Suppose that somewhere else in our universe, there’s another planet with intelligent life. We don’t know what they look like, or what gases they breathe, or what they eat, or whether they’re inches or miles tall. We don’t know whether they move by hopping, drifting, or slithering. We don’t even know if their lived environment is largely two-dimensional, like the surface of the earth, or freely three dimensional, perhaps a cloud-city full of cloud-beings who drift up and down as easily as they drift left or right. We don’t know what they call themselves, so let’s call them borts.
Let’s make just two assumptions about them.
Let’s assume (1) that the borts tend to form large assemblages, which enable trade, creativity, ritual, and whatever other activities give value to their lives. Let’s call these places cities. Since cities are places where borts are relatively close together, it follows that they have relatively little space per bort. Cities, by definition, are places where space is experienced as scarce.
Assume (2) that these cities are large enough that a bort can’t easily hop, drift, or slither around the city fast enough to reach all the needs and pleasures of daily life. Given this reality, they must have invented vehicles of some kind that carry them faster and further; if they hadn’t, their cities could not have grown so large.
Do we have to make an assumption about their communications? If the borts had either perfect telepathy or perfect virtual reality, then they would never need to move for any of the purposes of interaction. But in this case, why would they have cities? Let's assume [and I think this arises from (2)] that their communications are not so perfect, and that they do need to move around to do whatever borts do that constitutes their lives and economies.
Perhaps the borts have tried using a personal locomotion vehicle in their cities. It gives a bort freedom to move at high speeds, but it’s much bigger than the bort’s body, so it takes a lot of space inside the city. Given the city’s limits on space, these vehicles – which require a lot of space per bort – would have collided with those limits, causing something like congestion.
So (regardless of whether they’ve tried the personal vehicle) they must have invented a vehicle that can carry many borts at once for travel within their cities -- not to mention between them. Call it a bortmover.
But then comes the “network design” challenge: in a city where borts need to move around freely, from anywhere to anywhere else, what exactly should the bortmovers do? In what patterns should they move?
Well, they need to move in a known pattern, so that borts can predict them. That means some kind of routing and schedule, and a schedule implies both a frequency and a span of service. Borts need to get places soon, so that means that these vehicles must stop close to desired points of origin and destination, they must not require too much waiting, and they must be reasonably direct and also move at an adequate average speed.
So with only two basic assumptions about bort civilization, we can infer that they have concepts of stop spacing, frequency, span, directness, and speed.
Obviously, we can’t know what bortmovers cost to operate, but like all planets, the bort world is finite, so bort society must have a concept of scarcity. Even if bortmovers cost nothing to run, there is still that defining scarcity of all cities: the relative shortage of space per bort. Most likely there are other costs as well, reflecting the energy required to manufacture and operate the bortmover. So there’s some limit to the number of bortmovers, which motivates borts to use them efficiently.
Presumably, some parts of the city have a greater density of bort activity than others, so even if a bort’s likelihood of boarding a bortmover is constant regardless of location, there’s more bortmover ridership in these denser areas. So the borts experience a relationship between transit and density: if there are more borts within slithering/hopping/drifting distance of a bortmover stop, that’s a larger potential market, which means a busier bortmover.
So bortmover companies have to decide whether to route their bortmovers to maximize their ridership – which would mean no service to some of the more sparsely populated parts of the bort city – or to spread bortmover service across the whole city even though they’ll be crowded in some areas and lightly used in others. They’ve faced the choice between planning for ridership and planning for coverage.
They’ve also discovered that if they try to run a direct bortmover from every part of the city to every other, they get poor frequency and high complexity. Maybe the borts are all geniuses who love keeping complex networks in their minds, but poor frequency will still be an obstacle to getting where they’re going. So borts must have discovered the connection. That means they’ve faced a choice between connective networks (which are simple and frequent) and direct-service networks (which are complex and infrequent). And if they've tried to optimize a truly connective network, they've probably discovered the grid, regardless of whether their cities are grid-shaped.
