Category Archives: Transit-Oriented Development

Want to Prevent Oil Spill Disasters? Stop Driving

Jason Henderson of AlterNet brings us this timely article on how our car culture is partially to blame for this most recent and almost all other oil spills.  The Deepwater Horizon rig disaster has put offshore drilling back at the center of our political and social discussion, and self-proclaimed progressives need to take a stand.  Henderson calls the focus on green cars “a distraction.”  Green cars still need oil, and progressives need to examine how much their transportation habits contribute to this type of ecological disaster.  To be honest, we still need oil–lots of it–to live how we live today, with computers, pharmaceuticals and plastics; but we don’t need to be drilling into the furthest corners of the earth.  We need to conserve oil for things that are more important than driving.

It is well known that America consumes a quarter of the world’s oil, and 70 percent of that (17.5 percent of world oil production) goes towards America’s driving habit.  Much of this is wasted on short trips that could be made by other means.  92 percent of Americans own at least one car, which consumes oil, puts out CO2 and costs them money in insurance and repairs.  There’s no way that we could build enough coal or nuclear power plants to make the switch to all-electric cars.  Even if we did, those power plants would produce still more CO2 or nuclear waste, and would necessitate an overhaul of our urban infrastructure so as to install charging stations all across America.  Even alternative energy forms need oil to be produced and maintained.

Henderson argues that this should seem unintelligent to any thinking person, but more-so embarrassing to any progressive:

Any progressive-leftist-liberal-“green”-environmentalist cannot, with a clear conscience, drive his or her children to school and expect those children to find a planet they’ll thrive on. He or she cannot smugly shrug that the transit system does not go where he or she wants to go, or that the distances are too far to ride a bicycle. Any able-bodied progressive who regularly exclaims “But I need to drive!” is in need of some deep reflection on his or her values and especially the idea of a green car.

Green cars are still cars, which consume a lot of oil.  “The Prius will not cut it,” Henderson says.  He also argues against carbon offsets, which allow people with enough money to buy some sort of energy savings so as to “make up for” their not-so-green lifestyle.  There are a number of reasons for this, according to Henderson:

Some progressives do this, admittedly, because they are lazy. Others feel “special” and thus entitled to live in scattered sprawl, drive across town to work in less than 20 minutes and then to a dentist on another side of town in another 20 minutes. Many progressive Americans, particularly in coastal “blue” states, expect to be able to drive to the beach and NOT see any signs of oil extraction. That is not progressive. That is imperialism. Those cars are fueled and built with oil from Nigeria, Iraq, Louisiana and Alaska — places laid to waste by unfettered oil extraction…Many of you “progressive” motorists are probably seething in defensive, self-righteous posture if you managed to read this far. You drive a Prius, so you’re doing your part. Or you don’t drive much. Or your groceries are too heavy — you need a car. In the Bay Area and many parts of California, a common refrain is that there are too many hills, so “I have to drive.” Populists will shout that the working poor need their cars to get to work on time and that child care and household chores all but require a car.

He also argues that, had the Gulf Coast disaster happened in the Bay Area, the outcry would have been massive, instead of the passe response that this disaster has generated relative to events such as Exxon Valdez and Cosco Busan.  He encourages people to find ways that they could make walking and biking a bigger part of their lives.  Most trips are under five miles, easy biking distance, and with minimal creativity (backpack, small trailer, jitney delivery service), hauling loads can be easy without a car.  There are also the added benefits of better health and cleaner air, as well as using renewable bags and other resources instead of plastics.  If we used oil more wisely, we could use it to prepare for a future with less or no oil, where communities will be closer together, transportation will be based on rail and other more efficient modes,  and energy can come from sources that still need oil but much less of it, including solar and wind.

Henderson encourages progressives to either change their ways or stop being obstructionist.  Making life easier for pedestrians and bicyclists often means making it harder (i.e. more fair) for drivers, who have been pandered to for too long.  We need to stop letting rich out-of-towners park for free when we charge the urban poor to use transit.  Henderson comments, “I see you progressives every day — the Prius in the bike lane, the speeding, honking Subaru and the hybrid SUVs careening at pedestrians and cyclists, with fashionable Obama stickers or save this/save that bumper stickers on the cars. Honking, hoarding, fighting for a parking space at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. It is madness.”  Progressives need to set an example of living within our means, especially relative to oil.

