Metro Transportation Planning Objectives

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.

8 replies on “Metro Transportation Planning Objectives”

The New York City Subway extended to suburban areas, too – in fact, it was constructed with the explicit purpose of enabling the working class to live in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx rather than the overpopulated Lower East Side. Some extensions went even beyond the urban fringe – the Flushing Line ran through farmland. The original idea was to develop those areas with single-family homes, which the Progressive Era reformers believed was necessary for living a good life, but instead they became urban, with densities of 30,000/km^2 instead of the Lower East Side’s 100,000.

The Washington Metro converted suburbs to urban form as well. It didn’t do so everywhere, but it played an essential role in transforming Arlington into a dense, walkable, transit-friendly area. The places where it didn’t so succeed were those where it was built at true suburban scale, with trains running in freeway medians and park-and-ride stations.

“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.”

This isn’t an American invention. The hybrid described is very similar to a German or Austrian S-Bahn. They often go underground downtown, but the principle is the same, and I think that model would be well-suited to America’s spread-out cities.

When you look at the long range plans for Dallas and Ft Worth (, the pattern of light rail lines begin to look a lot like highways. Yes, stops are spread far apart in the suburbs and close together downtown, but the circumferential lines are a new paradigm. Even in dense, transit heavy New York, there are no real circumferential train lines (although the TriboroRX and commuter rail along I287 are interesting proposals.) The new light rail lines in Dallas are a way of connecting existing activity centers and making them denser. They are not trying to create a Chicago or a Boston in the middle of the suburbs. People will move into mixed use buildings near train stations, but they won’t give up their cars. When highways are built in transit cities, they effectively destroy them. When transit systems are built in highway cities, ironically, they strengthen them. Theoretically, the density that comes with transit will eventually squeeze the cars out, but that is a loooong way off. I imagine the silver line to Tyson’s Corner in DC and the purple line in LA to Century City and Santa Monica could eventually be examples of the trains squeezing the highways out. These areas are so built up they are often less than accessible by car as is.

We may have to accept the mixed systems for political reasons. To get support from suburban voters and state legislators, the new rail systems must serve commuters from the bedroom communities.

And I don’t know many places where you could get the votes to build a dense city-center system alone. That would be like trying to get money to help poor people, or intercity blacks specifically. Not gonna happen.

But if the far-flung route systems continue to be successful, it then becomes politically possible to in-fill with routes in the center city. Isn’t that what Portland is doing with its expanding streetcar line? And the informative DART site discusses the planning for new transit for the Dallas downtown.

In fact, the far-reaching commuter transit lines increase the need for a denser downtown system (which should probably be streetcars IMO) to distribute the added carless population around the city center.

Better intercity rail would add to this need. The corridors from Shreveport to the east and from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin to the south could be upgraded to 110 mph with hourly frequency. That kind of train service would deliver many thousands of passengers into downtown Dallas, most of them looking for transit connections to reach their final destinations.

BTW I don’t think the goal can be to get everybody to give up their cars. People hear that and they stop listening. But if we can make it possible for families to give up their second cars, that would be a huge success.

Portland happens to be one of the best-planned metros in the country – perhaps I should have pointed that out in the post.

But the issue is not whether Portland divides areas between ‘town centers’ and ‘regional centers,’ etc, but rather whether or not it is willing to focus development so intensely that it needs transit lines located every few blocks to serve the very active pedestrian population – in other words, to create a new late-19th century city. Perhaps that’s too much to ask?

Woody – I think your point is very well put. – it’s not particularly imaginable to see whole metros paying for intense inner-city lines. But the point is more than just a denser downtown – it’s for a much bigger downtown that becomes a large city in itself, able to serve its inhabitants completely so that they have no need for cars.

New York does too have a circumferential subway line – it’s called the G, and it’s severely underused because it was poorly designed. Good circumferential lines maximize transfer opportunities, to enable people to go from outlying point A to outlying point B without going through downtown. The G instead minimizes transfers, because like the rest of the IND, it was built to compete with the private subway networks instead of complement them.

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