Again, because space is scarce, they probably experience something like congestion. This problem will be worst where there are the most borts coming and going, but that’s exactly where the bortmovers are needed most, in high volume and with high quality. So perhaps some of the busiest bortmovers have been given exclusive linear spaces that they can operate in, so that they can run fast and reliably. Call them exclusive rights-of-way.
We don’t know much about the borts or their world, but with just two basic assumptions, we can infer that if they have invented transit, they have discovered the concepts of stop spacing, frequency, span, speed, directness, travel time, connections, and even right of way.
So bort transit must face the realities that we must face: Closer stop spacing, for example, means slower speed. Branching divides frequency. Straight lines are more likely to offer good travel time than winding ones, so the “be on the way” principle applies to bort communities as it does to ours.
In fact, almost all of the basic concepts of transit are realities of bort urban life, because they’re facts of geometry. They are true of anything we would recognize as transit, everywhere in the universe. They are not negotiable. So they should be the basis of our thinking about transit in cities, not a detail that can be left to the engineers. Cities must respond to the intrinsic geometry of transit, just as suburbia as responded to the intrinsic geometry of roads. And yes, you can use a cute, fun, or exciting transit vehicle, but that doesn't change any of these geometric facts. If you don't understand transit's geometry, technology won't save you.
Updated 18 Nov 2011.
Duany Plater-Zyberk, one of the leading planning firms associated with New Urbanism, is thinking about "sprawl repair," a process by which utterly car-dependent landscapes could be transformed into something more walkable, and thus more resilient. Galina Tachieva of DPZ has an article explaining the concept at Planetizen.
The only valid option is to repair sprawl – to deal with it straight on, by finding ways to reuse and reorganize as much of it as possible into complete, livable, robust communities. Pragmatism calls for the repair of sprawl through redevelopment that creates viable human settlements, places that are walkable, with mixed uses and transportation options.
As examples, Tachieva suggests turning a shopping mall into a complete mixed use town center, or dropping townhouses into the spaces between McMansions.
The ideas she presents are exclusively about the development parcel, not the street. Clearly, though, such urbanized places will have dramatically different transport needs, which will also require re-thinking the standard suburban arterial. And since government has much more direct control over the street than over the development parcels, we might move faster on sprawl repair if we focused on the arterial first, or at least at the same time. Last month, on a speaking tour that took me to Portland, Fresno and Los Angeles, I spent some time thinking about this issue.
The densified sprawl that DPZ envisions will clearly be a place that needs much more effective transit. Parking will be more scarce, and density will be higher, so there will need to be more transport options. While cycling will take up some of that need, transit is still the most versatile sustainable transport mode for longer trips, the only one capable of delivering you from one place to another as a pedestrian, unencumbered by a vehicle. And the only place to put that transit, in a classic sprawl landscape, is on that huge, government-controlled arterial.
As I first discussed here, the ideal geography for transit is to have a series of transit destinations (dense housing, mixed use, jobs, activities, etc) located in what feels like a straight line, so that a transit line can connect all these points in a way that feels like a direct route between any two points. The key challenge is to avoid slowing down or deviating too much to serve the intermediate points, as this makes the intermediate points feel like obstacles to anyone whose trip requires riding through them.
The classic suburban commercial arterial already does that, up to a point. It gathers development around it without letting that development slow it down. So we should be looking for ways to capture this virtue for transit. A process of "sprawl repair" should start, perhaps, with a series of steps aimed at repairing the arterial, starting with the realisation that the arterial's straightness and speed become an asset if transit can operate reliably.
Fresno is an interesting example because it's at a stage where it could look at what's happened to bigger sprawl-cities and choose another path. There's not much congestion yet, partly because the city has a truly massive road network. For a metro area of about 1m people, Fresno has three north-south freeways, one east-west freeway, and a complete grid of very wide arterials spaced about 800m apart (the ideal spacing for transit). There is no shortage of road space for introducing new approaches to transport, and as anyone involved in struggles over bus lanes in big cities will tell you, the time to create transit priority, bike lanes, and other reassignments of road space is before the street is badly congested.
