ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithacans are eager for transportation innovation, judging by the standing room only crowd at the “Preparing for our Transportation Future” presentation held at Tompkins County Public Library Friday. About a hundred people gathered to hear how lessons from San Francisco could be applied to our similarly quirky, similarly hilly, but decidedly smaller city.

Timothy Papandreou, CEO of Emerging Transportation Advisors and former chief innovation officer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, spoke at the event, which was co-hosted by several local organizations.

Papandreou acknowledged that a small city in a rural region faces different challenges than an urban hub when it comes to transportation. Nevertheless, he said, all places have opportunities for transportation innovation. “It’s just a matter of scale.”

According to Papandreou, in places from San Francisco to Ithaca the future of transportation is multimodal.

Forget the binary choice between personal vehicle or public transportation, he urged attendees. Instead, imagine all the possible ways of getting around and think about how they can be linked.

A denizen of Papandreou’s innovative city might walk to a bike dock, pedal to a bus station, then ride to their destination. They might bike to a carpool point and share a ride to their workplace. They might use an app to coordinate the legs of their route, or, as in a case he cited from Kansas City, a neighborhood box for collecting index cards listing carpool spots and requests.

The key question, Papandreou said, “is not the technology. It’s how it’s being used, or not being accommodated.”

In dense areas, for example, drivers might complain that bicyclists cause traffic congestion. That’s “an optical illusion,” Papandreou said. Since bikes transport more people per square foot than cars with one or two passengers, accommodating bikes where there’s a critical mass of riders facilitates transportation.

On the flip side, in rural areas where commuting by bike isn’t feasible, accommodating cars but planning shared rides might make more sense.

“Look to utilize existing resources,” Papandreou suggested.

Papandreou said transportation innovation only works if cities set clear goals, test feasible solutions and rigorously collect data.

“Where are we, where do we want to go, how are we going to measure it, then what are the things we’re going to try out?”

Comments from the audience made clear that answering those questions will be no easy task.

As attendees pointed out, transportation modes that work well in the City of Ithaca might not be viable for people in the rural parts of the county or commuting into Ithaca from further.

Coordinating carpools or relying on intercity buses can be difficult when employers hold workers to inflexible schedules, a commenter added.

For Papandreou, such challenges are difficult to tackle but are not insurmountable. “We all want freedom, we all want mobility… and we all want safety while we do that.” Achieving those universal goals might be a slog, but that’s how community works.

“Preparing for our Transportation Future” was co-hosted by the Center for Community Transportation which includes Ithaca Carshare and Bike Walk Tompkins; Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council (ITCTC); Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA), the City of Ithaca and Way2Go.

Featured image: Streets Alive! (Ithaca Voice file photo)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.