centre County. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, there are 72,760 workers in Centre County above age 16. Of those, 51,785 (71.3%) commuted alone to work in cars, trucks, or vans, dependent on the type of work. Only 7.9% carpooled and a meager 3.1% of the working age population took public transportation. Thus, the overwhelming majority of Centre County working residents choose to drive to work rather than utilize alternative means of transportation. This may be because of the convenience and accessibility of automobile use, especially due to the predominantly rural landscape of the county. This trend extends to most of the United States, as people are retreating to the suburbs and must drive long distances to work, many times outside the reach of public transportation.

To begin to address a major issue like transportation, many steps must be taken from both a large and small perspective. From a broad perspective, Americans must transform their own culture: the country has become a car-dependent society that is reluctant to change, despite any additional benefits. However, through the efforts of activists, major companies, and the government, steps can be taken to initiate the necessary change to reduce automobile use. The public should be informed of the negative effects of excessive car use to establish stronger environmental concern and to begin redeveloping American culture. Government leaders have an advantage to initiating change: they are able to implement policies to encourage alternative possibilities to current automobile usage and its consequences. For instance, CAFE standards of car emissions and fuel economy should be increased for major car brands in the United States. In addition, local governments can subsidize mass transit systems in major cities across the nation and work to remove the social stigma of using public transportation by appealing to all residents. In time, states hopefully will be able to provide residents with complex mass transit systems across each state, reaching additional towns and cities without prior opportunities to reduce the overall amount of automobile use. Although it will be difficult to break Americans of their habits, with incentives and guidance from local and national leaders, car culture can be reduced to make way for better alternatives.

In State College, Centre County's most populous city, there are numerous ways in which small-scale solutions can reduce the use of automobiles. Penn State's campus, located in the heart of Centre County, is transitioning into a largely car-free campus and has placed an emphasis on walking and biking. For example, Shortlidge Mall has successfully reduced the number of cars on campus since the University first converted the busy street into a pedestrian-only courtyard. Similarly, downtown State College should consider a plan to convert Allen Street into a pedestrian-friendly area to reduce the number of cars downtown. To undertake such a development, the Borough of State College can redevelop the stretch of Allen Street between College Avenue and Beaver Avenue into a "Pedestrian Zone," void of car traffic. In this way, Allen Street can become a center of economic vitality featuring shops and restaurants as well as a place for the community to gather, loosely based on the Italian piazza. Restricting car traffic to Pugh Street and Fraser Street, both parallel to Allen Street, will slow traffic patterns and keep them away from one of the busiest areas downtown.

State College also should develop complex sidewalk and bike path systems and expand and improve those already in place. Through the upkeep and improvement of the existing sidewalk systems in State College, students and residents would be able to enjoy increased walkability downtown and in the surrounding areas. The Borough should maintain these sidewalks by fixing problems, clearing them of snow in the winter, and possibly making them more aesthetically pleasing for enjoyment. Bicycle lanes in State College and other towns in Centre County should be added to new road developments and, if cost effective, to existing roads. This means that most all of the new roads paved in the county and those being repaired should have bike lanes added to them to allow residents to use an alternative means of transportation. Adding these will, in time, reduce the amount of people driving short distances and benefit Centre County residents.

Where sidewalks and bike paths are unworkable, Centre County in cooperation with PennDOT should develop a more extensive mass transit system servicing downtown State College, other major destinations in Centre County, and beyond. Ideally, it would include both bus transportation and a new train system. The number and route of buses in the area should be increased to allow residents to travel to towns around the county, similar to the CATA bus system of downtown State College. Bus routes should be developed to connect major towns like Bellefonte and State College to allow residents to commute using accessible public transportation. Additionally, interstate and intrastate bus companies like Fullington and Megabus should be expanded or subsidized to encourage both students and local community members to use them.

The train system will be a more difficult task, as there are few railroads for passengers in Centre County and none in State College itself. Thus, local legislators can develop a plan to add tracks in the State College area to the existing ones rather than building a costly new system. In this way, State College can be connected to the rest of Centre County and beyond while improving the viability and traffic of existing stations. Residents would be able to inexpensively travel within the county and outside of it to major cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York City. This new system could attract a new type of long-distance travel into the area, as students and residents travelling from these major cities would view this as a viable option for returning to Centre County.

There are, of course, many obstacles to supporting a mass transit-based county. First is the sheer size of Centre County: it is an expansive and mostly rural county. It would be hard to develop a bus system to travel to enough places and have enough residents to logically prefer this system without incurring too many costs on the local government and economy. Additionally, it is impossible to create sidewalk systems and bike paths that extend throughout the whole county; these should only be considered in the busier areas like State College or Bellefonte. In Centre County, residents often have time-consuming commutes to work every day. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, the average commuting time of Centre County residents is approximately 21.0 minutes when driving their cars. If public transportation options were made available to many residents, their travel times would most likely increase, making it unfavorable to a significant portion of the population. A train system in Centre County will be even more difficult to undertake, as there is no existing infrastructure and residents and legislators are reluctant to attempt an expensive project without knowledge it will be used to its full potential. Residents that do not plan to use the train system may also protest to using tax dollars to undertake such a project, and there may be refusal to support it.

Although there are many obstacles to reducing the number of automobiles on the roads in Centre County and increasing other forms of transportation, there are legitimate steps that can be taken to begin to solve these problems. Individually, residents can emphasize and increase the use of public transportation and sidewalk systems. They also must be willing to devote themselves to bettering the community through the use of these systems and reducing excessive automobile use. As a community, funds can be put towards improving existing infrastructure and building new systems to improve movability and accessibility of Centre County through public transportation efforts. With proper support from local community members and government officials, an implementation strategy can be developed and administered to begin to solve these problems of accessibility of mass transit and the prevalence of automobiles in Centre County.

Data Source

2013 American Community Survey

U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2013 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates, Table S0802; using American FactFinder; (30 January 2015).