Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Market Must be Right

There's an article from London Ontario with the ever awesome Troy Russ of Glatting Jackson discussing what light rail can and can't do. One of the things it can't do is change the market around its stations. While there is a lot of hope out there that just building a light rail line will solve most if not all the worlds problems, hope alone won't make it so.
"The biggest misconception about transit is it's the reason development happens," said Russ, a planner in an American company, Glatting Jackson, who has designed rail lines in Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Orlando and stations in Denver.
Much development we've seen with recent light rail lines has been from the ability to expand the sphere of a market like downtown, but not change it. The line also has the power to shape an existing market. This is what the Portland Streetcar did when it pushed most of the development in downtown for the last decade along its corridor. I also believe that the streetcar allowed the market in Portland to feed on itself creating a synergy that wasn't possible without it or regulations that shaped growth around it.

So I would urge caution when pumping up that local light rail project or streetcar as the answer to a lack of development pressure. Alone without other regulatory help that swings the pendulum away from today's road paradigm, the tracks will lay dormant. But if you can figure out where the market is going to be next and lay down the rules, it's likely that shaping the development will be as easy as aligning poles on a magnet.


ChiefJoJo said...

Yeah, it makes me think... should Detroit be planning light rail on Woodward Ave when the city is quickly shrinking? If they want lots of new development, probably not. If they want to serve what's there with improved transit service, then maybe so.

Also, lots of cities have made the mistake of thinking the development will pay for building the streets and sidewalks in suburban station areas (that don't have existing grids) such that TOD will be successful and help reward the investment in rail transit. Sometimes there's simply no market for TOD in a more suburban location, so then you don't see the transformation that has occurred in places like Arlington. In many cases developers have often had to go through a contentious rezoning process and then seen their projects frittered away by NIMBYs, you can how the benefits of transit and TOD are further eroded.

I'm over simplifying this, but it seems like as a nation, we've gone from just building transit and ignoring land use in favor of parking... to building transit and caring about TOD, but not making it easy enough to be effective in most places... to building transit and learning which tools we can use to make TOD easier.

With the economy and real estate market in flux, it may be difficult for many areas to redevelop their regions in a sustainable fashion in the near term... not to mention finance the transit investment.

John said...

Excellent point. Rail can channelize development, but it's not likely to create a market where there was none before. I think this is a good example of why recent light rail lines/extensions in places like Buffalo and Cleveland have had limited effect on land use.

Richard Layman said...

I wouldn't say that this is completely accurate. Despite the fact that Glatting Jackson has lots of great people.

The answer is really much more nuanced and depends on a couple things. (1) are there leveragable opportunities in the location that allow the neighborhood/district to be repositioned in a positive manner, thereby becoming much more competitive, by the addition of transit.

(2) will it help reposition particular locations vis-a-vis other locations in a metropolitan region or a city in a manner that is beneficial.

(3) is the route generally sensible, linking neighborhoods and activity centers.

(4) and is the municipality reasonably well run--if things are bad, even transit might not be enough to attract residents with choices.

I think that if the answers to those questions are yes, then fixed rail transit can improve the position of particular areas within the local market.

But it takes a long time to see the results. DC is a perfect example. While it has taken many years to see the results, there is no question that the addition of transit (subway) to many neighborhoods repositioned those neighborhoods so that they became more competitive as places to live, especially vis-a-vis suburban locations, in a metropolitan region that had previously decided to abandon and discount urban residential locations.

When land use policies are changed to better leverage transit access (i.e., Columbia Heights, Petworth vs. Ft. Totten, Brookland) you can really see the results. Or with the impact of a well-placed infill station like New York Ave., which takes an area considered "east" and underappreciated, will now experience billions and billions of investment that wouldn't have happened for decades, if ever. (e.g., in my old neighborhood, one slice became revalued by about $350 million -- $200,000 per house -- because of the addition of this subway station).

But a transit line that follows available ROW but isn't connected too well to neighborhoods and destinations won't have the kind of impact people are looking for. The Baltimore light rail line is a perfect example. Many of the "neighborhood" stops aren't close to neighborhoods. And the industrial stops such as in North Baltimore County weren't redeveloped towards mixed use. Etc.

In weak markets, what it does is reshape the winners and losers. (Also see _Bringing Buildings Back_ by Mallach for another perspective.)

Richard Layman said...

One more point. One transit line, in and of itself, isn't enough to lead to major changes. You need a transit system. DC with its 5 interconnected lines demonstrates this very well.