Integrating Transit and Land Use: A Cautionary Tale

The Transport Politic tells the story of a new rapid transit corridor study in suburban Maryland, extending west from DC Metro’s Red Line terminus at Shady Grove.  Don’t worry if you don’t know the geography.  Think of this, instead, as a Rohrshach test.  There’s a yellow option and a blue option, and the squiggly blue option has an additional optional squiggle in green.  Which one would you rather ride?


For a line that has to wind through a classic suburban landscape of business parks and subdivisions laced with huge freeways, the yellow line is remarkably straight.  Unfortunately, many of the densest destinations with the best ridership potential are on the blue line.

As a result, Maryland now has to choose between a direct yellow line that misses key destinations and a blue line that serves them but is maddeningly circuitous, especially compared to the freeway that this line would compete with.

There is no clearer example of this basic principle:  Public transit’s usefulness is determined by land use planning more than by transit planning.  Once you’ve arranged your major land use nodes to form a squiggle, you’ve pretty much prohibited efficient public transit.

(Given the way it’s been built, the best solution I can see here is some form of Bus Rapid Transit with multiple branching patterns, so that a main line could follow the yellow route with branches to serve the major dots on the blue squiggle as well as the green squiggle to Kentlands.  It’s not ideal, but no solution here will be as satisfactory or efficient as what you’d have if the big destinations on the blue squiggle were in a straight line.)

This is a textbook example of why rational long-range planning must think about land use and transport together, using a coordinating tool such as the Frequent Network strategy that I discuss here as it applies to another sprawling capital region, Canberra, Australia.  It’s also a textbook example of the first rule of transit-oriented development, which is:  Be on the Way!  If you want your development to have good transit, put it on a direct route between other places that either have good transit or will readily justify it.  Such a principle, had it been in the backs of everyone’s mind as this suburbia was being built, would have made high-quality transit possible without changing the overall density, or, for that matter, changing anything else that would matter much to people who live there now.

Map by the excellent graphics team at The Transport Politic

5 Responses to Integrating Transit and Land Use: A Cautionary Tale

  1. J.D. Hammond November 9, 2009 at 9:02 am #

    I actually see Kentlands as an example of the myopia of much New Urbanist development, at least in its early stages. Having the parts of transit-oriented development doesn’t necessarily lead to the whole, particularly when it’s a greenfield development disconnected from major thoroughfares.

  2. anonymouse November 9, 2009 at 10:59 pm #

    By the way, the “be on the way” rule is entirely the opposite of what you want with automobile-oriented planning. There, being on the way means more traffic and potential destruction from future road-widenings. With transit, it mostly just means better service.

  3. Jarrett at November 9, 2009 at 11:26 pm #

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    Yes, exactly!

  4. Pantheon November 9, 2009 at 11:56 pm #

    This is a pretty simple point, but it illustrates exactly why the United States is such a frustrating place for transit advocates and users. The urban fabric in this example does more than just pose an engineering challenge. It also makes transit an unattractive option. Transit and walking go hand in hand. If a place is attractive and pleasant for walking, it is equally so for transit. Places that are built for automobiles are both inconvenient and unpleasant for transit users, and therefore people who live in those areas will continue to drive.
    This simple point – that the urban fabric is determinant – has huge consequences for transit and livability advocates in America. It means that we will never have the kind of livable communities that are to be found in Europe. No matter how much political power we acquire, no matter how many transit consultants we hire or how clever they may be, the die has been cast. When the Eisenhower administration decided to subsidize freeways at the rate of 90 cents on the dollar, America’s fate was sealed.
    It is thoroughly depressing to think that one generation’s naive and grandiose visions of automotive paradise could cause such permanent damage to the nation. It is a good illustration though of why I am so intrinsically conservative about building transit infrastructure of any kind – whether freeways or cheapy light rail lines along freeways. Whatever we do will leave an indelible image, so we had better be certain it’s the right one.

  5. Peter Schmiedeskamp November 17, 2009 at 12:24 pm #

    Excellent post as per usual. The sidebar about the Eisenhower administration is an interesting one for me. I’ve heard it proposed that the highways were consciously developed in part to facilitate sprawl. The general idea being that, if we spread out our population and infrastructure, we exponentially increased the cost to the Soviets of nuking us.
    I don’t remember where I read this or for certain whether it is true, but it seems plausible given that the Interstates were developed as military infrastructure. Coupled with home lending policies that favored suburban development, it seems even more plausible.
    I sort of like this vision of the past too, because it doesn’t suggest that planners (military or otherwise) were simply naive to the effects of automobiles, but that we simply had the wrong, or at least very different goals. This also suggests to me that there is hope for us if we can agree that a new set of dangers is as dangerous as Ivan and his nukes.
    Assuming I’m not just spouting B.S., fear of nuclear armageddon had a very different effect in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg. There, they dug extremely deep metros in hopes that it would shelter them from our nukes.