With transit you can grow better, but not more.

G.B. Arrington's picture
The protesters at Chicago's Grant Park in 1968 might have been talking about Denver's multi-billion dollar FasTracks rail expansion while they chanted "the whole world is watching." With 50+ new transit stations the Denver region has an opportunity no modern American city has been able to realize – to build a regional rail network and link it with land use planning to accommodate growth without diminishing livability.

Part of the conversation in Denver is will FasTracks help the region's competitiveness and capture more growth than it would otherwise? Or is the best planners can do is to use FasTracks as a tool to grow better by reshaping the growth that is already coming?

After 30 years pondering these questions I've seen no evidence to believe transit creates new growth in a region. There is lots of evidence that transit can redirect where and how growth occurs within a region in combination with supportive public policy. My hometown Portland, Oregon and parts of the Washington, DC region are well documented examples.

The question of induced growth seems to go to transit's impact on larger forces shaping growth in regions. Are regions rich in transit growing faster than they would have otherwise? Or are they simply growing better? For example, has the presence of 29 Metro stations within the District of Columbia caused the District to better compete for growth within the region? If transit induced growth one might expect a central city to be a magnet for growth. Since Metro opened growth in the 1970's the Washington Region has moved away from the core, not towards it. The District has recently turned the corner after decades of languishing. Transit's role in helping communities grow better can be seen just outside the District along Arlington County's Rosslyn Ballston Corridor. Since 1980 those five stations have captured 37% of new jobs and 25% of new housing in the county. Yet further flung places like Tysons Corner have captured much more growth with no transit. I'd certainly rather live in Arlington than Tysons, but is the transit rich DC region out performing transit poor Houston?

The last decade has seen record levels of transit expansion and more new investment around transit than anytime in recent history. Central cities are back in a big way (with and without transit). Yet everything I've seen out of Brookings and other observers of metropolitan trends seems to also indicate larger trends are underway that our cities are continuing to spread out and lose market share. If transit induced growth in a region wouldn't that counteract some of these trends? Or is the induced transit growth factor so small on a metropolitan scale it does not register in terms of broader trends?

If there was an argument for induced growth it might be as part of a "quality of life" package. I think you can argue that the complete package of transit and land use controls in Portland has helped to make it a desirable place to live and give the region a quality of life attraction. Of course the libertarians will passionately disagree. Does transit and land use make Portland grow faster than other western cities or simply growth differently?

If the Denver Region does not use transit as a growth shaping tool and simply builds FasTracks I see no induced or growth benefit. By analogy this is what maybe happening in Dallas, and it might be a future for what could happen in Denver. You spend a few billion dollars and build a huge transit system, then you take a passive role in shaping growth around the system and the real estate market pretty much ignores you. That is essentially what has happened in Dallas, a few very nice TODs and higher land values near transit, but the growth of the Dallas Metroplex follows freeways much more than transit. You can also do lots of TOD planning and not act on the plans (Miami, Atlanta and Fairfax County in the 1980s and 90s) and get little or no benefit.

You get the point. Transit on its own has great benefits, but is not enough to cause a region to growth more than it would otherwise. While linking transit with supportive policy can result in reshaping growth and the resultant benefits, at the metropolitan scale the jury is still out on whether transit induces growth over what would happen anyway. With transit you can grow better, but not more.
G.B. Arrington is a vice president and principal practice leader at PB's PlaceMaking group

Comments

Comments

Not quite...

I have to disagree with the general premise of this post.

Throughout history, cities have been built around their transportation systems.

Denver, the metroplex in question, like almost all American metro areas, largely lives (and has been built for) by the car and freeway in this current age of cheap oil, plentiful road infrastructure, and obsession with personal mobility.

Laying down a new rail network will not change lifestyles and development patterns overnight. Such things take time. Remember, it took 30-40 years to fully deconstruct, deurbanize, and kill so many older industrial cities after WW2. It may take just as much time to build them back up around fixed-route transit systems. NOW is the time to start building!

What having a comprehensive rail system fanning out from the urban core to the periphery WILL DO is:

1. Incentivize increased density and compact development in the downtown core. Rail is fast, friendly and convenient. Many more employers will want to locate their offices in the transit-supplied downtown and not have to worry about inconvenient and costly parking. When lots of rail is in place, cheap/convenient parking becomes an afterthought.

2. Make downtown more enjoyable for both the casual visitor and daily commuter to reach. People generally like riding trains. Making downtown more accessible (without the headaches of driving and parking) to the average metroplex citizen (most likely a suburbanite) is key.

3. Lead to increased residential attractiveness of being near a rail station. TODs will sprout up and travel to/from downtown will become an important part of more people's lives. When downtown becomes even more "cool", even more employers, retail stores and other functions will want to locate there.

*********

We must look rail transit investment from an organic, "whole picture" point of view. Building a rail network is really laying out the seeds of a whole new urban ecosystem that will grow over time. Building new light rail lines is not a quick fix solution.

We must take the long view, patience is a virtue.....

Growth or Re-distribution?

I'm not sure which one of these ideas I agree with more, while I wholeheartedly support rail, and mass transit generally. However I think some clarification is in order. There are two terms being interchanged here City and Metropolis. I think the author is arguing that more mass transit will not help a Metropolis grow any bigger, just better. Meaning, will the Denver region grow in economic indicators because of its investment? Will jobs move to the DC region because there is more transit access to various cities in the region?

However the author mixes these concepts as well, because the trends he refers to chart job and residential losses between central cities and suburban cities not between metropolises (metropoli?) and smaller regions .

Whereas, Denizen, seems to be countering by saying that the City of Denver will grow because transit will lead to increased density in the central city and closer suburbs. Therefore, jobs in the City will increase as employers find better more qualified employees in or near the central city. However that may be just a function of outlying suburbs and exurbs being less attractive.

I don't mean to put words in anyones mouth, but I think it is an important distinction.

The city will grow if the

The city will grow if the core becomes dense enough to change the region's transportation culture.

Having a vital regional core will give Denver a competitive advantage over other similar-sized cities/metros that lack attractive urban qualities.

However, patience is a necessary virture

I completely agree that American observers are misunderstanding the time frames necessary to adequately measure transit investments. We shouldn't compare Atlanta today with Atlanta 10 years ago, instead we should try and imagine New York today without the subway system, or London without the tube. This is unfortunately, an impossible scientific experiment.

Gloria Jeffs the head of LA DOT, said at a symposium that 15, even 30 year time horizons are inadequate. Instead we need to think in 60 and 90 year terms. I think she is correct, but i am skeptical that people will find that possible.

"With Transit You Can Grow Better, But Not More" by G.B. Arringt

I think that one of the reasons that DC area TOD growth has been more pronounced in the surrounding counties of Arlington, VA and Montgomery, MD is the DC building height limitations. A developer can build at much higher (and more profitable) densities just outside the DC boundaries in the Rosslyn-Balston corridor, Bethesda or Silver Spring downtowns where there are no arbitrary building height limits.

Of course, the planners in Arlington and Montgomery counties also deserve credit for "getting it" sooner than most of us.

Steve Elkins
Councilmember
Bloomington, MN

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