If and when California High Speed Rail opens, Fresno is going to boom. With the Bay Area and Los Angeles suddenly less than two hours away, Fresno will be a perfect base for any kind of business that aims for a statewide market, and it will attract good employees who value affordable housing and outdoor recreation (Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks are both within an hour's drive.) If HSR were there today, and I were considering setting up a consultancy aimed at a statewide market, I'd consider living there myself.
What if the city prepared for that now, by planning for the inevitable future of its abundant wide arterials? What if Fresno's leaders went to the people and said: "Look, HSR is coming, and our city is going to grow and change, mostly for the better. We can resist the change, or we can get out in front of it."
Well, you wouldn't start by proposing to build townhouses in people's back yards. You'd start by saying: "Look, even if we boom horizontally, tearing up orchards to build more subdivisions, we'll still become more and more congested; just look at Sacramento or Las Vegas. Eventually, we'd end up like Los Angeles, struggling with congestion that chokes the economy and constrains people's lives. And then, we'd be desperate to get people on transit, as Los Angeles is now. But by then, we'll have filled up our arterials with congestion, so the remaining options for building transit will be really expensive."
"What if we learned from Los Angeles's path? Instead of waiting until it's really expensive, as Los Angeles did, what if we take early, gradual, inexpensive steps to make our arterials safe and attractive for transit? That doesn't mean ripping up our single-family neighborhoods, but it does mean rethinking our arterials so that they're safe and attractive places for pedestrians, and so that they provide appropriate levels of priority to transit. We don't need transit to be attractive to everyone, we're not 'forcing' people to use it, but it could attract people who already want alternatives to driving. Let's face it, a lot of our citizens are struggling on low incomes, and cars are expensive. Many families would experience sudden improvements in wealth if they could get rid of one or more of their cars."
"So we need to gradually repair our sprawl. That doesn't have to mean big increases in density. We'd build some denser centers for people who want a more urban life, but we're not going to build townhouses in your back yard -- or at least not until you and your neighbors want us to. Mostly, we just need to stitch things together so that people can walk and cycle more safely, both to complete local trips and to get to transit stops. It means making sure that at every transit stop, there's a protected way to cross the street, because you can't use transit for a round trip unless you can use stops on both sides of the street. It means adding pedestrian links to cul-de-sac neighborhoods, so that they are through-routes for bicycles and pedestrians while remaining cul-de-sacs for cars. And it means making sure that the design of bus stops and transit priority conveys a clear message that transit riders are valued as citizens, and appreciated for the contribution they make to a sustainable and functional city."
Such a pitch would need to be aimed at the practical concerns of life in a car-dependent city. It will sound compromised and wimpy to a big-city transit advocate, but that's not who it's talking to.
As part of my presentation for Fresno Council of Governments, I picked an arterial intersection pretty much at random and quickly pointed out all the obvious, inexpensive opportunities for sprawl repair -- not just repair of the land use, but of the streets. Here's the intersection of Kings Canyon Road and Peach Avenue.
There's a lot to work with there. There are already quite a few apartments, but they tend to open out onto arterials far from places where you can cross those arterials safely. But that could be fixed over time. With the existing development in mind, you'd identify permanent bus stop locations each of which must have a safe street crossing opportunity. That could mean new pedestrian crossings, signalised as necessary, which could also be combined with other accesses.
Look, for example, at the southwest corner of the image. South of the arterial there's a patch of apartments with several possible points of pedestrian access to the arterial. Across the street to the north is a WalMart behind a huge parking lot. When WalMart redevelops, of course, you'd want the building brought out to the street with parking behind it, but for now I'm thinking shorter term.
So I'd start by observing that if I signalize the WalMart entrance at the far west edge of the image, I've also signalzed a pedestrian access point to the apartments on the other side of the street. I'm about 400m west of the main arterial intersection, so if there's a bus stop at that intersection (as there must be, because it's a connection point) then I can put another bus stop right here. So a signal there will have three uses: (a) controlling the car access to WalMart, for safer egress, (2) providing safe pedestrian access to the apartments, and (3) providing the safe pedestrian crossing that the bus stops require.
