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