by Larry Krieg
I've been visiting a wide variety of cites, looking at their transit with an eye on their Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Some of these cities have had transit - specifically rail transit - "forever"; others started several decades ago; and still others are recent developments. It's interesting to compare these types of cities and speculate on the future of the newer efforts in light of the older ones. I'll introduce the idea today, and look at details in future posts.
"Heritage" transit-oriented metro areas I've visited include New York (especially northern New Jersey), Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco; in Germany, Düsseldorf and Berlin. In these cities, rail and rubber-tired transit have been part of the fabric of the city for so long that we might say the entire city is a TOD. Transit has allowed these cities to increase in population and remain dense, both in their core and in many of their suburbs. Of course, some "sprawl-burbs" have developed in each of these regions, but it's safe to say that without intense transit, these cities would not have grown the way they have, either in population or in layout. Also safe to say: if their rail transit were to become unavailable, they would quickly become unable to function.
Heritage: NJ Transit's Princeton station built 1918
"Mature" transit oriented cities, those that have developed transit over the last several decades, are exemplified by Washington, D.C.; Toronto; San Diego; Los Angeles; and Portland, OR. These cities grew with rail transit in the early 20th century, and (except for Toronto) dismantled it in the decades immediately following World War II. As population and auto ownership grew, these cities found they had reached the limits of the capacity that roadways could provide. Washington's wide surface streets, designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791, became gridlocked; Toronto's ten-lane-wide 401 freeway became a parking lot every morning and evening; and Los Angeles's freeways were so crowded that people started shooting guns at one another in extreme road rage. These cities invested heavily in rail beginning in the 1970s and 1980s; rail quickly became popular, and though each of these cities' rail transit is "mature" in some ways, they have continued to expand their rail and bus systems to this day. Transit-oriented development has thrived in these cities, with significantly higher real estate value in the immediate vicinity of rail transit stations. If their rail systems were disabled, these cities would be in very serious difficulty - not quite the shutdown that "heritage" cities would face, but major inconvenience and disruption of a wide range of services due to many employees' inability to get to work on time.
Mature: Bethesda Metro Center built over WMATA Metrorail station in the mid-1980s
"Young" transit cities, those that have turned to rail in the last decade or two, include a host of cities like Charlotte, Miami-Palm Beach, Nashville, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas, Austin, Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City. Jerusalem, Israel, is among cities around the world that have built a light rail line opening in the last year or so. Orlando may be the latest US city in this category, currently building stations and adapting an existing rail line for their "SunRail" commuter system. Rail facilities are optional for the cities: if they become unavailable, the city continues to operate with relatively minor inconvenience. But they are the catalysts for changed growth patterns that will lead to healthier, more sustainable communities.
Young TOD: Medpark station and apartments on DCTA "A-Train" Line, north of Dallas, currently being expanded
What can we take away from this? First, TOD is nothing new. Second, its sustainability is demonstrated in old, compact cities like New York City, where citizens have the smallest carbon footprint in the nation. Third, growing cities around the nation (and around the world) are turning to rail as they reach the limits of their roadways' capacity. The cities that are building rail now are those that have grown significantly in the last half-century.
But in Michigan, we have the opposite problem: our population is shrinking. Our streets and freeways are crowded during peak hours, though not as badly as they were in 1990s. So are we good candidates for rail transit? If we build it, will they come? Is rail transit an incentive for growth, or simply a response to it? Were our crowded roads and lack of transit capacity in the 1990s part of the reason why Michigan's population shrank?
Larry Krieg, author of the Wake Up, Washentaw blog, is an advocate for sustainable transit-oriented development in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Wake Up Washentaw is informal citizen organization that encourages individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments to cooperate and apply creativity to the development of sustainable housing and transportation solutions for the region.