Once you notice this, you notice that in general, Fresno is a grid of arterials spaced 800m apart. That means that for local service, where 400m spacing is about right, you'll have stops at the arterial intersections and then one more stop midway in between them. Although 400m stop spacing is ideal, we can slide this intermediate stop 100m one way or the other to find the best site for a pedestrian crossing, based on the development and access points that are already there. We can then use this crossing as a focal point when redevelopment opportunities arise on the surrounding parcels. Over time, we'll build a more connected network for walking, cycling, and transit, without seriously obstructing road traffic.
So some principles of arterial "repair" would include:
I could also add more subjective values, such as ...
... but we should pause before we go too far in this direction. If we add too many design requirements that are derived from urbanist ideals, we can quickly lose focus on the reality of what the street is today, and the level of improvement that's needed to achieve basic safety and functionality for alternative modes. We also risk spending so much money in one place that we can't scale our improvements to the vastness of the sprawl that needs repairing. So when I look at a typical street intersection in typical sprawl fabric like Fresno's, I see first of all a need to create a basic pedestrian+transit infrastructure that will provide a safe and functional transit option for getting around the city.
Once, long ago, when I was presenting a transit plan to an outer-suburban council, a council-member said: "So if we spend all this money on transit, is that going to make me leave my BMW at home?"
The answer, from a "sprawl repair" standpoint, should be: "No, and it doesn't need to. Most people don't have BMWs, and many of them struggle to afford a car at all. These improvements are focused on people who are near a decision point where transit could be a rational choice for them. That's why our priority is basic safety, functionality, and civility. We'll incorporate quality design wherever we can do so affordably. But our first focus is on improvements that will scale to the size of the problem. And there's a whole lot of sprawl to repair."
To my mind the most serene are when homes are dotted along one road between two towns. In other words being on the way!
Even though residential density is low, bus service levels and patronage can be suprisingly high eg Melbourne Route 683 http://www.metlinkmelbourne.com.au/route/view/925
As soon as there are multiple parallel roads between towns, or one can't draw a 'line of best' fit that's direct between A and B, can be driven by road AND is walkable from homes along it, then the effectiveness of public transport drops greatly.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons for transit working in European mountainous villages where there's only one road and villages dotted along it?
I think this is right. If topgraphy prevents development from spreading away from a single main road, you get a perfect geography for transit -- everyone within walking distance of a single line. This is why transit planners find so much beauty in one-dimensional urban forms, such as linear strips of beachfront towns or strings of villages along mountain roads.
Paul Mees's recent book talks quite a bit about the amazing performance of rural transit in Switzerland, and I'm now curious if this geography is part of what makes the difference.
Photo: Cultivated mountainous landscape east of Bern, summer 2009.
It's what I deserved, I suppose, for having written so much about how cul-de-sacs (at all scales, not just suburban) make attractive public transit impossible. My hotel here, the Elizabeth, turns out to be at the uphill end of a 700m long cul-de-sac. The entire thing is lined with 20-story buildings, mostly residential, that efficient public transit will never reach.
From my hotel at the end of the cul-de-sac, I can see the end of another cul-de-sac that comes from the opposite direction. To get there, you just climb over a green fence that has a little desultory barbed wire on top -- or sneak through a hotel's gate, if it's open.
The long walk up Mount Elizabeth Road from the nearest transit stop also offers some fine examples in the endless struggle between pedestrians, drainage, and trees. (Cars, oddly enough, never seem endangered by these battles.)
Pretty much the same struggle that we see all over the developed world, except that there's a drainage channel on the left of these images, next to the white wall. (Drainage is serious business in this monsoon-prone tropical city. Just last week a single plugged drain caused the flooding of Orchard Road and the lower levels of high-end shopping centers there -- mostly food courts and the like.)
I'm curious to know if anybody in Singapore is even inventorying these pedestrian-vs-tree situations, and identifying obvious solutions to them -- such as, say, extend the sidewalk into the street, at the expense of a parking space.
Singapore is spectacular, safe, pleasant for the most part. The density drives huge transit ridership, on both the sleek air-conditioned metro and buses. More on all that soon.