Will Tysons halfway plan bolster or doom the future city?

David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington brings us this story on the future of Tysons Corner.  Tysons is in many ways the poster-boy for post-war American suburbia.  Even PBS has noted it’s car-dependent, highway-oriented state.  Pedestrians in Tysons are taking their lives into their hands.  The city is made up of single-use office towers, strip shopping centers, tract housing, and parking, parking, parking.  Fortunately, Tysons’ local leaders are aware of the changing market conditions pointing toward mixed use development, and they are trying to fix their city.  Fairfax County has produced Transforming Tysons, a document that is still being revised that will guide more pedestrian-scaled development, focused on Tysons’ four Metro stops and tapering down to the surrounding low-density development.

Traffic engineers don’t believe that the plan will work, and are advocating expanded freeway facilities.  But Washington has ample examples, the District in particular, of how wrong traffic engineers could be.  According to their models, DC couldn’t be built today.  This and other debate has encouraged Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn to propose that 3/4 of the proposed density be built in the next 20 years instead of building 100% in the next 40 years, as well as eliminating density maximums in favor of having the Board of Supervisors analyze every proposal in turn.  The Sierra Club endorsed Alcorn’s plan, hoping that the shorter time frame will encourage that the necessary transit upgrades to the periphery of the city are built.  The Audubon Society, on the other hand, wants the complete plan.  Stella Koch of Audubon said, “This plan must be implemented as a whole or it falls apart. Without the internal grid of streets, transportation inside of Tysons does not work. Without an integrated network of sidewalks and paths, and inviting shops and storefronts, people do not want to walk to destinations. The Tysons Vision must be implemented as a whole.”

Also agitating the process are landowners in the non-transit-oriented areas.  Many have been waiting on the plan to be finished, and some people are worried that these land owners may just up and build a strip mall instead of waiting for pedestrian-friendly guidelines.  If Alcorn’s plan is implemented, it could hurt the county’s ability to pay for necessary amenities, such as the improved street grid, storm water system, transit, and streetscapes.  The plan also opens up the possibility of the plan being compromised a little bit more for every project.  By doing it all at once, it’s easier for elected officials to do what is right for the largest number and not be swayed by NIMBYs.  Tysons should work to avoid the evenly spread, low density development of nearby failures such as Gaithersburg‘s Science City.  This type of development is hard because instead of trying to build a city from green fields like Washington was, Tysons is trying to build it out of an existing framework of suburban sprawl.  Development happens fast today, and if the leaders of Tysons don’t get this plan figured out quick, they may have a few thousand more acres of strip malls to deal with.

How to save the Greenway? Make it a neighborhood

Robert Campbell brings us this story on Boston‘s Rose Kennedy Greenway.  The Greenway is the result of Boston’s Big Dig, where they put a section of I-93 underground and built a linear park on top of it.  The problem is, the Greenway is little more than nice landscaping (not even great landscaping).  It is often devoid of pedestrian life while neighboring areas such as Quincy Market are vibrant and alive.  “There are things to look at but nothing to do,” Campbell says.  He proposes that the Greenway be turned into a neighborhood, first by building housing along the edges of the park and working to attract restaurants and cafes.  Planning documents that show some of these ideas are just now starting through the Boston City Hall, many years after they could have been best implemented.  Old planning laws made recommendations such as having a minimum of 75% public open space, which doesn’t leave much room for private buildings or the people who live in and patronize them.  It may be too late to redo the Greenway in the best way possible, but making its edges alive will help to turn it into a more desirable place.  It was a good idea to cover I-93, but this was only going halfway to making this part of Boston a real neighborhood, like it used to be.

New USDOT Report Identifies Win-Win Transportation Emission Reduction Strategies

Considering my recent uptick in searches related to Todd Litman, win-win emission reduction strategies and federal implementation of New Urbanism, some of you may have already heard about this.  Nonetheless, here is Todd Litman’s latest Planetizen article on the US Department of Transportation‘s Earth Day release of their report, Transportation’s Role in Reducing US Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  This shows a shift in policy away from simply advocating the creation and buying of more energy-efficient vehicles, since this has little long-term effect on emissions and none on other problems such as congestion, accidents, and sedentary living.  This report evaluated the net costs of implementing different transportation strategies, and found the following to be most effective:

Not only do these save money in reducing carbon emissions, but they also reduce congestion, parking costs, consumer costs, accidents, energy costs, and sprawl, while improving public health and mobility for non-drivers.  Litman says that the savings estimates may be conservative, because the study relied on out-dated data about how much can be saved by vehicle reductions and the benefits of pay-as-you-drive insurance.  Even with these conservative estimates though, it is exciting to see the federal government recognizing the importance of transportation and planning policy in reaching other goals.

Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift

Greg Gormick brings us this story on the future of light rail in Toronto.  He says that the debate over Toronto’s Transit City light rail transit plan has been between critics who don’t know the benefits of light rail and supporters who have been unable to articulate those benefits.  He explains the differences between streetcars and light rail.  The later evolved from the former in European cities after WWII, when transit started losing ridership to cars.  Light rail became a mid-capacity system between high-capacity subways and low-capacity buses.  Light rail became larger, smoother, quieter, farther spaced, and faster, and had priority signaling and their own right-of-way.  At the same time, European cities embraced transit-oriented development, controlling sprawl and creating vibrant new neighborhoods.  They also embraced a concept known as lateral segregation, which gives transit users, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians their own part of the road adapted to their specific needs.

The effects have been economically and socially stimulating, and a number of cities that tore out streetcar systems have either replaced them with light rail or are in the process of doing so.  Edmonton was the first North American city to adopt light rail in 1978.  Since then, in places such as San Diego, Dallas and Portland, light rail has gotten people out of their cars, acted as an economic catalyst, and revived failing neighborhoods.  He argues that those who oppose the plan, who say that a new light rail line will have exactly the opposite effect, are fighting against historic precedent.  Light rail is also much cheaper than subways, an alternative supported by some, and can generally be built faster.  Building a new light rail system would make Toronto more competitive, more environmentally friendly, and more economically robust.

The End of the Automobile Era?

Is this wishful thinking on my part?  Probably, but at least it’s good to know other people are thinking the same thing.  Norman Garrick of Planetizen brings us this story on a possible turn of events away from cars and towards people.  On Thursday, the Portland, Oregon City Council voted 5-0 to approve a plan that has the goal of increasing bike ridership in the city from 6%, already the highest of any major city in the country, to 25%.  On the same day, the New York City Department of Transportation announced the permanent closing of sections of Broadway to vehicular traffic.  These two cities are and have always been on the leading edge of urban planning in America, and their support of alternative modes of transportation sends a strong message to other cities in the country.  Garrick makes a point that this trend has spread from blue states to cities like Oklahoma City and Little Rock, indicating that this is growing beyond a political issue to a more general planning one.

There are a number of signs indicating that the car culture is on the decline.  The number of vehicles per person has been declining since 2001, and vehicle miles traveled have been declining since 2004.  Garrick points out that both of these peaks are well before the most recent economic downturn, which has probably hastened the decline of these numbers.  Cities have also realized that it is cheaper for them to cater to pedestrians, bicycles and transit than to the car.  Garrick points out that Portland’s fifteen years of bike infrastructure building has cost the same as about a mile of freeway ($60 million).  It is also becoming cool to go car-lite or car-free, and areas that are more pedestrian-friendly are attracting tomorrow’s movers and shakers.

With oil floating at $80 a barrel with nowhere to go but up, chances are we are on the verge of a new era.  If car companies new what was good for them, they may start getting into the streetcar manufacturing business as cars continue to phase out.  Garrick finishes his story with this hopeful message:

The really good news in this story is that this could be a transition to a time when the carnage from motor vehicle crashes will no longer be considered an accepted part of modern life. A time when our urban places will once more be designed for people and not be trashed to accommodate cars. And when the profligate burning for mobility of the earth’s finite store of petroleum will be looked at as a quaint relic of the past. A past not unlike the one now regulated to the movies where people smoked in doctor’s offices and on airplanes. A past that causes us to say: what were they thinking?

Mayor Breaks Ground on Westlake/MacArthur Park Development…But Is It TOD?

