Hillsborough and Broward counties have money to spend on transportation, but will it matter?

By Tim Fanning

University of South Florida St. Petersburg

The Sunshine State is growing, and Florida’s infrastructure and transportation networks need a growth spurt to keep up.

Some counties, including Broward and Hillsborough, recently approved sales tax increases to unclog highways and improve public transportation. But for that to work, Floridians need to change the way they think about getting around.

“You can have all of the funding in the world, but if you’re not going to change the way people think about buses or trains, you’re done,” said lawyer Carlos Garcia-Perez, one of six experts seeking solutions to Florida’s transportation challenges during the Florida Influencer Summit on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, 80 percent of the Influencers — a group of 50 of the state’s leading figures — said increasing funding for buses and local mass transit projects was “very important.”

Even as cities invest in massive expansions of rail and bus systems, choice and personal situations will always be a factor hindering most metro areas from expanding public transportation, said Michael Finney, the president and CEO of Miami Beacon Council, the economic development organization for Miami-Dade County.

“Providing more choices in line with our personal situations is key to changing behavior,” said Finney.  “People primarily focus on their personal situation, factoring in speed, comfort and cost when figuring how they’d like to travel.”

A major obstacle to improving urban travel is human behavior, according to a 2017 Conduent survey, which surveyed people in 23 cities around the world to better understand their habits, needs, perceptions and expectations of transportation.

The report showed that cities need to provide a good reason why people should give up their cars. Otherwise, people will stick to what they know.

But many areas in Florida, including Tampa Bay, public transportation is limited.

In other American cities, public transportation helps connect the working poor to jobs, schools, shopping and health care. That social safety net barely exists in the Tampa Bay area.

Out of the country’s 30 largest metro areas, the region ranks 29th in four of six common ways the federal government measures public transit coverage and usage, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The lack of efficient bus or rail service forces many of the working poor to devote huge chunks of time to getting back and forth to work, the Times found.

So when public transportation is so poor, how do you encourage more riders?

There is no magic way to convince people to use public transportation when it isn’t their only option, said Chris Caines, the executive director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative, a think tank at Florida International University.

“It’s a chicken and the egg type thought,” said Caines. “Not enough people ride these transit options in order to make them viable because they’re not good enough. But the transit won’t be good enough unless people ride them.”

Before spending millions on massive transportation overhauls, Caines suggested transportation planners focus on micro changes such as improving buses and routes in heavily populated areas and ensuring that bus stops are sheltered or close to air conditioning.

“You’ve got to make it appealing,” said Caines. “Sometimes little adjustments can go a long way.”