There is a lot of confusion out there about Park-and-Ride. Is it necessary for ridership? Are motorists entitled to it? Can it last forever? Continue Reading →
Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)
Next time someone tells you that transit has to be rail in order to affect real estate demand, send them this paper [paywalled] by Elin Charles-Edwards, Martin Bell and Jonathan Corcoran – a dramatic example of bus infrastructure profoundly transforming residential demand.
Our scene is the main campus of University of Queensland, which is located on a peninsula formed by a loop of the Brisbane River. It's in the southwest corner of this image. The area labeled "Brisbane" is the highrise downtown. Most everything in between — which is mostly on the south side of the river — is dense, redevelopable inner city fabric.
If you look closely you can see a single faint bridge connecting the University across the river. This is the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, which opened in 2006, and which is solely for pedestrians, cyclists, and buses. No private cars. It's one of the developed world's most effective of examples of a transit path that is vastly straighter than the motorist's options.
Prior to the opening of the bridge, University of Queensland had a problem much like that of Vancouver's University of British Columbia. Its peninsula setting helped it feel remote and serene (the rarefied air of academe and all that) but it was also brutally hard to get to, especially from places where students and lower-paid staff could afford to live. While there are some affordable areas west of the campus, most of the immediate campus area is far too affluent and low-density to house the university's students or the bulk of its workforce. So commutes to the campus were long and difficult.
Apart from the geography of income, the issue here was classic chokepoint geography, and that was the key to the transit opportunity. Brisbane's looping river, and its extreme shortage of bridges outside of downtown, slices the city into a series of hard-to-access peninsulas. Motorists are used to driving way out of direction to reach their destinations, and until recently, buses had to do the same thing. The only transit that could do what cars couldn't was the river ferry system, CityCat, and while this system is immensely successful, it is still a small share of the travel market because (a) so much of the population is not on the river and (b) the river is a circuitous travel path as well.
Charles-Edwards et al show how the bridge created an explosive expansion of access (where can I get to, soon?) for the campus by walking, cycling, and bus service. Walking:
And by bus (focus on the triangle in the centre of the image, which is the campus):
It's worth noticing why this bus bridge is so effective: It plugs right into the Brisbane Busway network, which looks like this. ("UQ Lakes" is the campus stop.)
Direct buses from campus run along most of these paths, and connect to many other frequent services covering the area south of the river, including a couple of useful frequent rail lines extending southeast from downtown. This is the biggest and highest-quality busway system in the developed world, in terms of the degree of protection from private car traffic along complete travel paths, including a tunnel under downtown. So the access opened up by this bridge was extraordinary. The busway is so fast and reliable that even commutes from northern Brisbane — on the same side of the river as the campus — were speeded up by the new bridge because they could remain in busway for the entire journey.
The effect on the location of students and staff, from 2003 until 2012 (six years after the bridge opened) looks like this.
The colour choices are unfortunate, so pay attention to the legend and focus on "St Lucia" (the campus) and the inner city areas just across the river from it. Remember, too, that this is a map of percentage change, so don't be distracted by big colors far away from the action, which represent noise (percentage changes on a tiny base). You can see that students and staff have shifted in big numbers to the inner city across the river from the campus, but also to southern and eastern suburbs each of the river, which are more affordable and still easily reached by buses from the campus. In the author's careful words, the bridge caused "a significant redistribution of staff and students across the metropolitan area." It also had the likely effect of reducing overall commute times by enabling people to live much closer to the campus, though the authors don't mention that.
Because the project gave buses so much of an advantage in accessing the campus, the mode share shifted dramatically, enabling the campus itself to grow without choking on cars:
Between 2002 and 2011, the population accessing the campus increased by 23 per cent, … all of which were absorbed by [non-car modes on] the bridge. There was an accompanying shift in the modal mix of trips away from cars to public transport. This was most marked among students, for whom less than one-quarter of trips were by car in 2011, down from two-fifths in 2002. Bus patronage increased among students from around a quarter of trips to more than half. Staff car usage declined from 70 per cent in 2002 to just over half in 2011, with buses, cycling and walking all increasing in popularity.
Eleanor Schonell Bridge is a powerful example of infrastructure that transforms a city's living patterns by transforming the isochrones of access. We can all think of trains and ferries that do this, but it's rare that buses are allowed to succeed in the same way. Once again, Brisbane has shown that it's not the transit technology that matters to people's location choices. It's where you can get to easily.
