“We can’t have density there because there’s not enough transit.”

Ever heard this line?  A debate in Google's home town, Mountain View south of San Francisco, has turned up this response to an obvious idea of building more housing close to the city's business-park district, so that fewer people have to drive long distances to get there.  No, some council candidates say, because there's not enough transit there. 

Well, there's not enough transit there because there aren't enough people there, yet.  Transit is easy to add in response to seriously transit-oriented development, but as long as you have a development pattern that is too low-density or single-use for transit, you've locked in lousy transit service as an outcome.  

So whenever someone gives you this line as a reason to oppose a transit-friendly development, ask: "Well, what would it cost to provide good transit, and who should pay for that?"

Often, as in Mountain View, extremely frequent transit into the nearby transit hub can achieve plenty, and is not that expensive, because of the very short distances involved.

There are other situations where there's not enough transit because transit just isn't viable at any reasonable price, for an obvious geographic reason like remoteness from transit hubs or destinations.   

But it's worth asking.  

11 Responses to “We can’t have density there because there’s not enough transit.”

  1. Brian Guy September 9, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    It’s also important to distinguish between transit-supportive uses and transit-oriented form.
    Services and major employers can be a significant trip generator for transit, but if built in auto-oriented form, you’re still locked into lousy transit service.
    On the other hand, development can have pedestrian-oriented form, but if lacking major destinations or dense housing (origins), they will create an inviting place to walk to and wait for transit, but necessarily, large numbers actually riding it.
    Granted, the former mismatch of good uses in bad form is much more common in the cars-first American landscape than the latter mismatch of poor uses in good form. But as better urban forms make a resurgence, including Greenfield New Urbanism, it’s still an important distinction.
    The former mismatch will also often result in “public transit” -minded politicians demanding routes to help those without cars still needing to get to work and essential services from their affordable housing pods. The later mismatch will see more “green transit” -minded politicians demanding expanded service to help the environment, despite the lack of demand.
    What is really needed is a built environment that is both pleasant for walking and dense with activity. Then, you have a “mass transit”-minded community that appreciates the social service and the environmental benefits of transit, but ultimately can support transit lines for their higher utilization and consumer-attractive efficiency for a vast variety of trips.

  2. calwatch September 9, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    It’s OK to build before transit if it’s on the way, another one of Jarrett’s key points. Downtown Mountain View is on the way for frequent transit, going in the north, west, and east. There are also job destinations in all directions. But building high density housing in Gilroy or Almaden, to use other examples from the Bay Area, would be a terrible idea since those are at the end of transit lines and would just engender more outward sprawl.

  3. EngineerScotty September 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    But we can’t add transit service because there’s not enough density. 😛

  4. Al Dimond September 10, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    This is particularly true for residential and retail, as opposed to offices. If you build an office with parking you also have to build enough aisles, ramps, and surrounding road capacity for those spaces to be used essentially all at once during morning and evening commute peaks. This limits how densely you can build parking and destroys pedestrian environments. In residential buildings that aren’t utterly auto-oriented it’s possible to build parking spaces with less convenient egress, and plan around only a fraction of the stored cars leaving the garage every day. Households also tend to share cars more easily than co-workers do.
    Joel Garreau writes fairly convincingly about how hard it is for offices to transition away from auto-dependence, because the infrastructure necessary for mass auto access conflicts directly with density and pedestrian convenience/safety. A middle ground, a transitional form, is hard to find. Indeed, Silicon Valley has been under pressure to do so for decades and even new office construction follows plainly parking-dominated forms with only token concessions to other modes. In housing and retail transitional forms might be easier; certainly there are plenty of apartment buildings in downtowns that hold huge numbers of occasionally used cars. Such developments could include some office space, and would help existing nearby office parks shed their parking orientation by creating a nearby hub of transit demand.

  5. Nathanael September 10, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    On the other hand, if you build density without *reserving a fast route for transit*, you’re screwed. It makes it ludicrously expensive to try to put any transit in later.
    This is what will happen in Mountain View if there’s no planning.

  6. Al Dimond September 10, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    The turn lane and ramp situation in Mountain View may mean the only remotely fast surface transit route is center-running. There’s no shortage of wide roads to run center-running transit in there and they aren’t going anywhere. At-grade routes won’t be any more expensive in the presence of density and grade-separated ones likely won’t be either (it’s always possible new buildings would block an elevated or cut-and-cover route in a way the previous ones didn’t, but any new density would be infill).
    There’s already enough traffic congestion that there’s an obvious, vocal constituency that would oppose any transit project that reduced GP vehicle capacity. Wisely placed infill density just might create a constituency in favor of transit projects in key corridors.

  7. Andre Lot September 11, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    I’ve read several pieces on the issues of development projects in Silicon Valley. I suspect that the opposition is less driven about real concerns about traffic, or any desire to see transit implemented together with new housing projects, as much as it is about keeping the “wrong” people (age, occupation, political inclinations, child status) from moving in and “changing the characters” of the place.

  8. Wanderer September 12, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    In Mountain View (and many other places), a great many offices/tech companies are surrounded by a sea of parking. It’s a pretty discouraging environment to walk in, once you get more than a few blocks outside the historic downtown core. If those buildings were up along the sidewalk (there are usually sidewalks of some stripe), it would be a little more encouraging for pedestrians. It wouldn’t solve the density issues, but at least it would make a better environment, and set up the possibility for infilling the lot later.
    I’m also not sure that Mountain View/Silicon Valley NIMBYism is motivated by racism or elitism, the area already has substantial white, Latino, and Asian (but generally not African-American) populations. It might be more like simple misanthropy, not wanting any more people of any kind!

  9. Andre Lot September 13, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    @Wanderer, if you read local newspapers (such as the Mountain View Voice), you’ll realize that it isn’t about race, but more about a resentment about “overpaid tech workers” of sorts, that guide much of the opposition to new housing.
    There is resentment towards the “transient” nature of many of them, and the fact their presence drive shifts on the commercial landscape of the town. There is no particular racial component to that, and it is not even about poor-low skilled moved in, as much as it is a strange dynamic of “I’m an educated professional, but I can’t earn as much as techies, so I don’t want them moving into my town and changing it”.

  10. Daniel Howard September 18, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    The highway offramp there at Shoreline is literally four lanes, and in the morning the two right lanes that turn right into Google are at a total stand-still. So, not only does the transit suck in that area, the auto traffic is a massive failure as well. Last week I had to drive over to our data center nearby: I made a 1-mile drive in 25 minutes. Were I not hauling a server in the back I could have walked faster.
    A Transit Boulevard up Shoreline would be extremely sensible, especially if it connected well with the Caltrain, light rail, and the BRT that is planned for El Camino Real.

  11. Ming October 10, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    The frustrating thing with Mountain View is that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent providing good transit access to downtown (three highways, LRT, regional rail, bus transportation hub, and a future BRT), but they refuse to build any density there because it might ruin the atmosphere. Instead, they are arguing about building density in some other location with far less transit access but with fewer NIMBY complaints from existing residents. The same holds for Palo Alto.