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Dear Uncle Sam: Transit Design Really Does Matter

Over the past decade more than $75 billion in public dollars has been invested in rail transit. Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver alone are investing an additional $65 billion to expand their systems and enhance the livability of their communities. The federal government will be asked to play a major role in funding each of those systems. Up until now the federal role in major transit investments has largely avoided the question of how we ought to design our transit systems to be good neighbors and leverage livable communities.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is currently considering options for streamlining and improving the evaluation process they use for determining which major transit projects to recommend for funding. FTA's "New Starts" process is the major source of federal capital funding for new streetcar, light rail and subways lines.

For decades in rating New Starts projects FTA has dug deeply and comprehensively into factors such as financial capacity, ridership forecasts, and user benefits. At the same time FTA has been ambivalent on the biggest question in the room: the design of transit facilities to capture the user and community benefits FTA has been seeking to quantify. For too long the conversation has been about transit efficiency and what local governments can do to change land use. The attention needs to turn to improving transit design as well. Continuing to follow the old transit facility design playbook is not going to work if we want livable communities.  As a first step FTA needs to highlight the importance of good design to encourage transit agencies to deliver projects that embrace the principles of livable communities.  Good design need not cost more, but certainly the New Starts process should not be structured with built-in disincentives for good design.

For the past decade there has been a brewing debate in the highway and land use world about improving the design of transportation facilities to get better outcomes. Now is the time to follow the lead of Federal Highway Administration and their work on context sensitive highways and for FTA to delve into context sensitive transit design.  Independent of mode, the design of transit facilities matters tremendously in capturing the economic development, environmental, land use and mobility benefits of transit investments. Not addressing design is a very big gap in the current federal program.  The placement of a station, the size and location of commuter parking, how a transit facility fits into or is separated from a community each make a big difference on transit system performance. It also can make a huge difference with realizing the Obama Administrations six Livability Principles The transit industry and local governments will welcome and encourage federal involvement to encourage better design outcomes.  

My home of Portland serves as a case in point – the region has seen some $11 billion in transit-oriented development occur next to its light rail and streetcar stops. Over the past three decades as the region moved more and more to embrace livable communities as an aspect of transit investments there has also been an evolution in how the region approaches the selection of corridors, station locations, sizing and location of parking, transit facility design, and the scope of what activities are included in a transit project. The point here is not that others should mirror Portland's design; rather the lesson from Portland and elsewhere is that transit design matters when you are trying to build communities and move people. Unfortunately there are many examples of transit agencies that have not evolved in the design and construction of transit facilities to the detriment of leveraging livable communities.

Short of mandating design FTA could provide guidance, best practices, or require peer reviews to encourage a transit design process that supports livable communities. Hopefully FTA will go further and provide built-in incentives in their land use and economic development evaluation to design transit in such a way that it encourages walkable transit-supportive development patterns. Too much is at stake in the livability of our urban areas, now is the time for the federal for the government to acknowledge and act like design matters.  

G.B. Arrington is a vice president and principal practice leader at PB's PlaceMaking group



Urban design vs. environmental planning

Given that most rail transit projects seek federal funds, most projects start by heading right into a major investment study or some kind of environmental assessment. The result is a process focused on bureaucratic documentation rather than city planning or urban design, let alone overall network design. A whole new side of our profession, the 'environmental planner' is the result.

As Mr. Arrington points out, the actual design of stations and the surrounding areas is not a priority for the process. Usually getting the 'finding of no significant impact' is the main concern of regional transit agencies, based on the criteria in NEPA from 1970. NEPA itself is outdated given that it does not even require calculations for greenhouse gas emissions. There is no mandated criteria for evaluating station design and planning in the 'environmental' process.

The big engineering firms tend to be dominated by engineers, and many of the issues identified in this column get pushed to the side. A large parking lot on the edge of town tends to be the default location recommendation in many contexts for commuter rail, over doing the hard work of integrating the station into a complex urban environment.

Value engineering and cost cutting in a design/build process also dumb down good urban design work on transit lines and stations. Good to see one of the leaders in TOD calling for change at the federal level, and hopefully within the big consulting firms as well.

Capital gains and wealth transfers via subsidies

From one of Colin Clark's seminal books, "Regional and Urban Location".

(Page 231)"....If rail and subway services to the centres of large cities were charged at full cost, including interest and depreciation, two consequences would follow. The employers of the lower paid service workers in the city would have to raise their wages, in some cases reduce the services offered, or move to suburban locations (for example, some of the retail businesses still carried on in city centres). Meanwhile the higher paid salaried and businessmen, who in most cases could not change their workplace, would have an incentive to move their residences closer to the centre (while at the same time having less incentive to reside close to railway or subway stations).

These movements would have their reflections in the price of urban land. They would reduce the demand for and the price of business land in the city centre, and of residential land in the outer susburbs, particularly land now high priced because of its proximity to railway stations. There would be countervailing movements raising the price of business land in the suburbs and of residential land nearer the city centre; but these would probably be of a lesser order of magnitude. In net effect, the subsidies on rail and subway suburban transport are subsidies to the owners of certain types of land - for which there is no social justification...."

In case you are wondering who Colin Clark was:

".......His first book was sent to the publisher Daniel Macmillan with a recommendation from Keynes:

"[...] Clark is, I think, a bit of a genius: almost the only economic statistician I have ever met who seems to me quite first-class."

Colin Clark did not suggest linking capital gains to property owners with the funding of transit, but others have. This idea, though, seems to be far too sophisticated for the current level of political discussion and understanding. The numbers often stack up surprisingly well. The transfer of wealth from taxpayers to property owners is surprisingly quantifiable in terms of capital gains reaped by the conveniently placed property owners. These people, of course, become a natural lobby group in favour of transit subsidies, and the whole thing becomes another example of the old, old story where the great majority of people have a little to lose "each", but not enough to turn any one of them into a lobbyist.

Dukakis Centre Paper yet more confirmation

I am reading more and more from analysts like Peter Gordon, William Wheaton, and Randall Crane, that support my current concerns.

That is, that monocentrically biased planning and urban growth boundaries have "land value" effects that actually reduce the option of "location efficient" decisions by households, especially the lowest income earners. It also leads to concentration of wealth in the hands of the owners of efficiently located properties via capital gains, especially the most expensive CBD properties. And it also reduces naturally occurring economic efficiencies from efficient location decisions that households COULD make BEFORE land prices were inflated. The economic growth, wealth creation effect of demand-enabling mobility, that is also reduced.

NOW we have THIS paper:

The escalation of land values around Transit stops is captured by better-off property owners, and lower income earners are priced out of the market en mass. Well, spare me days. I couldn't agree more with the findings, or disagree more with the recommended "solutions".

Summary of Dukakis Center Study

For those who don't want to read the pdf, there is a summary of the study at

And here is my comment:

Judging from this summary, they seem to miss the most obvious solution. If building new transit drives up property values around stops so drastically, that is a sign that we do not have enough locations that are convenient to transit: the price goes up because the demand for transit-oriented development is greater than the supply. In the long run, the best solution is to keep building more transit and more transit-oriented development until supply catches up with demand.

Charles Siegel

Dukakis Study Lessons

Yes, of course Charles.

It is a bug, not a feature, of urban development.

Until the unmet demand is met, this is what happens. Basic UrbEcon.



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