Light rail does offer great possibility for rebuilding urban cores, as is a key component of rebuilding vitality in Rust Belt cities. If these places are going to capture that urban essence they once had, building from the center on out is going to be imperative. Making light rail successful will be the ability to identify corridors that are slated for reinvestment or are already main arteries for transportation. Detroit is currently attempting to revive plans for a light rail line along Woodward Avenue, which divides the city into the east and west sides.
While the project has an uncertain future due to funding issues and poor cooperating among government entities (Spangler & Helms, 2012), the idea of building off the existing strengths of the corridor and having the potential for expansion are the basic blueprints for what is needed with light rail success. Detroit’s difficulties however are not to be taken lightly by other Rust Belt cities – these projects are complicated, expensive, and may not often be the best fit. Detroit had originally scrapped the LRT system in favor of a more expansive BRT system, however it is currently uncertain if either will happen. This has been demoralizing for people in the area, as it now appears that without the LRT, the city will have failed and have to “settle” for a bus system, when in reality had BRT been the goal to begin with, perhaps the people would be more likely to get behind the proposal.
For cities that already have a LRT system in place, Buffalo, Cleveland and St. Louis in particular, considerations for alterations to your LRT system will be necessary in order to maximize the potential for TODs.
Heavy rail systems such as a subway or elevated rail are most likely not going to be viable financial options for Rust Belt cities. While they could be considered aggressive options for helping to spur development, the members of the public as well as the public officials are likely to find that the gamble will not be worth the risk. In addition to the costs associated with the creation of the new HRT lines, there is also the problem of existing infrastructure to deal with. Water, sewage, and other piping may end up needed complete re-routing or replacing as the result of an underground system.
For an above ground system, the costs will be far less, but will still far outpace LRT or BRT systems. These types of transit systems better compliment lively, dense urban cores that have different needs than those of shrinking cities. As of right now, we can see that no Rust Belt cities have new HRT systems planned, only some expansion of existing systems in (Chicago Center for Transit-Oriented Development, 2012) have even been proposed.
Commuter rail also has possibilities, but is best served in a capacity of moving from one strong urban core to another. Cleveland to Akron, Detroit to Ann Arbor, Dayton to Columbus may all be possible routes used to strengthen both urban cores by encouraging people to move between them. They may also hold potential to be pieces to a regional high-speed rail network some time in the future.
Commuter rail used to connect suburban workers to the city may help to ease traffic congestion, but ultimately become another tool of sprawl as it encourages people to live from where they work. These types of development are not conducive to TOD as they do not encourage density or walkability. They encourage an environment where a transit patron will get in their car, head to a shared parking lot, hop on a train, and head into work. While a TOD may be an option within the city, you severely limit your TOD potential by choosing to place too many transit stops outside of a place where higher density would be encouraged. Pittsburgh has similar issues with their HRT system that exists in a capacity to serve the suburbanites who wish to work in the city.
Evaluating the Success of your project
TOD projects will have various goals of varying levels of importance based on the city, project type, and needs of the people. Goals should be the first step in establishing your TOD plans, as without quantifiable them it can make the success of the project difficult. For a Rust Belt city that has severely limited transit options, the goals may be broader, such as “increase basic ridership” and “familiarize people with public transit”, where ridership numbers and survey results can be used to measure success. For others it could be traffic congestion elimination, the quality of air in the urban core, restricting, sprawl, or others. Whatever the goals, they are important to establish early in the planning process so that all other aspects of TOD and transit planning can be centered around them.
Once the project has been complete, it is important that multiple data sets and methods used by multiple agencies be used. In determining success of TOD goals, different stakeholders will see different results. Using local government, MPOs, redevelopment agencies, State DOTs, transit agencies, community-based organizations, to determine how successful goals have been will be crucial in developing a mean set of data (Arrington & Cevero, 2008) that can properly evaluate the success of the project. For example, while some data is quantifiable in that there are hard numbers to say that transit ridership has increased by a certain percentage; others such as “quality of neighborhoods” may be more difficult to measure. Being able to compare importance, conclusions, and methods are vital in determining overall success. For example, based on data a local government agency may determine that as a result of the TOD, there has been little / no improvement in the neighborhood quality. But community groups who have seen their neighborhoods undergo substantial decline in the past may see signs of improvement that do not show up with hard figures. This also helps to keep everyone at the table who was seated in the initial planning process, a showing of good government by letting the stakeholders know that their opinion is valued in the long term and not just the short term.
Numerous other factors in data collection must be considered as well. Some data will be station dependent (such as amount of private sector investment in the TOD), while others will be regional goals (number of TODs constructed). Even within these data there are numerous ways of considering their importance and by what measure are they a most true representation of overall improvement (Jenks, 2005). The private sector investment for example could be measured in the square footage of property invested in, the amount of money invested, number of properties involved in investment, and others.
The methods of data interpretation in these cases become equally as important as the data in question. The problem with this is that the idea of “success” for a TOD is going to be in many ways, interpretive and not necessarily agreed upon. Regardless of the success of a TOD in your city, planners in the Rust Belt should expect severe skepticism from people who will prioritize different methods of revitalization for urban cores other than transit. To minimize your risk of scrutiny it is important to have understandable goals, realistic projections on cost and time, and complete honesty with stakeholders and the public throughout the project. In doing so, it will make evaluation of the project much easier in the long term.