These odd lapses in pedestrian infrastructure are nothing like the challenges pedestrians face in developing-world countries like India, where they are often tracing a moving-front line between traffic lanes and roadside commerce.
But clearly, as in many cities of similar vintage, key parts of Singapore's density were built at a time when nobody was thinking of pedestrians -- a world-view that I struggle to grasp. I find it easier to imagine life in ancient Greece or pre-contact Native America than life in 1970 as a planner who thinks we can build vast forests of towers everywhere, and still assume that everyone will drive cars.
Research by Lawrence Frank, Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation at the University of British Columbia, looks at neighborhoods in King County, Washington: Residents in areas with the most interconnected streets travel 26% fewer vehicle miles than those in areas with many cul-de-sacs. Recent studies by Frank and others show that as a neighborhood’s overall walkability increases, so does the amount of walking and biking—while, per capita, air pollution and body mass index decrease.
I especially appreciate this graphic, because it's a nice illustration of a crucial transit concept: the radius of demand:
(The image on the left happens to be Woodinville, a suburb of Seattle, while the one on the right is Seattle's Ballard district. But they could be any comparison of c. 1950 and c. 1880 street networks in the New World.)
Imagine that the red dot in the center of these images was a rail rapid transit station, as these can generally draw walk trips from a radius of about 1 km. Most planning maps that you see will simply draw a circle of 1 km radius around the station, and call that the "catchment" or market area of the station.
A circular radius of demand is often called an "air distance," or as we used to say, "as the crow flies." Humans, however, have to go around barriers. These include not just major walls such as a freeway (the wide orange line in the left image) but also simply the absence of a path in the desired direction. So the real radius of demand is defined by the network of streets and paths. Actual walking distances along the road network are indicated in blue. Until recently, you didn't see these diagrams often in planning studies, because walking paths were just too complicated to calculate. Now, thanks to increasingly rich GIS databases of pedestrian networks, it's getting easier.
The beauty of fine-grained grid street patterns (not to be confused with the beauty of transit network grids) lies in your ability to reach most of the area of the 1 km circle in a 1 km walk along the network. We can't expect any neighborhood to offer a 1 km walking distance to any point on a 1 km circle. (Such a goal would fill the entire area of the circle with needed walking paths, leaving no room for a city.) But the classic grid structure of streets is remarkably good at maximizing the walk radius while still leaving space to build things. In the image above, the walkable radius in the suburban cul-de-sac street pattern on the left is less than 30% of the area of the circle, while in the fine-grained inner city street grid on the right, it's 64% of the circle.
Transit, in short, has a direct interest in steps to increase the permeability of the street network, steps that make a street network more like the map on the right and less like the one on the left, because such changes enlarge its market. Cities that value transit (or walking or cycling for that matter) should be looking for strategic interventions where small additional segments of ped-bike path can dramatically shorten ped-bike distances and thus expand the actual walkable radius of demand around a transit station or stop.
Here's an example from Hayward, California, which I remember from my brief 1990 stint at AC Transit:
The triangle in the center is a large mobile home park. It is about 750 m in extent from north to south, and bounded by the freeway on the west and a fenced drainage canal on the east. The only street nearby on which you could run a reasonably frequent transit service is the east-west arterial on the bottom of the image (Industrial Parkway). (The local bus system actually does something more complicated than this, but that's beside the point. Clearly, if you were trying to run relatively fast and efficient bus routes, you'd stay on major arterials like Industrial Parkway, and focus on improving the pedestrian access there, rather than driving on much slower and more circuitous paths into the surrounding neighborhoods.)
At the very bottom of the triangle is a bridge over the canal. My recollection is that in 1990, that bridge wasn't there. Regardless of whether that's true, the point is that if the bridge weren't there, almost everyone in the mobile home park would be more than 400 m (1/4 mi) walk from Industrial Parkway even thought most of the park is within that air distance. This kind of situation got built all the time.
The little bridge at the southern tip of the park obviously changes everything. Now, most of the park has a reasonable direct walk path to a stop on Industrial Parkway. That's better mobility for the people who live there, for access to nearby commercial as well as to transit. I point to this bridge because it's the kind of small intervention that cities and local transit advocates should be looking for. It doesn't have to be a street, of course, just a pedestrian link. Such links can do a great deal to re-connect highly disconnected suburban street patterns, and thus bring much larger areas into the walk radius of transit.