From Henry Mulvey, of Massachusetts:
Hello, my name is Henry Mulvey, I am a tenth grader. I am a huge streetcar fan and I love the old Boston Elevated Railway. I hope to attend M.I.T. for urban planning then work the M.B.T.A. or the state on a big replica streetcar plan for the city of Boston. I just read your article saying streetcar aren't what they seem and I have some rebuttal points. I'm going try my hardest to be civil because I am a die-hard streetcar fan. The two things I see that you either underestimate or don't mention are the aesthetic appeal of streetcars and the environmental costs of buses. Streetcars look very different than buses and people like that. In the case of replica streetcars, they might not carry as many passengers as modern types but they make people think "ooh, that's cool! I want to ride!". Streetcars are more attractive than standard old buses, even an updated bus! Streetcars are also more environmental friendly than buses. Ideally streetcars do not omit any pollutants and are much more efficient than buses. I also think the connection between streetcars and economic development is well documented and you don't provide any evidence to the contrary, can you give me evidence? It's my belief that a streetcar line that uses replica streetcars does both provide great transit and showcases history. Boston is a city that loves history and has a need for streetcars so I think a streetcar would work incredibly there. Thank you for listening to me, Henry Mulvey
Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't? In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.
Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit
leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit
What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes? According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions. The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way. Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.
While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples. Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US. Las Vegas, Ottawa, Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument. Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.
There will be plenty of quarrel over the details. But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development. For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was. In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service — usually of high quantity if not high quality — has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.
This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view. I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus. In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city. Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty. All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.
But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible. Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.
In my work for transit agencies, I'm always insisting that reports should not just explain how routes perform (typically in ridership per unit of cost) but also why.
Here's one partial example from an infographic developed by TransLink, the transit agency in Vancouver, Canada.
All other things being equal, long, straight routes perform better than short, squiggly and looping ones. The reasons are obvious to most transit riders (and are laid out in detail in Chapters 4 and 14 of my book) but you'd be amazed how many well-intentioned people haven't figured this out, and continue to advocate land use patterns that make effective transit impossible. (Mantra: It's not Transit-Oriented Development unless it's oriented toward transit that can succeed.)
Now, TransLink can use this in their explanation whenever someone demands that a route should squiggle to serve their interests.
A core of my own practice is in developing ways to build understanding of the causes of transit's success, so if your transit agency is struggling to explain productivity, put them in touch with me!
This is not a balanced book review. While I will start with some general praise of this new book, I must focus on a few passages about public transit that are both misleading and potentially harmful. I do this not to challenge these authors in particular, but because these mistakes are so common in urbanist writing and need to be called out wherever they appear.
Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, both at the University of Utah, have a new large-format paperback offering a concise overview of the basics on Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented design. If you want a good glossary of key urbanist concepts such as imageability and coherence, or you want a good and well-cited argument for local street connectivity, this is your book.
Very usefully, the book is organized as a series of checklists: Here are the features that you must have to be considered transit-oriented design, here are others that are desirable. It's designed to be handy to the time-crunched developer or policy person. In fact, it meets one of the most important standards for an influential book in our distracted age: You can get most of the message by just looking at the pictures and reading the section headings.
The writing is good, too, clear and with careful attention to explaining and demystefying concepts. With one exception, I could recommend this as a good reference guide to the key concepts of pedestrian-oriented design.
As a guide to transit-oriented design, however, it has a fatal flaw: The authors make recommendations about transit that make sense from a design and development point of view but are nonsense to many experienced transit planners. These recommendations will sound elitist and tone-deaf if you present them to your transit agency. As always, I emphasize sound; I've talked with enough urbanist writers to know how good their intentions are; they are mostly genuinely surprised when their comments about transit backfire. But it's not a hard mistake to avoid. I am going to take apart a critical passage in the book not because it's typical — it's an unusual flaw in a good book — but because it illustrates a lingering problem with urbanist discussions of transit in general, one that I hope we are close to moving beyond.
Ewing and Bartholomew lead off their transit discussion with this tired old chestnut:
In the quest for efficiency, transit has become dull and utilitarian, part of the problem reather than the solution to today's lifeless streetscapes (Coppe 1991). [p 82]
If this generalization is really about "today," then how is it bolstered by a 22-year old citation? Obviously it's true to a degree, more in some cities than others, but there has been transformative progress in the last two decades. Fleet, facilities, and technology have been upgraded across the developed world, often with the input of great designers. Do transit agencies get no credit for the evolution in the comfort, openness and access that have happened over the last generation?
