Categories
Bus Light Rail Nashville

Nashville plans for a big boost in local transit, and is hoping its voters will step on board

» The city’s mayor has announced a multi-billion-dollar plan that would bring new light rail and bus rapid transit routes to the city’s core, but critics are suggesting it won’t work. It depends on the design.

Nashville is booming. The region that encompasses it is growing by an average of 100 people a day, and the rhythm has held up for several years now. The combined city-county Nashville-Davidson has added more than 60,000 residents since 2010 alone.

Developers are catching up, constructing thousands of new residential units, office buildings, and other projects; much of the development is happening downtown.

Yet the city’s transportation system isn’t made for the growth. The highway system is bottleneck-after-bottleneck, and the transit system is underfunded and underused.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s hope is to offer an alternative through a massive new transit program that she announced in October. It would rely on voter-supported tax increases.

But the proposal could face the same problems previous Nashville transit efforts have—namely inadequate public support and vocal opposition. These opponents, as I describe below, are relying on inadequate and deceptive claims to critique investment in transit, but they’re right that the system won’t automatically be effective in attracting riders. Nashville needs better transit, but it’s got to design its system appropriately if it’s going to work.

Fixed-guideway transit for Nashville

Mayor Barry’s plan is to have the city’s voters approve a significant increase in four local taxes in a May 1 referendum. The proposal would increase the sales tax incrementally and add surcharges on existing hotel, rental car, and business taxes. Funds would raise enough to fund $5.4 billion in capital investments, plus a billion more in operations costs over the next 14 years, when construction will be completed. That’s not as large as Los Angeles’ or Seattle’s 2016 referenda, but it’s a big investment in a much smaller metropolitan area.

Indeed, Nashville’s plan would be enough to provide the city’s almost 700,000 inhabitants a large new transit network, encompassing 26 miles of light rail, 25 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT), and significant improvements to the existing bus service and Music City Star commuter rail line.

Lines would largely extend out from downtown, where a $936-million, 1.8-mile transit tunnel would separate trains and BRT services from street traffic. It would make Nashville the fifth U.S. city to invest in a modern light-rail downtown tunnel, after Buffalo, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Dallas* (like Seattle, it will include both trains and buses).

As the map below indicates, light rail lines would extend northeast along Gallatin Pike, west along Charlotte Avenue, northwest along a former rail line, and southeast along Murfreesboro and Nolensville Pikes, all major arterial routes. Four BRT corridors would fill in the gaps. The result would be an urban core generally well served by fixed-guideway transit services.

As currently described, the network would feature relatively high-performance light rail corridors, “traveling in their own lanes,” with transit signal priority and frequent weekday service. The trains would begin running 2026, with full completion by 2032.

The rapid bus corridors, which would be implemented more rapidly, would be electric, have limited stops, also feature transit signal priority, and, “where feasible and supported by the community,” include dedicated lanes and off-board payment.

In sum, the network is projected to attract significantly more riders than the existing regional network, which carries about 33,000 daily bus riders and 1,200 commuter rail users. The city estimates that the rapid bus corridors would see between 9,600 and 11,600 boardings a day and the rail corridors between 61,100 and 71,400. If these projections are realized, the city’s system will carry more riders per mile than those in Charlotte, Dallas, and Denver, and it would more than double existing use of the system.

Over the 2018 to 2032 construction period, about $900 million, or about 10 percent of the total, would go to operations and maintenance costs, with the rest paying for the massive expenditures related to the new rail and bus lines.

That’s a very capital-heavy allocation of resources, and it has its limitations. Light rail service on weekends, for example, would only be scheduled for every 30 minutes. And some local buses would continue to provide service only every 30 minutes, at best. But a new Frequent Transit Network would offer service every 15 minutes or faster on the 10 busiest bus routes, which would have significantly longer hours and an expanded fleet.

The opposition

Assuming these outcomes play out as planned, should the voters endorse Nashville’s proposal? Would the city be getting its money’s worth?

For critics of the project, massive investment in transit simply doesn’t make much sense. Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Economic Malcolm Getz epitomizes the opposition, and he has produced a lengthy critique that’s been used by local media as evidence for the proposal’s failings. A few years ago, Getz was a key opponent of Nashville’s proposed Amp BRT line, which ultimately failed in the face of state legislative and local business opposition.