To see the effect of an abundance of these links, here's a slice of Australia's sprawling national capital city, Canberra. Even in the most car-dominated and sprawl-loving era, Canberra has always maintaned an ethos of connection to nature, and has manifested this in abundant park strips -- most of them also off-street bicycle paths -- lacing the city. These paths completely change the game. Here's a bit of the Canberra district of Florey, designed in the 1970s. It's at the same scale as the slice of Hayward above.
The east-west arterial across this image is a very important street for the transit system. In fact, our Strategic Plan for Canberra's public transit identified it as a bus rapid transit corridor. RIght now, it's a big fast arterial, but notice that as it turns into a transit corridor, its stops will have very easy access into the surrounding suburban fabric, even though that fabric is made of classic car-oriented design. The key is that while there are plenty of cul-de-sacs, they are almost always "pierced" by a pedestrian link that allows people to keep walking in a desired direction. Zooming in, you can see these links into the parkway corridor from each of the cul-de-sacs at the top of the image:
In short, this structure is a labyrinth for cars, as cul-de-sacs are meant to be, but for pedestrians and cyclists it's more like a grid. Every city should be looking for places where they can retrofit this sort of pedestrian connection.
A recent reassessment of our income projections compared to actual income shows that payroll receipts are down $15 million and passenger revenues down $8 million. To maintain fiscal stability, we again need to reduce expenses—this time to the tune of $27 million. The cuts we've already made ($50 million since 2001) have reduced our options for future cuts—we've already cut the easy things. Our remaining expenses are largely determined by factors beyond our control, including contract commitments, fuel prices and Portland's rate of economic recovery.
The 21% share paid by fares (called farebox return or Farebox Recovery Ratio [FRR]) is not bad for a city of Portland's size and density. More critically, by the agency's numbers the decline in fares received is 30% of the total shortfall to be covered. That suggests a real danger of cuts continuing to drive down ridership, leading to a downward spiral of cuts and ridership losses that would gradually destroy the agency's relevance.
This risk may have given some impetus to the proposal to cut low-ridership "Coverage" services even where the few riders have no alternative. Four routes are to be eliminated completely, and three of these (27, 154, and 157) are outer-suburban feeders into Gateway, Oregon City, and Clackamas, respectively. (See Tri-Met system map here.) All serve relatively low density areas but not especially affluent ones, a reminder that density determines ridership much more than wealth does. There's not much of an alternative for residents of the areas served, especially Willamette and Happy Valley, but if good transit service were really important to you, you wouldn't live there.
They're also taking the opportunity to eliminate some awkward deviations caused by transit-hostile development design. A dramatic example is the Cornell Oaks employment area on Line 67. It's on the south side of the US 26 freeway on the east side of 158th Avenue. Have a look:
The north-south street on the far left is 158th Avenue. The core street of the development, Greenbrier Parkway, comes off of 158th, does a few S-curves that we're supposed to find sensuous or relaxing, and then ends in a landscaped turnaround loop, a violation of the "Be on the Way" rule. (Actually the cul-de-sac has a connection to a parking lot, which connects to another street, all of which looks like it's designed to permit fire trucks but obstruct buses.)
Currently, some Line 67 trips, which are running past on 158th, actually turn down this street, drive all the way down, and then, having no alternative, turn around and drive all the way back. They do this while carrying through-passengers who just want to ride along 158th. This is called a "backtracking deviation," and psychologically it's the very worst kind because the through-riders can't even pretend they're going in roughly their desired direction. It's especially bad here because we're at a point where the bus is relatively full (by the low standards of suburban local routes.) There's a MAX station just to the south off the map, and a lot more suburbia to the north, so everyone wanting travel between MAX and that suburbia gets hauled through the Cornell Oaks detour.