More fundamentally, this line conveys disinterest of the nature of transit's success, a disinterest that is tragically common in urbanist professions. The word efficiency is used as though all readers would agree it's a misguided goal. But when working under any fixed budget as transit agencies do, efficiency is the same thing as abundance. (When something called efficiency is genuinely destructive or unsustainable, it should be called false efficiency. Freeways, fracking, and industrial farming may be less efficient than they look because of externalized negative impacts. Questioning those things doesn't amount to questioning efficiency.)
As for the word utilitarian, it has a technical meaning in philosophy but here it's a dismissive word meaning useful. Anything that scales to a vast network that's potentially useful to thousands or millions of people can be called utilitarian. Great transit agencies wear this term as a badge of honor. What's more they prove that usefulness is beautiful.
But the authors dig themselves deeper. After showing us pictures of charming, distinctive bus shelters in two wealthy communities that can afford them, they write:
In some cases, transit operators might do better by putting fewer buses on the street at times of low demand, and diverting the money they save into bus stop amenities and fleet facelifts.
This, urbanist friends, crosses a bright red line called upward redistribution of wealth.
This book appears at a time when many US transit agencies have been slashing transit service for the last five years, driving away legions of riders. Portland, for example, has had its inner city grid network gutted — mostly cut to 20 minute frequencies at which the connections on which it relies are almost impossible — even though frequent transit service is a foundational element in the City of Portland's neighborhood development policies.
Any "low-ridership" services that have survived all that carnage are serving popular and important non-ridership goals. They are not going to be cut to build nicer bus shelters. Doing so could also be illegal in the US if you're using Federal funds: US Title VI legislation (part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) is designed to prevent exactly this kind of upward redistribution of the benefits resulting from public investment. All US transit agencies that receive Federal funds must do extensive analysis to prove they are treating low-income and minority riders fairly in both service and infrastructure.
So if you follow this book's advice, and tell your transit agency they should cut service and force lower income riders to buy cars so you can pay for nicer bus shelters, it doesn't matter how noble your intentions are. You will sound elitist. You will sound especially hostile to the burgeoning environmental justice agenda that is already embodied in civil rights legislation, and that has its own strong nexus with the ultimate outcomes that we call sustainability. If you prevail in guiding the policy of your transit agency, that agency could be exposed to civil rights lawsuits as a result. Do you really want this many enemies?
It doesn't help that in suggesting service cuts at "times [rather than places] of low demand," the authors are just repeating a common misconception. Ridership at different times of day is interdependent, if only for the obvious reason that most transit trips are round trips. If you cut service and thus reject a customer at one time of day, you'll likely lose their business in the other direction as well. The most obvious "time of low demand," the late evening, is also a "guaranteed ride home," which means it affects the overall attractiveness of the product. Finally, lower-income riders who form the bedrock on which transit grows are especially likely to be travelling in the evening; cut their service, force them to spend their scarce money on cars, and you've shoved them further into poverty.
A consistent pattern of all-day service (including "times of low demand") is a powerful tool for fostering lower vehicle ownership. That's is why many transit agencies are now committing to a policy "Frequent Network" that guarantees service over a certain span regardless of trip-by-trip ridership. (These policies, important in guiding true Transit-oriented Development at regionwide scale, deserved a mention. Policies in the Portland and Vancouver BC regions could both have been cited. Indeed, the book is silent on the urgent question of how to recognize a suitable site for TOD.)
I love distinctive transit shelters as much as anyone, but not if they are defined as an alternative to the sheer quantities of service that cities need and that ridership would reward. (Canadian midsized cities, for example, generally have about twice the ridership per capita of similar US cities, not becuase their shelters are cuter but becuase they run about twice as much service per capita.)
Distinctive, adorable shelters can still come about in one of three entirely reasonable ways. Either:
- they have been paid for by developers, or by neighboring landowners who will profit most directly from any uplift in land values, or
- they have been paid for by city governments as a form of beautifcation, or
- they are transit agency investments that are affordable and suitable for mass production, like the San Francisco shelters with the characteristic wave roofs.
Developer-funding (also endorsed in the book) is often the purest nexus of all, but city funding is also a healthy trend. City governments are much better placed than regional transit agencies to make investments that express civic identity and character. Most US cities can also do improvement districts that focus the cost on the landowners who will most benefit. Still, it's usually wealthier communities that can afford to do this, so it's deeply misleading to present these specialized shelters as realistic examples for cities in general, let alone to suggest that cash-strapped agencies should reject existing riders in order to pay for them.