Getz’s arguments are similar to those used by most opponents of transit investment in cities across the U.S.: For one, he argues, transit does not reduce congestion and in fact may make matters worse if trains or buses take space away from cars on the street. Two, transit is slow because it requires transfers and thus will not increase ridership. Three, the benefits would go to just few people (since most people don’t use transit), and transit would accelerate gentrification. And four, the availability of new types of car services, combined with tolled express lanes, actually would be more beneficial.

These claims—like many of the popular criticisms of transit—mislead, simplify, and contradict.

It is true, as Getz notes, that the fundamental law of road congestion means roads will fill up to their capacity, so more transit is unlikely to reduce congestion in itself. But evidence does, in fact, show that transit plays an important role in reducing overall automobile traffic, even in places like Nashville where it accounts for a small share of commuters. As such, improving transit service can be an essential mechanism to move more people around a city without having to build more highways.

Getz suggests that eliminating automobile lanes for dedicated lanes for transit will exacerbate congestion by forcing the same number of drivers into fewer lanes. But such reductions in vehicle traffic have been shown either to have minimal impact on roadway capacity or actually reduce the number of people driving. Just as importantly, transit can carry a lot more people in a lot less space than automobiles on roadways.

Of course, transit can only be effective if it’s carrying people, and that’s a shortcoming that Getz relies upon throughout his criticism. He suggests, to summarize, that there’s virtually nothing that can be done to attract people onto the region’s trains and buses because they are slow and require transfers, and thus that those vehicles will be empty no matter what.

But there are ways to make transit effective—it’s just that Getz isn’t much interested in them. As noted above, he’s opposed to dedicated lanes, but those are essential for speeding up transit and actually making them competitive with cars. Nashville’s transit system is quite low-ridership today, but one reason for that is that the service it provides is slow and infrequent, exactly the deficiencies this transit plan is designed to address.

Getz’s claim that Nashville’s transit system simply won’t be well used, and thus does not deserve significant investment, is simply a reflection of existing conditions and an unwillingness to believe that cities have the capacity to change.

Moreover, he is willing to use an argument that contradicts his other claims—that transit will induce gentrification by increasing property values near transit stations. Why, though, would transit improvements increase values if no one is using the system? There is significant evidence that transit investments increase surrounding property values, and the reason for that is that transit improves accessibility. In other words, you can’t both argue that transit won’t be used and that it will increase gentrification.

Getz’s proposed solutions include increasingly relying on ride-hailing services and putting buses in tolled express lanes on Nashville’s highways. Yet encouraging people to take Uber or Lyft into downtown wouldn’t do much at all to solve congestion—in fact, it might make it worse if people are subsidized to take those vehicles instead of the bus. Moreover, given that such services are hardly self-supporting today, and far from inexpensive, it’s hard to see this approach as effective in the long term.

While tolling expressways might be effective in cutting down on traffic, putting the buses there instead of on arterial surface streets would essentially remove transit from the places where it can actually thrive: In walkable, relatively dense neighborhoods, and relegate it to an automobile-dominated corridor.

Plus, Nashville’s massive growth requires new transportation capacity. Simply tolling some highway lanes won’t actually increase the ability of the region to handle more people. That’s why it’s so important that transit investments be offered as an alternative.

What future for the city?

Despite the limitations of Getz’s arguments, they are getting play in the local press. One reason for that is that there are reasons to be skeptical of the potential for Nashville transit improvements.

The city is incredibly sprawling, with a population density of just about 1,300 people per square mile—far less than what is typically needed to make fixed-guideway transit effective, which is something in the range of 10,000 people per square mile. I’ve written critically of the previous transit proposals in Nashville precisely for this reason. Along the proposed lines, densities are higher—3,000 to 4,000 people per square mile, but still pretty low.

As such the city should be focusing intensely to construct larger projects along the routes and downtown to ensure that the transit investment is worth it. The existing land use code also has high parking requirements—at least one space per unit for residential uses, and one space per every 200 to 300 square feet for office uses—that should be eliminated to support a transit-focused city.

