» The choice of highway right-of-ways is more likely an indication of political expediency than of sound planning practice.
There are both good and bad things about placing public transportation in highway right-of-ways: doing so saves on construction costs and it speeds up trains, but it also reduces the potential for transit-oriented development around stations, which are typically, by nature of the adjacent freeway, isolated from the surrounding city. But there’s something amiss in arguing that it is acceptable to build light rail in freeways, the solution picked by Portland for its new Green Line — doing so fails to acknowledge the underlying political rationale for picking highway right-of-ways.
Indeed, Portland’s choice of the I-205 corridor for its new rail service was practically inescapable. The right-of-way had been reserved for a transit corridor 30 years before as a compromise — the community would accept a new freeway as long as in return they got a transit line alongside it. This compromise was no aberration from the norm: transit agencies all over the States have chosen to get in bed with highway planners and advocate for projects that are mutually beneficial. Los Angeles’ Green Line was built in the median of the Century Freeway to dilute community opposition; Denver’s T-Rex, critiqued so persuasively by Jeff on the Overhead Wire, follows I-25 and I-225 because the local transit agency worked together with the state DOT, which wanted to expand and renovate the existing freeway.
Today, a similar project is being planned in Charlotte: there is nothing rare about highway and transit interests working together to fulfill their respective objectives. To make matters worse, transit and highway lobbies are dependent on one another because of the makeup of the U.S. Congress.
This not to suggest that there is never a case to be made for using a freeway’s path to route a transit system; in Portland’s case, it is likely that there was no other corridor available for a light rail line, so the question was whether to have transit at all rather than whether to put it along I-205. And yet it remains true that stations located along highway corridors have trouble producing the kind of dense, pedestrian-oriented development often seen around rail systems running in their own rights-of-way. More often than not, these stops are far more focused on serving the automobile driver; it isn’t surprising that all but one station on both the Los Angeles Green Line and the Denver T-Rex project have park-and-ride lots attached — all free for local drivers.
The willingness of transit agencies to play along with state DOTs and other highway interests in choosing to promote new lines along improved or new highways compounds the problems facing public transportation systems in the U.S. If a transit line’s construction is conditional on the completion of a highway project, it will be competing with a roadway that is made even easier for the typical commuter to use. While drivers are provided access to an expanded freeway connected directly to their neighborhood streets (and therefore their homes), transit users must walk to inconvenient, uncomfortable stations located either in highway medians or on one side of the road. Is there any surprise that American cities have trouble attracting transit users, even after we spend billions building new lines?
Without a doubt, there are some routes where a transit-needy population must be served, but where a new line can only be placed along a highway corridor. But new projects that are joined with highway construction or expansion are suspect because their potential to attract more users will always be limited by the improvements offered to drivers.