Waiting for a Train
For a couple of decades at least, city planners have understood the critical link between public transit and land use. And they've also understood that the best land use for transit is the kind that allows lots of people to walk to trains and subway stations rather than drive and park. Makes sense. Once people get behind the wheel of a car, many would just as soon drive to work as stop, park and wait for a train.
So why has it taken so long for cities to produce such transit-oriented developments, given this abundance of knowledge? Charles Smith, a writer who specializes in housing and urban design issues, tackled this question recently in a long article in the San Francisco Chronicle. His conclusions: Local governments have undermined themselves by their inability to work together, but a greater problem has been a failure of imagination.
Simply put, we have problems thinking outside the traditional suburban box, which separates housing from commerce and keeps densities low. Which is odd, Smith says, because lots of people love neighborhoods with mixed uses and medium or high densities, from Paris' 16th arrondissement to San Francisco's Noe Valley; they just can't imagine themselves living like that.
Why? Says one urban planner who is helping design transit-oriented developments in the Bay Area, it's because "the term 'density' ends up being a somewhat misunderstood measure, because of perceptions of what is regarded as 'high density.' " In truth, the planner goes on, most transit developments fit nicely into existing neighborhoods by increasing density levels as you move from existing houses toward the transit stop. Translation: If you noticed the changes in density at all, they'd seem appropriate.
But that's not the only thing that has held back transit-oriented developments. Transit systems don't work particularly well with city governments — or vice versa — even though they're committed to the same goals. Smith notes that one Oakland transit development took a decade of planning and the assembling of 30 different public and private funding sources before it could break ground. "Given this maze of hurdles," he adds, "the wonder isn't that it's taken so long for alternatives to suburban sprawl to arise, but that any have arisen at all." Posted 8/15/2004
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