Archive for the ‘Land Use’ Category

More investment, please.

July 22, 2009

It’s all a matter of time horizons.  If you have a long term investment horizon, you can think big.  If you’re thinking short term, you need something that makes an impact right away.  As this applies to transit and transportation planning, it’s much easier to implement a service, such as a bus route than it is to plan, design, and build a rail line.

Advocacy for change is important, but some are annoyed with the focus on the near term instead of keeping our eyes on the long term prize.  The Overhead Wire takes Streetsblog to task for perceived Bus Rapid Transit advocacy.  Buses are great, and we should certainly invest in them and upgrade them wherever possible.  But we also should acknowledge that they don’t have the long term impacts that rails do.

You want less people to ride transit? Then build inferior transit. In all actuality though, this country needs more Metro Subways. You know, the kinds of things they have in first world countries on the European continent. Washington DC is an example of a place that has developed more recently around the subway. Regions that build BRT will always be car cities. If you want to truely transform regions, we’re going to have to think bigger.

I think a lot of people talk about Arlington County because of the great success it has had in development. Yet no one talks about what Atlanta was like on Peachtree just north of downtown or in the Buckhead area just north of there before MARTA. Not a lot of people seem to realize that San Francisco is much more dense now because of BART and Caltrain connections as well as the Muni Metro than it ever would have been without. In fact, certain companies have pushed the MTA in San Francisco to make Muni better or they will leave. They wouldn’t be saying that if we had a system that actually worked.

The problem with places like San Francisco and Atlanta is that they didn’t go far enough. They built a couple of lines and then stopped. If we truely want to see our cities transform, we need to go further and without BRT as THE substitute idea for Heavy Rail or Semi Metro Light Rail. It’s an outrage to think that people actually think this is a real alternative to transform our cities and turn the population to transit. It’s just us being cheap. We’re already cheap with transit, and look where that gets us. To more people riding cars and more sprawl.

It’s important to note the Arlington County case.  The “Oranjington” corridor is always hailed as a paragon of transit oriented development.  And it is.  But any quick glance at aerial photos from that area shows plenty of surface parking lots yet to be redeveloped:

That section of the Orange line opened in 1979.  We’ve made a lot of progress in 30 years, but the long term land use changes and reinvestment in those areas takes time.

Ryan Avent takes it one step further:

It seems to me that the only thing more remarkable than the great success cities have had when they’ve focused on improving land use around fixed-guideway transit is the fact that cities seem so reluctant to repeat the experiment. Metro’s Green Line through the District has been a gold mine for the city, leading to billions in new investment, thousands of new residents, hundreds of new businesses, and so on. And there is absolutely no momentum in the District’s government to try and create more opportunities for this kind of growth.

I’d suspect the reason for this is precisely because of the long term time frame.  Add in cost factors, and thinking this big is simply not going to happen for most municipalities.  Perhaps regional entities could do better, but the Feds also have to be on board:

A big part of the problem, of course, is that the federal government doesn’t adequately take these kinds of land use changes into account in allocating funds. It’s nonetheless possible for cities to press ahead with these things, particularly since attitudes in Washington are changing. You’d think that someone down in the city government would be like, you know what? That worked really well. Maybe we should do it again.

Indeed.  However, going at it ‘alone’ is a tough road.  It’s somewhat heartening to see Senators considering transit within the climate bill, but transit’s biggest potential isn’t in energy savings but in land use changes.  These kinds of land use changes will make transportation cleaner all by themselves as well as slowly make carbon-friendly lifestyles more accessible to the population of America’s cities.  So many of the problems we face in terms of climate change stem from our land use patterns, yet we treat them as fixed when discussing solutions.  Again, some long-term perspective is in order.