New Brief on Transit-Oriented Development, Recent Articles and Reports Examine Policy Options for a High-Speed Rail Future

CSG this week issues a new brief in our Capitol Research series entitled “Transit-Oriented Development.” Using the possibility of development around future high-speed rail stations as a jumping off point, it examines the policy options available to states to try to shape how that development occurs. While high-speed rail has suffered a number of political setbacks in recent months, it remains on track in some parts of the country. But regardless of whether high-speed rail is coming to your state any time soon, there is a great deal of useful information in the brief about the role states can play in shaping the kinds of communities Americans say they want and that best serve our citizens, the environment and the economy. I encourage you to read the brief, which examines the benefits of transit-oriented development, the role of state governments in encouraging it, and the experiences of California and many other states in adopting related policies. If the brief piques your interest, there is an abundance of other worthwhile reading I can point you toward as well.

Transit-Oriented Development & “Infill” Stations

In the brief, I write about how some in California want policymakers, in planning for a high-speed rail future, to learn lessons from what happened when San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system was developed in the 1960s. It was designed with no requirement that communities with BART stations develop station area plans or support area development. A lack of adequate planning created stations that became islands surrounded by parking and little else. But as a blogger for the Transport Politic pointed out recently, BART was disadvantaged for other reasons as well.

“With 104 miles of track and just 43 stations, the (BART) system may have the most widely-spaced stopping pattern of almost any rapid transit system in the world,” writes blogger Yonah Freemark. “One wonders whether those huge inter-station distances reduce ridership by making it too difficult for people to get to and from stops by foot. Washington’s Metro, which was built in essentially the same period, has almost the same track length but twice as many stations.”

BART recently opened a new stop at West Dublin/Pleasanton, the first such “infill” station that breaks up what was previously a 10-mile gap between two stations. The station was built at a cost of $106 million, $20 million of which came from a developer who plans to build housing units, office space and a hotel within walking distance. Freemark says the station and other infill projects represent a new way of thinking about transit investment.

“(Infill stations) have a number of significant advantages over line extensions,” he writes. “For one, it costs less money to build a new station along an existing corridor than to extend the same line further out. In addition, by adding service to a neighborhood that has been overlooked by initial investments, the new station can encourage new transit-oriented projects in town instead of encouraging further suburbanization.”

When Transit-Oriented Development Isn’t

Freemark and the Transport Politic also ran a recent piece called “Stuck in the Land of Missed Opportunity” about Rosemont, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago adjacent to O’Hare Airport. According to Freemark, while the area includes a huge number of hotels for stranded air travelers, close proximity to the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line rapid transit corridor, a major convention center, a movie theater and a performance hall, the area was not planned with transit passengers or pedestrians in mind.

“The transit authority made the first mistake by placing the stop in the median of the highway, a location that significantly limits the appeal of transit for people who have no choice,” writes Freemark. “Nobody wants to have to stand on an open platform waiting for a train in the middle of a roaring expressway. Nobody wants to have to walk under or over said road just to get to the train … Finally, the Rosemont station only has an exit to the north, forcing people who want to go to the more developed areas to the south to go under the road again.”

Freemark said that while he managed to brave the no man’s land around the transit station and catch the Blue Line to explore the city on a recent stop-over, he suspects many would likely not do the same.

“The position of the station and the poor consideration given to it by the design of the development around it are limiting transit use and, perhaps more importantly, diminishing economic activity in the Chicago region in general,” he writes. “Those thousands of people bumped from flights every year at O’Hare Airport could be eating at a restaurant in Wicker Park or shopping downtown, but most of them are probably stuck in their hotels.”

Additional Reading

Here’s a roundup of some other recent reports and articles that touch on transit-oriented and other types of development:

  • The National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation recently issued the first in a series of case studies examining how regional planning and development organizations are incorporating livability principles into rural and small metropolitan planning processes. The case study focuses on an intergovernmental partnership that has led to the creation of a regional corridor plan to address sprawl, threatened open space and congestion issues along a highly traveled corridor in coastal Maine. Sixteen communities along the corridor partnered with state agencies to develop the long-term plan which seeks to support sustainable economic growth and link land use and transportation planning to improve mobility and preserve the rural character of the region.
  • A recent post on the Sustainable Cities Collective website entitled “What High-Speed Rail Means for Community Design” hits some of the highlights of a U.S. High-Speed Rail Association conference held this winter. The article details speakers’ remarks about new transit-oriented developments near two of America’s busiest train stations, Union Station in Washington, D.C. and Penn Station in New York City. It also looks at the redesign of old train stations and their environs in England and Australia to accommodate larger trains and make the stations more multi-modal, mixed-use, functional and efficient. The article also points to a project in Amsterdam, Holland, where a public-private partnership was used to finance the redevelopment of a depressed community near its central rail station. The city contributed 30 percent of the capital costs to help ensure the redevelopment spread well beyond the rail station.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reported last month on the city planning commission’s vote to demolish the 1940s designed, car-centric Parkmerced development and transform it into a dense, $1.2 billion transit-first community. The redevelopment would see 1,500 town homes demolished and replaced with 7,200 units that would bring 14,000 new residents to the 152-acre development. Easy access to transit would be a key advantage of the development. But older residents object to the project because they say the new development would ruin the area’s wide-open lawns and unique character.
  • Switchboard, the Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog, included a post last month that details the saga of King Farm, a suburban Washington, D.C. community that was designed to be “transit-ready” but where some residents have now decided they don’t want the light rail or bus rapid transit that was originally envisioned to link their town center to the closest Metro station. Those residents are, somewhat ironically, worried about the effect transit construction will have on traffic, parking and pedestrian safety, among other things. A final decision on whether the planned transit system will move forward will be made by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. But NRDC blogger Kaid Benfield says there may be a cautionary lesson to take away from the King Farm controversy. “Transit-oriented or transit-ready may not mean squat if the transit isn’t fully committed,” Benfield writes.