This plan is better than the previous one, focusing more on improving transit in the center, where it is likely to work best. Whereas the previous proposal would have extended light rail 30 miles from downtown, this one goes, at most, about seven miles from there. While the city extends roughly 15 miles from downtown, the underdeveloped, exurban parts are not to be served by this plan. That means that it’s designed to encourage development in the core by capitalizing redevelopment of existing built-up areas. That’s the right approach.

The inclusion of a transit tunnel downtown is a radical, expensive approach, but it’s ultimately a good idea from the perspective of making the system as effective as possible. By separating trains and BRT services from traffic, the system will avoid the pitfalls of places like Portland, where light rail vehicles crawl through downtown, and make it far more feasible for people to travel from one side of the city to another.

Moreover, the plan’s opponents are missing the larger issue: This transit plan isn’t really about responding to Nashville’s current travel patterns, for better or worse. It’s about creating a framework for the future development of the city around a reliable transit system.

If the proposal is successfully implemented, it will make it possible to have a transit-oriented life in a city where living without a car is now virtually impossible. It will create the groundwork for an alternative mode of development than the parking-heavy construction that currently dominates.

Despite the vocal opposition, Nashville’s citizenry may, in fact, be willing to go along with Mayor Barry’s transit proposal. It’s a big ask, and it will hit people in their pocketbooks, but the city’s residents are hardly arch-conservative; they voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite her winning only 35 percent of the statewide vote.

Even if they vote for the referendum, though, the way the transit projects that are funded by it are ultimately designed will play an essential role in determining their effectiveness. The fact that the city is proposing to include dedicated lanes only where “supported by the community” suggests that the city’s leaders are already anticipating opposition from neighbors in places such as along the West End corridor, which connects downtown to Vanderbilt University, and where the Amp project met its demise a few years back. But the transit services will only be useful for people in the city if they’re designed to be as rapid as possible.

Better transit for Nashville, then, means more than just passing new funding for the city’s system. It means making sure that the projects built are designed to work and to actually attract riders. That’s the really difficult part.

* Several cities, including Boston, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, built light rail tunnels many decades ago and have kept them operating. Tunnels in Dallas and Los Angeles are planned or now under construction.

Image at top: Downtown Nashville, from Flickr user Jason Mrachina (cc). Map of proposed Nashville fixed-guideway transit routes, from City of Nashville. Updated Jan. 31, 2018 to clarify changes to local bus service.

Categories
Bus Finance New Orleans Streetcar

When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics and perverse incentives for transit agencies, and the results are not always ideal for the typical rider.

Take the example of New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the most transit-reliant cities in the country, with more daily rides per capita on its transit system than Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, or Portland. Of commuters, 14% took transit to work on an average weekday in 2000. By 2010, the figures had been slashed; just 7.5% of commuters took transit to work, according to the Census. The following map shows that this change occurred across the city.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see before and after (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser). “Before” image is from 2000, “after” from 2010. Images from Social Explorer.

The change in transit use has a lot to do with the changes in the city’s demographics before and after the storm; it has become slightly whiter and wealthier. But it also has a lot to do with the terrible transit service that the city has provided. A recent report from local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans notes that only 36% of the transit trips offered in 2005 were available in 2012, despite a population that was 86% as large as it was in 2005. While in 2005, 80% of routes had scheduled headways of 30 minutes or less during peak hours (and 28% had peak headways of 15 minutes or less), in 2012, only 24% of routes were offered every at least 30 minutes and just 9 percent at least every fifteen minutes.

The result is the following map of service levels, from Ride New Orleans, which demonstrates clearly that service is simply unacceptable. The red routes in the map illustrate routes that serve customers with headways of more than 30 minutes. Only the green routes — which are the Canal-Cemetery and St. Charles Streetcar routes — come at least every fifteen minutes. Most of the city has truly insufficient transit options. Non-white neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

But people are streaming back into the buses and streetcars nonetheless. Trips per revenue hour, which measures service efficiency, are now almost as high as they were in the early 2000s and continue to rise. In fact, the New Orleans system now beats out what are considered respectable transit agencies in Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis on that count. And ridership continues to grow. Fortunately, Veolia — a private-sector* transport provider that runs New Orleans’ transit system under contract — has been expanding service to meet demand. In January, it added some new routes; in September, it is restoring service to an additional 13 routes. Things are looking up on the operational front, but the system will still be far less effective than it was before Katrina. Yet the city’s transport planners are also laying out plans for a different type of improvement: Many more streetcar lines running throughout the city, as illustrated in the map at the top of this article.