It's hard to even criticize Ewing and Bartholomew for these howlers. As long as I've been in the business, I've heard leading urbanists lecturing transit planners about how they should abandon their obsession with abundant service and focus on aesthetics instead. As someone with serious credentials in the arts, my response is always that I understand the aesthetic values that the urbanist is describing, but that their recommendation is pointless until they own the consequences of the cuts they are implicitly proposing to fund these things.
To be fair, transit agencies have been slow to engage urbanists in their own language, which requires staff with appropriate expertise. This, however, has improved dramatically over the last decade. Most leading transit agencies in major US cities have design and land use professionals on staff. Working urban designers and architects are responding constructively to transit agency input, and respectful conversations between the fields are happening more than ever. Most urban design and architecture professonals that I deal with are sensitive to real-world transit issues and open to learning about transit agency perspectives, so we can hope for a continued spread of insight on these issues.
Indeed, Ewing's and Bartholomew's book shows how far the urbanist discourse has come in respecting transit and the diversity of its riders. They speak mostly of "transit," avoiding rail vs. bus arguments, and their photos show buses as accepted parts of the urban landscape deserving of attention. This is real progress, still controversial in some quarters. It was partly in the context of this larger sensitivity that the passages quoted above were so shocking.
In the long run, urbanist thinkers who discuss transit must learn to respect transit network design and policy as a genuine expertise — something that's worth learning about before you comment on it. Again, my own experience suggests that the practice is ahead of the literature in this regard. This book — very useful on all subjects except transit policy — shows how far urbanists' respect for transit agencies has come since the early days of the New Urbanism, and how much — or perhaps how little — remains to be done.
The Urban Land Institute has an interview with me today, where I chat through some of my friendly and supportive to developers when thinking about transit.
(Short version: Read my book! Take my course!)
Alfred Twu lives in the Bay Area and is a long time transit rider. He has studied architecture and business and is also an active participant of the cooperative movement, having worked in artist, food, and housing co-ops. He is also an illustrator for my forthcoming book Human Transit.
Also known as cooperative living, co-ops, communes, intentional communities, or living with roommates, shared housing creates challenges and opportunities for transit service. It can increase density without zoning changes or construction. However, good transit service needs to already exist for this to happen. As such, shared housing's greatest potential is in increasing utilization of under-zoned but well served neighborhoods.
What is shared housing?
Shared housing denotes a group of unrelated people live in a single dwelling unit. Kitchens, bathrooms, and other living areas are shared, bedrooms may be shared or single occupancy. In the Bay Area, this model is known as a co-op or cooperative. Note that the word co-op has an entirely different meaning on the East Coast.
Shared housing has a long history in the Bay Area, dating back to boarding houses. The modern Bay Area cooperative housing movement began in 1933 with the founding of the Berkeley Student Cooperative.
Although some structures are built with shared housing in mind, usually the building is simply a repurposed large house. For example, Ridge House, a 38 person student co-op, used to be a mansion, while Cooperative Roots, pictured below, houses around 20 people in two adjacent single family houses.
What does this have to do with transit?
Let's look at two neighborhoods: one dense, and one sprawling. The denser neighborhood will usually have better transit service.
Now, if zoning ordinances prevent additional housing from being built in Sprawlville, that does not mean it's the end of the story. While zoning typically concerns itself with units per acre, the density that matters for transit service is population per acre, or more specifically, commuters per acre.
This is where shared housing comes in. When a neighborhood of single family houses goes from having one or two working adults per house, to having 4 to 8 working adults, as far as transit is concerned, it's a high density neighborhood.
The catch to this though, is that this can only happen where there is already good transit service. When a group of people share a house, they'll all want easy access to their jobs, which may be in different directions. Not all of them will take transit either – some of them will need to drive to their jobs, some people prefer to bike. This is why shared housing works so well with college students – everyone is going to the same place for their "job", so only one frequent route is necessary.
Case Study: Ashby BART (San Francisco Bay Area)
A number of my friends who used to live in shared housing as students have formed their own communities after graduation. Most are now in their mid 20s to early 30s. Some work office jobs with traditional 9-5 hours, others work retail jobs with varying hours. Over the last few years, about 30 communities of 4 to 18 people have been formed. Most cluster around the Ashby rail rapid transit station. Let's examine why.
- It is about halfway between the two big job centers in the area: UC Berkeley and Downtown Oakland.
- It is 20 minutes on rapid transit to the region's largest job center, downtown San Francisco.
- It is close to freeway on-ramps.