The Cornell Oaks deviation is a typical example of how transit agencies are forced to wear the costs of poor design, so bravo to TriMet for refusing to do it anymore. While some people who work in these business parks probably want service, their developer did everything possible to prevent bus service from working. One solution you'll hear proposed for places like this is for the businesses to run their own employee shuttle to the nearby MAX station (not far south off of this image). Doing so would reflect the fair costs of their decision to locate in a place where efficient public transit is impossible.
Still, these cuts are a small part of the damage. The main damage is further loss of frequency on the former "Frequent Network," now including midday MAX light rail frequencies as well as buses. This is really where the downward spiral of cuts and ridership could play out. I have one strong suggestion about these cuts: Given that you've already given up on the 15-minute frequency standard, try to hold the line at 20 -- exactly 20. TriMet is currently being vague about what the exact post-cut frequencies would be, saying, for example, that on certain routes the elapsed time between buses "would increase by 2-10 minutes at various times throughout the day." It's impossible to know what this means, but it could mean that we'll see lots of important lines running every 17, 18, or 19 minutes. My view is that 20-minute frequency is actually better than many of these compromises, because it yields a schedule that you can remember because it repeats the same way every hour.
The cuts will also undermine the historic usefulness of transit for intra-downtown travel, which was at one time an important feature of downtown Portland as a place to work, shop, and play. While the old transit mall and fare system made it easy to grab just any bus that came along, the new transit mall has very widely spaced stops, so you can no longer easily walk to the stop of whichever bus you see coming if you want to travel a short distance along the mall. More critically, the downtown free fare zone now applies only to rail, and you're expected to use light-rail for these short trips. Midday frequency of light rail will have an impact on this. More on the peculiar mall shuttle situation in another post.
The Transport Politic tells the story of a new rapid transit corridor study in suburban Maryland, extending west from DC Metro's Red Line terminus at Shady Grove. Don't worry if you don't know the geography. Think of this, instead, as a Rohrshach test. There's a yellow option and a blue option, and the squiggly blue option has an additional optional squiggle in green. Which one would you rather ride?
For a line that has to wind through a classic suburban landscape of business parks and subdivisions laced with huge freeways, the yellow line is remarkably straight. Unfortunately, many of the densest destinations with the best ridership potential are on the blue line.
As a result, Maryland now has to choose between a direct yellow line that misses key destinations and a blue line that serves them but is maddeningly circuitous, especially compared to the freeway that this line would compete with.
There is no clearer example of this basic principle: Public transit's usefulness is determined by land use planning more than by transit planning. Once you've arranged your major land use nodes to form a squiggle, you've pretty much prohibited efficient public transit.
(Given the way it's been built, the best solution I can see here is some form of Bus Rapid Transit with multiple branching patterns, so that a main line could follow the yellow route with branches to serve the major dots on the blue squiggle as well as the green squiggle to Kentlands. It's not ideal, but no solution here will be as satisfactory or efficient as what you'd have if the big destinations on the blue squiggle were in a straight line.)
This is a textbook example of why rational long-range planning must think about land use and transport together, using a co-ordinating tool such as the Frequent Network strategy that I discuss here as it applies to another sprawling capital region, Canberra, Australia. It's also a textbook example of the first rule of transit-oriented development, which is: Be on the Way! If you want your development to have good transit, put it on a direct route between other places that either have good transit or will readily justify it. Such a principle, had it been in the backs of everyone's mind as this suburbia was being built, would have made high-quality transit possible without changing the overall density, or for that matter changing anything else that would matter much to people who live there now.
Map by the excellent graphics team at The Transport Politic
One of the problems with discussions of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is that the term sounds much too specialized. We hear talk of TODs as a special class of developments with special requirements and possibilities, and perhaps requiring special expertise. We often hear that a certain development is or isn't aTOD, as though transit-orientation were not -- as it obviously is -- a matter of degree.
Moreover, most of the urban development decisions that will determine the future viability of transit are not decisions about TODs. Most of them are not even conscious decisions about transit. The literature of "how to build TODs" is useless in these situations. What people need are simple guidelines about transit that they can keep in the back of their minds, and on their checklists, as they plan ALL kinds of urban development. The same principles could help institutions and individuals decide where to locate.