Last month, local planners revealed a $3.5 billion expansion plan that is contingent on securing funding from a number of sources. The proposal suggests 34 track-miles of new streetcar service by 2030, going far beyond the “Desire” streetcar that is currently partially under development along Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. A new line would extend north to the University of New Orleans; another east through the Lower Ninth Ward; a couple would flow through the central business district; and a connection would be made between the Canal and St. Charles Streetcars. It’s an appealing vision, particularly when combined with three new bus rapid transit and two light rail lines planners have also envisioned. And, like most U.S. regions, New Orleans’ transit investments so far have been substandard, so planning for the future is reasonable.

But it’s also a plan that comes across as incongruous with the rather disappointing state of the day-to-day bus services that most people rely upon. New Orleans’ plans for new transit expansions are in many ways the consequence of federal guidelines that guarantee that capital expansions will be pushed through whatever the state of regular operations. Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether. The Canal Street Streetcar is only ten years old, but its City Park/Museum branch only has trains operating every half hour, even at peak. The Loyola-UPT Streetcar, which opened last year, only provides service every 20 minutes, including at peak, not enough to allow people to rely on transit without having to consult a schedule, which should be a goal of transit operations planning.

What is the point of making the substantial investments in these capital projects if the city cannot guarantee that service on those lines will be offered acceptably? How can we be sure that all these new lines being proposed won’t receive similar mistreatment for the day-to-day user? New Orleans’ situation is not unique. Because local and state governments are expected to fund transit operations, the provision of service throughout the U.S. is highly inequitable; indeed, evidence suggests that poorer regions like New Orleans are simply unable to pay for the kinds of excellent day-to-day transit services that wealthier regions can. But both rich and poor regions are able to invest new lines, because the federal government commits to those projects. Whether these lines are funded to actually serve the people nearby, though, is another question.

One appropriate federal policy response might be to require that transit agencies receiving funds for major capital expansions guarantee that service on those new lines meets some minimum, such as headways of ten minutes or less during peak hours and fifteen minutes or less off-peak, as long as other system operations are not negatively affected. If transit agencies respond by suggesting that projected ridership doesn’t justify such service levels, perhaps such lines shouldn’t be funded at all.

* Confusingly, Veolia is a subsidiary of the French company Transdev, which is 50% owned by the French Caisse des Dépôts and 50% owned by Veolia Environnement. The Caisse is effectively a public bank controlled by the French government, and Veolia Environnement, which has some private investors, is also owned in part by the French state and in part by… the Caisse (9.3%). Which means that New Orleans’ public transit, oddly enough, is operated by a company whose primary owner is the French state. Globalization is confusing.

Categories
Florida Intercity Rail Miami Urbanism

How broadly applicable is the All Aboard Florida development strategy?

» Coupling real estate investment with the construction of new transit lines is the future, but the conditions need to be right.

Public development and ownership of the transportation system in the United States provided some broad, important social benefits that would not have been possible had our governments left it in the hands of the private sector. The downfall of the public transit and rail industries between the 1930s and 1970s throughout the country (itself partly a consequence of government investment in roads) was due to the fact that those services were no longer profitable. Government intervention through takeover of bankrupt lines kept those services operating and ensured the continuing existence of what is truly an essential public service in our major metropolitan areas.

Yet with the governments takeover of transit services, our regions lost a powerful skill that private transportation providers a century ago used well: Connecting new development with transit investments. The history of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is often told, but it bears repeating. The New York Central Railroad, which built the terminal, decided to submerge the tracks under Park Avenue north of the terminal in order to create a massive new business district surrounding the station. That neighborhood remains the nation’s most important commercial center.

The railroad understood that the land it used to build its line was valuable, and that allowing new investments in the area near its station would produce a virtuous cycle that built ridership, which, in turn, increased the value of the surrounding land. It’s an understanding we must absorb if we are to ensure that our transit investments are most effective.