This article from Damien Newton of Streetsblog is one of the more reasonable critiques of Los Angeles‘ new TOD projects that I have seen (there has been a lot of passionate chatter on the subject).  Newton asks, “Is it TAD or TOD?”  TAD (Transit Adjacent Development) is the “evil twin” of TOD.  While they look similar, TAD doesn’t do anything to make life better for existing residents and doesn’t encourage people to use transit facilities, no matter how close they are.  Newton analyzes the project by answering these questions: “does the design take advantage of the transit node, does it create an attractive and safe pedestrian network, how are the bike amenities, does it create a mix of housing options and uses, and is there a restriction of automobile parking?”

While the development isn’t on the same block as the station, it is one block away and has access to a number of bus routes.  These bus routes, however, have not been a part of the marketing strategy of the development.  The proposals show wide sidewalks, street trees and underground utilities, but proposals and reality often show a disparity.  There are no planned bike amenities, despite the area having a large number of cyclists.  There will be 90 affordable housing units and ground floor retail, but the developers have not been known to do quality retail development.  As with many LA “TOD’s,” the major failing comes when trying to compromise with LA’s car culture.  There will be three levels of underground parking, 100 commuter parking spots and the required parking for residences and retail.  Renters will receive a monthly Metro pass, but that doesn’t mean much.  Newton comes to the conclusion that “there are some troubling aspects as well such as the de-emphasis of the bus, the lack of bike parking in an area which (anecdotally, because the city doesn’t do bike counts) has a large number of cyclists and the levels of car-parking make it difficult to to declare it an example of Transit Oriented Development.”  Although LA does have its urban pockets, it is a car culture, and that may not change until we run out of oil.

Texas Sprawl Goes Out With a Bang, Development Sprouts on Irving Transit Line

Greg Lindsay brings us this article on development in Irving, Texas.  Many in Irving were unhappy when they lost the new Cowboys stadium to neighboring Arlington, but they have turned lemons into lemonade with a great plan for development on the former site of the recently demolished Texas Stadium.  The city is leasing the land to the Texas Department of Transportation, making more money than they ever did with the Cowboys, and have plans to create a dense, transit-oriented development along the future DART corridor.  The area will become the most walkable in the Metroplex outside of downtown Dallas.  The city has already begun building convention and entertainment centers and looks forward to $4 billion in private investment.  The plans include five-story apartment blocks with ground-floor retail.

Irving is known for office parks and gated communities, so the new development is not only very different, it is aimed at different groups than have previously been courted by Irving.  Some see the new dense, mixed-use and apartment-based development plans are seen by some as an admission that office parks and single-family McMansions are no longer enough.  Market demand is pointing in this direction, and Irving has been smart enough to take the lead, and they will profit from it.  Here are some renderings from the Irving Chamber of Commerce of what it might look like.

Dissent Magazine Essay

I recently submitted this essay to Dissent Magazine for a scholarship contest.  I have been accepted to the University of Maryland and the University of Pennsylvania, and if I want to pay for it, I need a lot of money.

The United States is facing a blizzard of societal problems at the moment.  Our central cities are falling apart, while suburbs eat what’s left of our productive farmland.  Neighbors never meet each other unless they’re angry.  Our economy is run on energy that comes from outside of our borders that could be cut off at any moment and, at any rate, is running out fast.  Americans are the fattest people on the planet, due mostly to a sedentary lifestyle.  Public transportation helps the most needy people in society, yet most of our funding is poured into highways for commuters.  To say that all of these problems could be solved by only one solution would be ludicrous, but they can all at least be addressed by one issue: better city planning.

Various movements, including New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development, are trying to do that very thing.  All of these focus on greater residential densities, mixed land uses, and making sure that walking, biking, and public transit are at least as feasible as car travel, if not more so.

This addresses the before-mentioned issues in a number of ways.  The best place to start on all of this is where it is already somewhat existent: current cities and towns.  Although many of our major cities have been gutted of their mixed uses, transformed into oversized office parks, the basic framework is there to turn them into high-density, mixed-use centers, with people living, working, shopping and playing downtown, all within walking distance.  When peak oil hits, all the people that commute via car won’t be able to live in the suburbs and work in the cities, so they will either have to work closer to home or live closer to work.  When this happens, our metropolitan areas will contract in geographic scale, but they will densify around certain centers, most of them traditional cities and towns.

