The most recent elections saw the success of several transit funding measures around the nation, including ones in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area of California, as well as the Seattle/Tacoma, Washington area, Wake County, North Carolina and several suburban counties around Washington, DC. Yet even as numerous small towns and suburbs find themselves planning for transit, hundreds of additional towns are not on the radar of transit funders or planners. Perhaps their transit funding initiatives were not successful at the ballot box. These are the cities and towns with active or abandoned freight lines serving their downtowns for which train service may be only a twinkle in someone’s eye, if at all. Or they are the suburbs that are filling-in with higher density development. While the lack of imminent, or even planned, rail connections may seem to render transit-oriented development moot, nothing could be further from the truth. Since transit-oriented development is really about creating walkable, vibrant communities with a range of uses and diversity of people within close proximity, TOD is really about creating economically, socially and sustainable communities.
Working as planners on downtown revitalization and redevelopment plans for towns, inner suburbs and small cities we are often surprised by a seeming irony. Many communities, particularly those struggling to revive their relatively small downtowns decimated by the suburban sprawl within their own town limits, have a strong desire to attract transit. Yet we repeatedly encounter town leaders who have difficulty conceiving of that transit serving these very downtowns that they have hired us to help revive. They view it as too distant a possibility or ironically, as either a means to get employees to sprawling office parks built with ample municipal tax breaks or as a park-and-ride commuting option for residents. Even if transit is being considered as part of a larger regional plan, sites are sought that can provide highway visibility and acres of surface parking.
The reality is that planning for rail transit in these communities as part of a larger strategy of transit-oriented development makes sense, whether or not the train ever arrives. Such planning ultimately promotes the long-term economic viability and environmental sustainability of these downtowns. An article posted on the website for the Center for American Progress, “Green Transit,” bears this out. It provides listings of the "greenest" cities calculated by a variety of metrics including transit use and walkability. However, transit use itself was not the only metric utilized. More broadly, transit supportive practices and policies were also factored in. In other words, cities were measured on how transit-oriented they were.
One of the sites catalogued by the article, known as WalkScore.com, provides ranking criteria that seem especially appropriate for towns and small cities that do not yet, or may never possess, rail transit. Walkscore looks at the proximity and interrelatedness of stores, restaurants, schools, parks and workplaces along with transit hubs (including bus hubs). An individual's choice to forego use of their car (or not to own one) is ultimately based on this combination of physical factors (among others to be sure). Surprisingly, one large city that made Walkscore’s “green” top ten is, Philadelphia. Though hardly a leader in the installation of solar panels, it is a functionally diverse city and a town in which a two-mile walk feels like a short stroll because the character of the urban space is so extraordinarily delightful.
This should provide a lesson for the leaders of any town or small city that aspires to reclaim the vitality of its downtown. Assume that the transit will come – one day – and plan accordingly and appropriately. Such planning becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, not only by creating a more compelling case for transit in the first place, but also by accomplishing many of the other goals associated with TOD, i.e., improving overall mobility, increasing economic vitality and creating a more environmentally sustainable downtown. Not only will such planning include densities appropriate for transit, but it will provide for rich functional diversity for a compelling and delightful set of public spaces, i.e. the places where we walk and engage in the daily activities of public life, the kind of character one expects in healthy downtowns with or without the “T”.