After decades of simply ignoring the land use-related effects of transit investments, over the past two decades local governments have made halting efforts to take advantage of this fact, encouraging transit-oriented development by private investors in areas near new stations through the sale or lease of land or the altering of land use regulations to better accommodate denser growth. The most dramatic version of this is the Hudson Yards program on Manhattan’s West Side, where millions of square feet of new office and residential buildings are under construction or planned. Parts of this land was sold to a private bidder by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which will run a new subway station on the 7 Line, and parts were rezoned to allow big buildings by the city.

Altogether, this represents an intentional effort by New York City to repeat the lessons of Grand Central Terminal by merging transportation investment with a real estate program. But, unlike previous private sector development programs, the MTA and city have not been directly involved in the surrounding projects themselves, relying instead on third-party developers to make the choices and, eventually, reap the rewards.

All Aboard Florida’s $1.5 billion investment in new intercity rail services between Miami and Orlando suggests that the private sector is, in part, picking up the slack by taking advantage of the same forces that the private sector used to build its rail lines a century ago. The rail line will run 235 miles from downtown Miami to Orlando airport in around three hours (compared to five hours on Amtrak today). All Aboard Florida is investing in massive new station complexes in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. The Miami terminal, which will be located on company-owned land downtown, will include two million square feet of office or commercial space, and one million square feet of residential space, as shown below. The project is coming along more slowly than initially planned, but company officials insist they will not need government aid other than a large, low-interest loan from the federal government which it expects to pay back from ticket revenues.

Why has it taken so many decades for the private sector to get back into the development game? The growing demand by individuals to live in urban centers is attracting interest in monetizing the benefits of transit-oriented development, and that’s particularly true for large urban markets like Miami. All Aboard Florida will not need its real estate investments to subsidize its rail operations, which it expects to be operationally profitable, but those developments will certainly help justify the investment in the rail service. They’ll also build the rail line’s ridership, as they’ll create major destinations right at the stations.

Government transit agencies focus on the provision of good transit service, and if you ask management at most agencies, they’ll let you know that they need to focus on “what they’re good at,” i.e., running buses and trains. Yet that approach has repeatedly produced projects with mediocre ridership and little nearby development. Transit agencies are reliant on surrounding land uses to support their operations and whether or not they want to, they must make real estate development something they’re “good at.” It is in the public interest to make our transit system not only well-used, but also the foundation for a sound urban development strategy.

The idea of melding new transportation infrastructure with real estate investments does not have to be a strategy reserved to the private sector. For decades, Hong Kong has used its metro system (76% owned publicly) to invest in surrounding developments, which include properties as diverse as towers and shopping malls (this is known as the “rail plus property” model). Similarly, the Grand Paris Express program I profiled earlier this week will integrate its stations into large new developments directly planned by the government implementing agency (“Completed by private developers, the connected project takes into account the technical and functional prescriptions defined by” the agency, with a program “defined by municipal land use plans“). A special tax on property near stations on the line will help pay for the construction of the metro project.

Of course, the All Aboard Florida, Hong Kong metro, and Grand Paris Express projects are exceptional programs that cannot be repeated in most regions. All rely on strong local real estate markets where there is significant demand for major new development. All Aboard Florida takes advantage of that company’s prior ownership of the tracks used for the trains and of the land where its stations and surrounding real estate will be completed. Meanwhile, the transit investment programs in Hong Kong and Paris have been supported by major infusions of government grants that are not available in most American cities and by considerable political will to invest in the creation of denser, more transit-oriented regions.

Most U.S. regions are too sprawling, too auto-dominated, or too poor to expect this kind of transit-oriented development to occur simultaneously with new rail or bus links, particularly if that means that the transit agency has to take on some risk that a project will fail financially.

Nonetheless, major U.S. cities with significant demand for dense living and working environments like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington should evaluate their transit investment programs to ensure that they’re taking the greatest advantage of surrounding land to develop large real estate projects. These developments will not only increase system ridership but also bring decades of future revenue from office, residential, and retail rent, all of which can be used to improve transit system finances. Recent system expansions in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington — none of which have included major development projects on land owned by the transit agencies — suggest that there is significant work left to be done.

Images above: Proposed Miami station, from All Aboard Florida.

Categories
Bus Nashville

Is Effective Transit Possible in a Transit-Hostile City?

