Streetsblog had an interesting article summarizing some new research about Transit Oriented Development (TOD) yesterday.
The Secrets to Success for Transit-Oriented Development
by Tanya Snyder on March 24, 2011
“Transit alone is insufficient to make a real estate market,” said Dena Belzer, the president of Strategic Economics, an urban design consulting firm. Her group is a partner in the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD), which this week released a new report on the effects of transit expansion on real estate markets.
Transit won’t, on its own, create a booming market for compact, mixed-use development, but if a city has a good, walkable grid and simply needs better access to jobs and centers of activity, it can do wonders. “There are sites where you can see that opening up access just really ‘popped’ things,” Belzer said. For the best chances of success, you need to use transit to connect underutilized land with walkable downtowns and employment opportunities.
As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the controversy of the Cincinnati Streetcar in the news yesterday. If the most critical factors to spurring redevelopment are access to downtown, employment centers and underutilized land, it’s hard to think of a better project than the Cincinnati Streetcar. You have jobs downtown, jobs near the University of Cincinnati, and a ton of underutilized land in the middle in Over-the-Rhine. You can almost guarantee that lots of new development will sprout up along this line.
Then a voice in the back of my head said, “Is this a transportation project or an economic development project?” Urban Cincy quoted ODOT’s Acting Deputy Director of the Division of Planning as follows:
When pressed for more reasons behind cutting streetcar funding for Cincinnati, Townley later replied, “because there is already a bus system in place in Cincinnati that services the same area, we don’t see why rail is really necessary.”
I may be jumping out on a limb here, but what I think Ms. Townley is failing to articulate is that a streetcar is mostly an economic development project, not a transportation mobility improvement. I’ve said similar things in the past about the mothballed Columbus streetcar project. And it’s true. A streetcar isn’t going to take you anywhere the bus system doesn’t go today. It won’t be any faster than a bus could potentially go if the same stop spacing, station design, and fare collection policies were used. It won’t be any more environmentally friendly than an electric trolley-bus. What it will do though is increase ridership and spur development.
This raises a question for me. Is ODOT’s goal strictly to improve mobility (i.e., move people from place to place faster) or do they care about accessibility (i.e., the amount of places someone can go in a given time) too? After all, going faster is only one way to reach more destinations in a given time. The other way is to reduce the distances between people and destinations so people don’t have to travel as far.
That’s where the streetcar and economic development come in. The streetcar may not improve mobility, at least not by a lot, but it will increase the number of businesses accessible to people within the neighborhoods and the number of people with access to existing employment centers.
So what is ODOT’s mission? I can’t find a general mission statement on ODOT’s website, but there is one for the Division of Planning:
The Division of Planning’s mission is to propose strategies that address needs and goals in order to plan, build, and maintain a safer and more efficient multi-modal transportation system in Ohio.
We accomplish this by collecting, analyzing, forecasting, measuring, and reporting information about Ohio’s Transportation Systems, resulting in a planning process incorporating the information and analysis with the ideas and transportation needs of ODOT’s customers.
This is an extremely broad and somewhat unclear statement, but I think we can ask, “Would the Cincinnati Streetcar project create a safer and more efficient multi-modal transportation system in Ohio?” The clear answer to me is yes. If the streetcar increases transit ridership, it removes cars from the road, improving safety. If the streetcar improves accessibility, as I argue it will, it reduces vehicle-miles traveled, thus improving safety. It also improves space-efficiency since transit takes up less physical space per person and allows people to get rid of space-consuming personal automobiles. It improves energy efficiency through electrification.
So I’m wondering why the opposition to the streetcar? The only answer I can come up with is that ODOT (or the people controlling it) puts too much weight on mobility at the expense of accessibility. This is unfortunate, as it is detrimental to the stated goals of safety and efficiency.