Transit Strategies to Complement Transit Oriented Development

The first step in determining what kind of transit development your city wishes to pursue is to evaluate the city’s current, planned, and proposed transit systems. By doing this and creating a “transit audit”, a better picture of what the city’s transit and TOD future can be painted. Currently, transit options within the rust belt are fairly slim. According to the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (2012), the vast majority of Rust Belt transit systems are currently in the planned or proposed stages. The following chart was built using data from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development’s online transit project database.

Chart Showing existing, planned, and proposed transit for numerous Rust Belt Cities

Based on this data, we can conclude that not only is the Rust Belt lacking in overall TOD strategies, but in transit overall. In fact, Chicago’s existing 417 transit stops dwarfs the rest of the Rust Belt transit stops, which only number 241 combined between the other seven cities represented in the data.

It is obvious that there is a great deal that can be improved on and implemented. Outside of Chicago, transit planners have the challenge of building transit on top of an infrastructure that is mostly limited to auto-oriented design and city bus services. However the silver lining lies in that deciding where to put TODs can be part of the conversation for where the transit lines are to be run. Dealing with existing infrastructure can be a tremendous barrier for the project if you are forced to evaluate current transit stations that may be sub par, not meeting the needs of the community, or simply ill-suited for transit oriented development. By working TODs into transit discussing from the initial planning phases, the goals of the transit system and the TOD can be more easily brought together to form a cohesive, successful series of projects.

This is essential in dealing with developers. While TODs are going to be planned by local governing bodies, it is going to be the private sector who is going to be placing a great deal of investment, resources and time into making these TODs successful. The Urban Land Institute released a short publication titled Ten Principles for Successful Development Around Transit, and the third point on their list is that you cannot think about transit without thinking about the development that goes with it (2003). That means the developers need to be involved as well, and for them time is money. Having a good relationship with developers is important. You certainly do not want to compromise the public or your organization to make them happy, but an environment that fosters cooperation and collaboration will help the project to be successful. The idea is that developers will want to work on your transit projects instead of having a negative opinion about your organization or your projects. Down the road, it is better to have developers bid with fury to get your TOD projects instead of having to convince them that putting in a bid is worth their time.

In most cases of Rust Belt cities, the transit situation is going to have to change. It is impossible to have TOD without existing transit and our data has shown that in many places, it simply does not exist. This is the ample opportunity to explore different transit options for Rust Belt cities to find the ones that will best compliment the city and meet the needs of the people. This will in turn make the transit plan stronger and will be a better sell to the public and government officials who may be skeptical.

Bus rapid transit, while not as impressive in the eyes of the public, is an option that has great success potential for rust belt cities. While many people think of rail in terms of “transit” within a city, the bus is a viable option in terms of cost and performance. It offers flexibility, reliability, and if done correctly, can change the attitudes people have towards taking the bus.

Unlike rail systems, buses can make use of the existing street infrastructure. Many Rust Belt cities have become part of the “shrinking city” phenomenon, where over time industry has left and population has dwindled. The challenge remains in dealing with large cities built for much more people than currently occupy them. Right now, we don’t know if the strategies being used to adapt to address the shrinking cities concept are going to be successful, and some think it could be literally decades (Gallagher, 2010) before we figure out if the policies and ideas we are enacting will work out. That being said, making the best use of our infrastructure is in the best interest of everybody involved. Less people in shrinking cities means there are now more roads with less people driving on them. With this extra space, many cities could eliminate lanes of traffic in order to create dedicated lanes for bus traffic, ensuring that buses would not be disturbed by any potential traffic congestion and encourage people to take the faster option of BRT instead of sitting in traffic.

In order to get people to like BRT, it needs to be a stronger argument than simply being faster than the automobile. In a Scottish study, researchers found that a reason why people did not care for bus riding was the idea of the kind of person that rode the bus. The participants answered that the image of the typical bus rider was, answers were summarized as:

“…people who cannot drive or afford to drive, including school kids and the unemployed, students, elderly people, mothers with prams (strollers), and a ‘less discerning customer’ which could include ‘Neds’ or ‘junkies’” (Dobbie, McConville, & Ormston, 2010).

This already creates a negative image as to what kind of person would use the bus, after all the prospect of sitting next to junkies, the elderly or screaming babies does not encourage people to ride. These findings are consistent with studies from other parts of the world, including the United States. The consensus is clear: people view bus riders as those who are riding out of necessity, not choice.

So how can you get people to choose the bus? The first step is getting rid of the image problem people have by building a product that they cannot associate with such an image. In order to build a BRT system that people want to ride, you have to try to rid people of all previous concerns with bus ridership and say, “our system will be different, this is why”.

BRT systems should not be thought of as city bus systems, but instead as a subway on wheels. Bogota, Columbia has made tremendous strides with their BRT system that accomplishes this nicely. The bus stops are elevated, well lit platforms where 100 people are able to get on and off the bus in seconds (Hustwit, 2011). This not only makes for a subway-like feel for the bus, but it also creates an added element of safety, which also sits atop the concerns people have for not wanting to ride the bus (Dobbie, McConville & Ormston, 2010). The BRT platforms have more people and better lighting than people would typically expect, creating a safer area for patrons waiting to board. The elevated platform fits in with plans for a TOD nicely by giving people a gateway into the development.

Another part of the “bus as a train” concept is to take a few extra measures to ensure a pleasurable, easy to use experience. For as little as $5,000 per bus numerous consumer upgrades can be applied which will allow for nicer and more comfortable seats, funding wireless internet service and creating a better overall experience (National Public Radio, 2012). Adding to the ease of use is the color-coding of the bus lines. Three digit numbers, causing confusing among riders, often identify city bus lines across the nation. A colored line system for identification is much easier to understand.

Another added benefit of BRT systems is that they are easy to re-route if it is discovered that routes need amendments to them. Since many shrinking city strategies are going to be works in progress over long periods of time, we don’t know if cities will grow, shrink, or stabilize. Rust Belt cities would be wise to explore BRT options if they are looking to add new transit to their city.

Light rail options are also to be considered, as like dedicated BRT lanes, could potentially take over lanes in wide roadways that are no longer as populated. However the amount of money needed conversion to a rail system would greatly differ from that of a BRT system. Even if the funds are secured and people are able to take advantage of a new LRT system, the operating costs are still very high. It is estimated that fares only cover one third of the total operating costs for a light-rail system, and it is very unlikely, if not impossible, that such systems are able to exist without heavy government subsidies. In 2001, the St. Louis MetroLink received over $14million dollars in subsidies from various levels of government in order to keep running (Garrett, 2004).