» Despite the sound intentions from the mayor, opposition may kill Nashville’s BRT project.

One of the primary arguments made for investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) is that such systems can be implemented not only more cheaply, but also with more ease, than rail lines.

A look at the situation in Nashville suggests that there are limitations to that “ease.”

Much like in cities across the country, residents of Nashville have strenuously debated the merits of investing in a 7.1-mile, $174 million BRT line called the Amp. The project would link the city’s east and west sides, running from the Five Points in East Nashville through downtown to St. Thomas Hospital, past the city’s West End. With dedicated lanes along 80% of its route, frequent service, pre-paid boarding, level platforms, transit signal priority, and an improved streetscape to boot, the line could potentially serve about 5,000 rides a day, double the existing demand. In this year’s federal budget, the Department of Transportation recommended allocating it $75 million over the next few years.

From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.

Yet this week, Mayor Karl Dean — who has been the project’s primary proponent since 2008 — pulled back, reacting to vocal opponents and a state legislature that threatened to block the line entirely. He agreed to eliminate dedicated lanes for buses along about half of the project’s route.

What gives?

For years, opponents have been mounting a campaign against the Amp, arguing that the project would massively increase congestion by taking away lanes of traffic, require wasteful government spending, and destroy retail and restaurants — thereby reducing sales tax revenue. The Stop Amp coalition, it seems, is funded by a local auto dealer, Lee Beaman. Lawn signs have sprouted everywhere.

You might think the project was recommending turning streets into a bus-only zone, depriving motorists of the freedom to use this all-important corridor. But the investment in the new BRT line will actually guarantee the same number of through lanes on 60% of the corridor, and the route will have two lanes of automobile traffic in both directions throughout. These are not skinny streets; they already have at least five lanes of traffic running on them. But the BRT would require taking space from cars. There would be some negative consequences for those who currently drive.

Moreover, the opponents note, there is “already bus service along the proposed Amp route… and the buses are not running at capacity!

Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Nashville’s recent experience with transit has been far from inspiring. In Davidson County (whose government is shared with the city), 13.3% of families live below the poverty line and 7.6% of households have no vehicle available at all; another 40.3% have just one vehicle available. Yet just 2.1% of the city’s residents take transit to work, representing about 34,000 daily riders. The city’s commuter rail system, the Music City Star, carries just about 900 people per day on average.

But opponents have failed to note the connection between the city’s poor transit service and the demand that would undoubtedly result were better bus services made available. The bus that current serves the city’s West End is scheduled to make the 5 mile trip from downtown to the St. Thomas Hospital in 27 minutes at rush hour — about 10 miles per hour. No wonder few people ride it.

Nonetheless, partially thanks to the support of the Koch Brothers, the state legislature, including both Republican and Democratic members, decided over the past few weeks to make its voice known through legislation. The State Senate passed a bill 27 to 4 that would prohibit center-running transit altogether (most of the Amp would run in the center of the street) and require approval from the State Department of Transportation for dedicated bus lanes. The State House’s equivalent bill would apparently allow for center-running transit, but still require state approval for what is, in the end, a local matter.

Local support for the project, including from the chamber of commerce, has been significant, but not strong enough to push back a hostile state legislature or the local motorists. Thus the rationale behind the mayor’s decision to rid the line of its dedicated lanes in the most controversial areas of the line, in the wealthier West End segment and in front of Mr. Beaman’s car dealership.

One wonders how long the plans for the other dedicated lanes along the corridor will last. Without the dedicated lanes, most of the BRT’s travel time savings, the feature that will make the buses actually attractive to riders, will be lost.

As Daniel Kay Hertz has noted, the popular conversation about appropriate transit investments, in Nashville as much as anywhere, is typically moderated by people who rarely if ever rely on transit. Of course there is opposition to reducing lanes for motorists when virtually everyone who owns a business or runs for office relies entirely on their personal vehicles to get around. How in the world can they be convinced to believe that a BRT project has value?

This phenomenon, which is more than anything else a structural adherence to a pro-automobile transportation policy*, is certainly even more true in a place like Nashville — where decades of sprawl and auto-dependence have wiped out the city’s transit system** — than it is in a major transit market like New York or San Francisco, where similar opposition still pops up all too frequently.

