Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Transit and development and obfuscation and capitalism

Transit as a put up job to enable developers to make money.  I have noticed in the past few years that a primary criticism used by opponents of transit and real estate development projects attributes approvals to a desire to make developers (and construction firms) wealthy, rather than an imperative by local governments to improve the economic competitiveness of their communities and to shift more people to more optimal modes that reduce demand for more and wider roads.

They end up sounding pretty anti-capitalist in ways that are pretty ironic, given that the US is a market economy and that real estate development is a major sector of the economy.

This came up in the Post on Sunday, "Chevy Chase funds to fight Purple Line route is good cents," in a letter to the editor:
... Mr. McCartney is surprisingly naive in arguing that this project will solve a transportation issue related to inevitable growth and development. The driving force behind the Purple Line is the people who want it to provide a catalyst for more development. This is a development issue, period, and we would be remiss if we suddenly took a back seat to the development industry which, left unchecked, will run amok to the detriment of residents. Most town residents have lived in Bethesda or the D.C. area for many years, and we’ve seen it all. You can call us what you want, but we aren’t fools.

-- Jim Mich, Chevy Chase
But touting every development as the result of new transit helps support their case.   Besides needing to make it better understood that real estate development benefits a community, generally, in many ways in terms of revenue, more customers for local businesses, and more activity in general that helps the community in various ways, I will admit that proponents don't help "our" case if we attribute every possible new development that occurs to be the absolute result of a particular transit project. 

Portland.  This comes up with Portland, Oregon, which streetcar proponents use as a positive argument for streetcars, attributing every new construction project Downtown and in the Pearl District as a result--they are mostly, but not entirely.  But what is beyond dispute is how the streetcar there repositioned the attractiveness of investment and location in Downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods served by the streetcar versus suburban locations without such service.

Interestingly, transit opponent Randal O'Toole turns this around and attributes all the developments that are created around transit stations and lines to "subsidy."  See "A Streetcar Named Development" from the Tucson Weekly, about the Tucson streetcar project.  Conveniently, he doesn't consider development enabled by the road and freeway network as being subsidized.

Cleveland.  Another example of over-attribution is Cleveland, where the inexorable expansion of hospitals and universities is attributed 100% to the creation of the HealthLine bus rapid transit system, when it's more likely that those institutions would have expanded regardless.
Cleveland bus service, HealthLine, marketing piece
The problem is that proponents of various modes of transit seize on these examples to promote their world view, overstating the case in some ways, and in ways that can make it harder to achieve desired results in their own communities.

Wikipedia photo of the Cleveland HealthLine BRT by GoddardRocket. The Cleveland HealthLine system is well designed with particularly attractive bus shelters.

ITDP report shills for bus systems.  For example, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, normally a totally awesome group, produced a report making the claim, based on the HealthLine experience, that bus rapid transit is the absolute best way to promote ancillary economic development, which isn't necessarily true, in fact there's been little proof in the US that rapid bus access shifts land use development in significant ways.

-- More Development For Your Transit Dollar: An Analysis of 21 North American Transit Corridors

Where this can be "pernicious" is  that elected officials and students, who don't know any better, parrot such reports.  For example, students in an urban design studio at Savannah College of Art and Design promoted BRT, not other forms of transit, based on the conclusions of that report.  From "SCAD students tackle Savannah's linear park and streetcar projects" in the Savannah Morning News:
Bus rapid transit resembles light rail and streetcar systems in that they have fixed stops where riders board and depart, but it also gives traffic signal priority to allow the buses to travel through intersections without stopping.  It would take no more than 25 minutes to ride from one end of the route to the other, said Armstrong, 25, of Dayton, Ohio.

“It’s actually better than light rail,” he said. “The investment is considerably less. It also has been proven to have a higher economic increase to an area than light rail even has.”
It's true that bus service is cheaper to construct, on the other hand many fewer people choose to ride buses, regardless of the quality of the service.  While it's definitely true that the initial investment is lower and BRT can be constructed more quickly, which should be taken into account when comparing modes, it's misleading to state that it has a higher total return., or that as many people will ride bus as opposed to fixed rail transit.  (On the other hand, in jurisdictions with smaller populations, where the cost for fixed rail transit is less justifiable, BRT is better than not doing better transit.)  Also see "Orange Line busway is Metro's quiet success story" and "Fare evasion on the Orange Line has fallen, transit officials say" from the Los Angeles Times and "Metro takes aim at Orange Line fare evaders" from the Los Angeles Daily News.

Note that awhile back a study for the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway in Northern Montgomery County did make a similar point, that while the overall economic development from rail would be higher, BRT could be constructed more quickly and cheaply, making it a better return on investment... if people ride it ("Upcounty needs world-class transit to support needs" and "Corridor Cities Transitway could be built more quickly and cheaply,"Gazette).

Economic impact study: proposed Arlington streetcar.  This comes up because a report was released yesterday studying the proposed streetcar line in Arlington and Fairfax Counties, with the conclusion that the line will generate $3 billion more in economic activity compared to bus ("$3B more benefit for Arlington from streetcar than enhanced bus," Washington Business Journal).

-- 2014 Return On Investment Study report (PDF)
-- Columbia Pike streetcar webpage, Arlingotn County Government

On ArlingtonNow ("Consultant: Streetcar Could Generate $3 Billion for Economy") people are quoted in the article (and the commenters say the something similar) about how it's a projection, that there is no certainty.

While that's true, places with the characteristics that favor land use intensity with higher quality transit access are more likely to benefit from such investments than places that lack those characteristics.

And in the modern era of transit construction, that is dating from the 1960s, DC and Arlington are two of the best examples nationally of real estate development intensity following investment in fixed rail transit.

Streetcars are being tested on H Street NE in Washington, DC.  Service is expected to begin within a few months.  

There are many reasons for this, which make direct comparison to other places very difficult.  But too often, people end up saying "X worked in Y and so it will work here," without being open to a much more nuanced analysis. 

I understand that nuance makes it harder to make your case.  On the other hand, deeply understanding the circumstances makes transferring success to other places more likely, so long as those circumstances are taken into consideration.  Also see "It's the (urban) design (compact development, mixed-use, connected, walkable, friendly to all mobility modes) stupid!" from 2007 and "Bitter Fruit in Fruitvale" from 2006, about the lack of success of a touted "transit oriented development" in Oakland, California.

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