In my graduate studies in city and regional planning, one thing became very obvious to me: cities, by definition and at their best, are densely-populated places. However, with the rapid rise of automobile use, North American cities have been on a low-density trend. Think about it, big vehicles for every individual require tons of big roads, big parking spaces, etc.
One key way to increase density is to provide good mass transit that people will use instead of cars. Attractive, modern mass transit that follows a specific, dedicated line (e.g. streetcars and light rail) is actually as much of a development tool as a transportation option. Building such transit lines results in high-density development, especially near the transit stations, which, for many, means a better city and a better quality of life. (Of course, it is also important to coordinate such transportation planning with land use planning, but that is a subject for another day….)
A recent piece by JJ Sutherland of NPR goes into this topic a bit more, focusing on the increasing number of cities across the U.S. that are going this route (no pun intended).
Here’s the intro:
It’s hard to find a city in America that isn’t planning, proposing, studying or actually building a light rail system. Cities as diverse as Dallas, Seattle and Washington, D.C., all see light rail as part of their future — a way to reshape their development.
There are 35 light rail systems operating in the U.S. today. At least 13 metro areas are currently building others. Many more are being planned.
Perhaps the most ambitious light rail project in the country is being built in Denver. Downtown, behind Union Station, lies a cityscape that doesn’t quite exist yet.
Much of the area is empty, fenced off. Construction crews are digging a huge hole in the ground in preparation for some of the final stages of a multiyear transportation project that is already changing the city.
Read the full piece, which covers the Denver experience in a little more detail as well as some of the challenges of implementing such systems and more on the reasons for choosing light rail, here: Light Rail Transforming Cities, Guiding Development.
One section I like, in particular, focuses on how even people scared of the ‘s’ word (socialism) are getting behind mass transit like light rail:
Tom Clark, of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, says that when the conversations first began about mass transit, “it sounded a little bit too close to socialism for some of us.” What changed the business community’s mind, he says, were simple economics.
“We had a worker housing problem. The roads were getting congested enough that workers from the north side could no longer commute by car to the south side. They needed an alternative.”
Similar to the light rail rush, streetcars are getting a lot of support in cities around the country for the same reason, despite very little federal support for this option.
Eric Jaffe of Infrastructurist writes:
Federal money for public transit will likely be hard to come by with Republicans now in control of the House. But Yonah Freemark feels optimistic about the future of streetcars. Why? Well, several big cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., continue to develop their lines at pace. And a quartet of other localities announced financial commitments to their own streetcar programs this month:
- Cincinnati will break ground on its streetcar line next year, after the state’s transportation authority awarded the city $35 million.
- Dallas received nearly $11 million to extend its streetcar — to go along with $23 million the city recently wonin a TIGER grant.
- New Orleans, which recently got $45 million in federal grants for a streetcar on Loyola Avenue, may direct local money to adjacent lines.
- Tempe, Arizona, would like to complete a 2.6-mile line by 2016 and is willing to pitch in part of the $160 million price tag, though it will have to ask the federal government to cover half.
Hopefully, the federal government will take notice that light rail and streetcars are popular across political boundaries around the U.S. and will get behind them more in the years to come.