Yet there remains a large, and often potentially underrepresented, share of the population — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the people who simply don’t want to drive — who would benefit from improved transit, even in a transit-hostile place like Nashville. Who represents their interests?

* One might also refer to it as a structural adherence to the needs and preferences of the wealthy.

** As recently as 1970, 7.3% of Davidson County’s workers used transit to commute.

Categories
Atlanta Boston Urbanism Washington DC

Defining Clear Standards for Transit-Oriented Development

Lindbergh

» A new report attempts to quantify the relative merits of development near transit. What value can this tool bring for planners?

Transportation and land use are inextricably linked. Building a new rail line may expand development; new development may expand use of a rail line. The direct connection between the two makes differentiating between cause and effect difficult to measure. Transportation planners frequently make the argument that a new investment will produce new riders, for example, but whether those riders would have come anyway is not a simple question to answer. There is no counter-factual.

Nevertheless, planners have invested decades of considerable work in the pursuit of transit-oriented development (TOD), under the presumption that clustering new housing, offices, and retail will result in rising transit use and, in turn, reduce pollution, cut down on congestion, and improve quality of life. There remains some controversy about the effectiveness of TOD investments in actually increasing transit ridership, but, at least in my mind, the success of certain areas over others has as much to do with the manner in which developments are designed as the mere fact that there is construction adjacent to a rail or bus station.

For example, the considerable success of Arlington, Virginia in attracting riders to the Washington Metro, as compared to Rosemont, Illinois’ interaction with the Chicago L, is likely due to the fact that the former prioritized walkable construction immediately adjacent to subway stations while the latter put the rail line in the median of a highway, separated buildings from the station by hundreds of feet, and minimized pedestrian amenities. Getting the design of new development around transit right is often just as important as the transit itself in terms of attracting ridership.

If design matters, what has been missing has been a tool that offers empirical insight into the benefits of specific development interventions in terms of their effect on growing transit use. To fill the gap, a new tool for measuring TOD quality has recently been introduced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). It holds potential value in terms of defining the appropriate measures for creating effective TOD, but it needs further development to be useful in aiding the creation of best-practice development designs.

The TOD Standard

ITDP’s TOD Standard replicates the BRT Standard the organization finalized this year. Like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, both are scoring systems meant to offer a quick measurement that allows projects to be compared with one another on a variety of relevant criteria.

ITDP argues that this tool allows planners, developers, and the public to assess proposed or existing projects on a wide number of measures. The report aims to identify “what constitutes urban development best practice in promoting sustainable urban transport.” In other words, the goal of the tool is to determine which development projects would do the most to positively expand public transportation usage.

From the perspective of planners who should be actively promoting urban design that increases transit use, the Standard’s recognition of “development that is pro-actively oriented toward, rather than simply adjacent to, public transport” is encouraging. If the system works, it could be an potent way to make the connection between transit and development more explicit and, if used by municipalities or developers to design projects, it could eventually result in expanded ridership.

Best practices are identified across eight design categories — walking, cycling, the transportation network, accessibility to transit, a mix of uses, density, connections to existing employment centers, and changes in parking and road use. Within those categories, 24 criteria can be analyzed individually and then combined into an overall score in which developments rate from -50 (terrible) to +100 (excellent). The tool could be used to determine how well a completed development compares to best practice, or to identify areas for potential improvement.

Vienna Town Center Plan

Testing the Standard’s Effectiveness

ITDP’s tool is designed for large-scale projects within 800 meters (one half mile) of transit stations that implement at least 20,000 square feet of new construction on an area of four or more square blocks. The tool is not meant to measure the TOD effectiveness of existing districts (which are supposed to be included in a future revision of the Standard).

To evaluate just how the tool works, I chose three large TOD projects in East-Coast cities to compare their relative advantages, and inputted project data into the Standard for comparison. The three projects I selected are the Lindbergh Town Center project in Atlanta, which is fully completed (photograph at the top of this post); the NorthPoint project in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, which is partially completed; and the Vienna MetroWest (aka Metro Town Center), outside of Washington, D.C., which is in planning (the plan is just above this section). The latter project is the now down-scaled version of the Vienna plan.* Each constitutes a major development program located immediately adjacent to a transit corridor.