- It is on flat ground and within biking distance of a large number of commercial districts. Bike access is important since transit service in the evenings and on weekends is limited.
- It is not in itself a downtown district. This means there are a lot of large houses with lots of bedrooms and yards – the preferred housing type.
- There are already other co-ops in the area.
The one co-op not near a BART station — an outlier near the bay — is an artists' warehouse.
Ashby Station: Excellent transit service but low density
The Ashby station neighborhood, which currently consists of mostly single family houses, had long been targeted by planners for transit oriented development. It has an underground rapid transit station with train frequency of every 7 minutes on weekdays and 20 minutes at night and on weekends.
However, the official plan to build 300 units of housing on the station parking lots met significant neighborhood opposition. Existing residents were concerned about losing the flea market that currently operates on weekends in the parking lot, increased traffic, and future upzoning of the area. The project was put on hold in 2006.
Shared housing, however, has achieved something similar with no official intervention.
Can the Ashby model be replicated elsewhere?
Using shared housing to increase neighborhood density offers a solution for low density areas where economic constraints or zoning limits the ability to build new housing units. The following factors are needed for its success:
Multimodal Job Access
Members of a shared house with long commutes tend to move out. Therefore a location needs good access to members' existing jobs, and potential future ones. Transit is just one part of the equation – those working 9 to 5 hours downtown. For the other members, good car and bike access to nearby commercial areas is needed for those working retail and service jobs on evenings and weekends.
Catalyst community and clustering effect
The Ashby area community began with just a couple of houses. However, the community grew rapidly as the original residents' friends also wanted to live nearby. UC Berkeley provided a feeder system with many members having already familiarized themselves with shared housing through living in the Berkeley student co-ops. In places far from colleges, immigrant neighborhoods can also benefit from the feeder effect.
One of the side benefits of shared housing is a group of residents will have a lot of purchasing power with their combined incomes, and will seek out the area that meets their needs best. Until most people live in shared housing, this means that a region will likely have only a small number of preferred neighborhoods.
Why not MacArthur? Station placement matters.
The next station down the line, MacArthur, is even better positioned in terms of access to transit and jobs. However, this station is located in a freeway median. As a result, a lot of the land walkable to the station is either paved over, or so close to a freeway that it is an unpleasant place to live. As a result, even though this area has been zoned for multistory apartments, few have been built.
Creating community: the station as social hub
Shared housing in the Ashby area occurred without any official planning – an existing community (recent UC Berkeley graduates) simply moved in. Where no existing community exists, social hubs such as coffee shops or community centers, located inside or directly next to the station, can aid the formation of the close relationships that shared housing requires.
The park was developed from farmland by Masud Mehran's Sunset Development Corporation in 1978 on the belief that San Francisco real estate would soon become expensive and companies would need cheaper space for their administrative services. His grandson, Alexander Mehran, describes the transit program as "a necessity that developed into a whole different animal." When the park started, it was simply too far from anywhere. "We were getting crushed by people going to work in Walnut Creek and Dublin," where the BART stations are. As a result, the ranch bought a fleet of buses and worked with the city and county transit agencies to subsidize both bus routes and bus passes for workers. There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.
The most important word in that paragraph, of course, is subsidize. Suburban business parks are expensive, per customer, for transit to serve, so a suburban employer can't expect attractive or useful service simply by demanding it.
The second most important word is cheaper, which in the suburban context is sometimes an illusion. Bishop Ranch exists because it was perceived as a cheaper location for business. It is, but partly because land value follows access. The cheapest site will usually be the one with the worst transportation problems, and if a business chooses the site solely on those grounds, they're transferring the hidden cost of transportation onto their employees, their customers, and the transit agency. Employees can quit, customers can go elsewhere, and increasingly, transit agencies, too, are pushing back against serving these cheap-because-inaccessible sites, by suggesting that employers take responsibility for some of the cost burden created by their choice of location.
Finally, it's worth noting that Bishop Ranch is a fairly intense business park, with many multi-story buildings. Effectively it was a single-use new town of considerable density, so while the location was difficult for transit, transit agencies still had a ridership motive in serving it. If it were being built today, I hope Bishop Ranch would be mixed-use, with some residences mixed in, and also located with greater care in relation to existing and potential transit corridors, on the "Be on the Way" principle. Still, for being what it is, Bishop Ranch deserves a lot of credit for taking responsiblity for the transit consequences of its site, and investing in services to help overcome those barriers.
Well, sooner or later, you'll have to sell to the next generation, so it makes sense to be paying attention to what they think.