The separateness of the suburbs has led to a certain type of sociopathy.  People never get out of their cars and talk to their neighbors.  They get in their cars, pull out of the garage, drive to work, spend most of the day in a cubicle, drive home, pull into the garage and get out of their cars while barely so much as talking to another human being.  This is why people create rules in HOA’s to maintain civility, because no one has the gall to actually talk to their neighbors or worry about how their actions might affect others.  When your neighbors are closer to you, and when you all walk to get anywhere, you’re bound to run into each other and have a conversation.  Who knows, you may even become friends and start walking to the pub together.

When we start to run low on oil, it will bring a massive shock to our economy.  We will no longer be able to rely on international shipping and long-haul trucking to bring us goods from across the world.  We will have to live on a much more local scale.  We will need to grow our food within a closer proximity to markets, preferably within cities so that those living there can also benefit from the greenery and the cleaner air.  We will have to manufacture our products within our communities.  People with manual labor skills will become much more important in our society, since it will again become more reasonable to fix things that break than to buy a new one at Wal-mart.  We will become much more intimately aware of where all of our products come from and who they are made by.

It’s amazing how much money people spend on their cars, only to get fat from having no incidental exercise whatsoever, and then spend even more on gym memberships and fad diets trying to lose all the excess weight (although there are many in America who opt to just stay fat).  We’d all be a lot better off if we just lived a life that gave us exercise.  If it were safe, pleasant and timely to walk or cycle, America would be in much better shape.  Again, with peak oil, we may be forced into a world where this is the case, so we might as well be ready for it when it comes.

Some critics of New Urbanism and Smart Growth say that suburban sprawl is the byproduct of the free market and that it illustrates what people really want, but it wouldn’t be at all economically feasible if it weren’t for government intervention.  The suburbs were the weekend retreat of the elite until after World War II, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created to help returning veterans get affordable mortgages (these two may be dismantling themselves as we speak, so it may not be entirely necessary to intervene).  Sprawl is also a product of expansive highway building.  No one would live in the suburbs if they couldn’t get to them, and for every dollar states pay towards new highways, the federal government pays nine.  Public transit and rail have never gotten this kind of funding.  Unlike in Europe, where many freeways went around cities or turned into grade-level boulevards within them, American cities have been cut up by freeways, creating barriers to non-car movement and walling certain neighborhoods off from the rest of the community, as with Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District.  With peak oil fast approaching, we need to be ready to use what fossil fuels we have on the most efficient forms of transport.  Public transit can move more people, and in some cases do so faster, than single-occupant cars, and while using less fossil fuels.

The greatest changes to this system need to be made at the top.  Most city planners are familiar with New Urbanism and Smart Growth, but are unable to implement policies due to public inertia.  The federal government could help by dismantling programs that favor cheap mortgages in the suburbs over city development (if there’s anything left to dismantle in the coming years); fund public transit and rail projects at least at the same level, if not more, than highways; and discourage single-use zoning, the land use law in most American cities that doesn’t allow the mixed uses found in traditional cities.  If we do this, we can save our cities and our farms, make better neighbors, be prepared for peak oil, be healthier, and allow for those in need to have better access to transportation options.

Steps in the right direction

This opinion piece by Gina Tomaine brings up some of the benefits of walking in our car-dependent society.  Despite the numerous benefits of walking, people often prefer to drive because it is often faster (although not always, especially if you have to circle the block to find a parking spot), and as we all know, time equals money.  Unfortunately, people don’t realize that walking has the advantages of better health, lower financial and environmental costs, and less traffic congestion and road rage.  Tomaine notes that many professionals in London don’t even have driver’s licenses because their public transit system is superior to almost all in America and they choose to walk instead of drive.  Few cities in America (most notably New York City) come anywhere near this sort of car independence.  Tomaine cites Thom Hartmann’s Walking Your Blues Away, a book about how getting out of your car is good for your mental health because it allows for a change of scenery.

Of course, many (if not most) Americans don’t have the option to walk to work, because they live in single-use areas far away from work areas.  That’s where New Urbanism comes in.  A greater mixing of uses that comes with New Urbanism would be of benefit to even some of our largest and oldest cities, which have unfortunately torn down old mixed use areas in the pursuit of “progress,” eliminating people’s freedom to choose their transportation method in the process.  Even though many of us can’t start walking everywhere right now, we should pressure our local governments to plan better and allow for the freedom to choose walking, biking and transit as viable transportation modes along with the car.