The data that I inputted into into the tool produced the results seen in the following table. As the last row indicates, the MetroWest project scored most poorly, with a rating of 3 out of 100.** Lindbergh did much better, with a score of 39, and NorthPoint best, with a score of 56. It should be emphasized that neither NorthPoint nor MetroWest are completed, so upon actual construction, the final TOD scores could be significantly different.

Evaluating TOD Based on the ITDP TOD Standard
Note: These figures offer a “sketch” computation of each project’s TOD score; the score should be treated as a general figure, not a fully accurate measure of each project’s characteristics.
CriterionPotential PointsMetroWest, Vienna, VANorthPoint, Cambridge, MALindbergh, Atlanta, GA
Sidewalk access0-1000
Complete crosswalks0-500
Driveway interference1010
Active frontage101105
Permeable frontage2011
Shade2001
Cycle network0-10-3
Cycle parking at stations2200
Cycle parking in buildings2???
Cycle access in buildings1???
Intersection density2-1021
Small blocks5030
Prioritized pedestrian connectivity3111
Max walk distance to transit00-20
Avg walk distance to transit5555
Mix of uses10101010
Access to food1100
Affordable housing4022
Residential density10497
Non-residential density5000
Connections to existing urbanism10044
Distance to existing jobs5555
Off-street parking15050
On-street parking5???
Total10035639

Assessing the Standard’s Value

The tool was simple to use and its results make sense intuitively: Whereas the MetroWest project is poor urban design from the perspective of encouraging transit use, the other two are far more oriented toward the nearby rail stations. Hypothetically, if the projects were all proposed for the same site, the tool would allow decision makers to make a quick quantitative comparison between the designs and identify the best project for public transportation riders. This could offer a clear benefit in terms of, for example, choosing a winning team for the contract to develop a publicly owned site. Rather than rely on “subjective” comparisons of the aesthetics of site designs (a comparison that too often devolves into a question of individual architectural taste), the tool quantifies the physical.

The Standard could also play a useful role in improving the ability of developers to design their new transit-adjacent buildings most effectively by highlighting where plans fall short in comparison with best practices.

Yet, as beneficial as it could be, the Standard does not appear to have been developed with a clear research methodology to back its scoring system. Why is the active frontage criterion worth 10 points, but the amount of shade on nearby streets only worth 2? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that residential and commercial density are the overwhelming influencers of transit use, yet those criteria only account for a quarter of the score. ITDP does not appear to have conducted a real-world analysis to demonstrate whether certain elements are more beneficial in terms of attracting transit use. Rather, the tool seems to have been created using a common sense approach, which is not as good as one might hope for a “Standard” that is explicitly designed to provide an empirical scoring system for measuring TOD effectiveness.

ITDP’s TOD Standard, though, remains a draft; it will be revised over the next year based on public and expert input. It would be beneficial if those revisions attempted to incorporate evidence about the relative effectiveness of the various criteria in terms of growing transit ridership.

Even so, for those who are already familiar with the basic principles of transit-oriented development, ITDP’s scoring system will do little more than reinforce already-acquired knowledge. Every urbanist knows quite well that good TOD requires pedestrian connectivity, a mix of uses, and bike parking — those goals might as well be imprinted on the foreheads of most people trained in planning. At most, ITDP’s guidelines may highlight slight differences between individual projects, but a quick comparison of the site plans of Vienna’s MetroWest and Cambridge’s NorthPoint is enough for most even unexperienced planners to make out which one is designed for transit, and which one isn’t.

So what added value does the Standard bring? Like WalkScore, it provides an “objective” number that can be used by non-planner decision makers to help them determine which projects would best fulfill the policy objective of maximizing transit use. The Standard must be refined, however, to focus on making that number into something that’s genuinely reflective of best practices.

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* I recognize that the Vienna project profiled here may not be the project that is built; the original plan for the site envisioned much higher densities just next to the station. For this comparison, though, I wanted to pick a project that I hypothesized would score poorly using the ITDP tool, and this revision fit the bill.

** Because I could not locate data on bike access to buildings or the area devoted to on-street parking, the documented scores were really out of a total possible score of 93.

Image at top: Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, from Cooper Carry Architects; below: Revised Vienna Metro Town Center Plan, from Paraclete Realty