What kind of cities do we want to produce with new transit lines?
Portland’s metropolitan area planning tool, which allows anyone to make comparisons between potential transit extensions in the region, is a fantastic device because it provides the basic information on ridership, cost, and environmental impact that transit planners use to determine which routes are best suited to improved bus or rail service. Perhaps the most important lesson of the tool is that it demonstrates the implicit tradeoffs resulting from any decision about which routes to build. Decide to construct one line, and the region won’t be able to construct another for decades; decide to invest minimally in two lines, and the region suffers from inadequate public transportation.
Transport decision-making in cities such as Portland could be simplified, however, if the region established a definitive set of objectives about what kind of land development should be prioritized. After all, like any type of transportation, more than anything else, transit is about place-making. Choosing how mass transit is built is fundamental in determining how housing and office space is built.
As we all know, automobiles have been quite effective in producing sprawl by allowing people to cover long distances quite easily, discouraging walking, and requiring the production of parking-replete malls and strips. But transit has had a more varied effect.
The heavy rail subway and elevated systems built in the early 20th century in Boston and Chicago, for instance, lent themselves easily to urban expansion at high densities. Areas surrounding transit stations, which are often separated by a quarter to half mile, are implanted with apartment buildings, lofts, and office complexes of five stories or more with little space between edifices and most activity concentrated along the street, where the pedestrian dominates.
On the other hand, commuter rail systems operating with stations more than a mile apart and emanating from Philadelphia and New York, for example, usually result in a series of “transit villages” surrounding stations, where offices and apartments are concentrated. Commuters on these regional rail lines, however, are just as likely to live in single-family homes several miles from the station as in walkup apartments, as would those near a subway line. The transit villages, however, were effective in creating small walkable shopping districts in suburban areas.
The five major heavy rail systems begun under the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now Federal Transit Administration) in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington, Baltimore, and Miami, tried to hold the line somewhere between traditional rapid transit and commuter rail. Like rapid transit, in their respective downtowns, each system has relatively closely spaced stations located in areas of dense employment and housing. These metro lines have increased concentration of employment and residences in these areas. But each of the city’s transit lines also extend far into the suburbs with stations often miles apart, where transit villages have rarely been produced – what’s more likely are transit stations in the guise of trips malls.
Most American metropolitan areas engaging in new transit expansion today – Denver, Dallas, and Phoenix come to mind – use light rail to play a similar game, with lots of stations downtown but also lines extending far out even into the practically rural exurbs. One could argue that this distinctively American form of rapid transit development is actually quite cost effective, because it allows people to live car-free in the urban core but also provides inhabitants of the distant suburbs the option to commute by transit rather than automobile to their downtown jobs.
Is this hybrid the best possible use of limited funds for transportation expansion and improvement? Are the regions we wish to encourage – because that’s what we’re doing as we continue building rail systems like we are today – those with somewhat dense downtowns, walkable only within a few blocks square, and then a collection of tiny transit villages located on the periphery, surrounded by auto-dependent single-family homes?
Or is it worth sacrificing the needs of those living in the suburbs (i.e., anywhere that’s car-based, “city” or not) for the sake of encouraging density and walkability within urban cores? By building well-connected, densely packed transit lines around downtowns and encouraging high density apartment and office development there, we can reinvent the American city into a walkable place where cars aren’t necessary for those who inhabit it. By attempting to hybridize solutions, the urban core usually remains too small to provide effective alternatives to car use for inhabitants and continues to encourage suburban car use to and from stations. It’s not, in other words, a game-changer.