'Inbound to Othello' by Mike Bjork

For those who have never read contributions by Chuck Wolfe at the Seattle P-I’s City Brights blog, you’re missing out.  Chuck co-authored the Barriers Report (PDF) on TOD (transit-oriented development) and is a land-use attorney who knows his stuff about transit’s role in planning the urban environment.  Last week, we had a few big stories about the City of Seattle’s initial cease-and-desist order of a private parking lot in the Rainier Valley and then McGinn’s subsequent moratorium on that policy.  Chuck has a piece out weighing in on the issue’s relevance to distinguishing between ‘nodes‘ and ‘places‘ in planning a transit-oriented community.

More below the jump.

The distinction is important because successfully fostering TOD requires having light rail stations adopt dual roles of not just being nodes, but places as well:

The role of transit in linking individual places with the broader region means that development around light rail stations performs a dual function as both a “node” within the regional transit system and a “place” in its own right. “Place” refers to the neighborhood function of residences, businesses, entertainment destinations and other synergistic uses that combine to make station areas vibrant, pleasant, livable places. “Node” refers to the role of stations as an access point for commuters arriving and departing by train, bus, car, bicycle, and foot.

Chuck makes a point that a “synergistic transit system” fosters transport access and ability to nodes while the places help accommodate residents, patrons, visitors, etc.  In theory, the balance between the two is a major component of making a livable transit-oriented community.  For those who’ve opposed multi-space parking lots, like Sara Nikolic, the balance is even more significant, because those accessing light rail stations as nodes are also primarily patrons of the places that serve the stations.  On the other hand, those who’ve supported the availability of parking have emphasized the stations’ roles as merely access nodes for commuters, where most riders would come from outside the station walkshed instead of being the place patrons.

This tension played out along Seattle’s Link light rail alignment, with many people displeased by the lack of parking at stations, and reflected in the recent mayoral move to relax parking enforcement. In other regions, a common complaint is most transit agencies have little interest in stations as anything but “nodes” and parking centers because they want to maximize ridership from park and ride facilities. Sound Transit and the City of Seattle intentionally avoided accommodation of large quantities of parking at stations because they wanted to encourage stations to develop as “places” – synergistic communities of people, jobs, retail and other amenities. Tukwila Station is the lone exception, where a 600-space parking lot surrounds the station site to serve park-and-ride users.

Chuck goes on to implicitly reason that not all light rail stations can possibly attract dense smart growth-type development, which is why park and rides can “help reduce pressure for other, place-oriented stations to function primarily as ‘nodes’.”  For low-density areas outside city centers where transit service is shoddy, the node-dominant stations have a more prominent role in attracting people who are more inclined to drive or bike to a station first. Progressively, stations closer to the city center are more balanced towards fostering the places that provide amenities, housing, offices, restaurants, etc.– ultimately the destinations of rail riders.

In Southeast Seattle, the parking debacle is proof that there’s a lot of contention over what this proper balance should be as Link travels further out from the downtown core.  However, as Chuck says, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that can be warranted for application.  As we’ve said once before and again, the current situation is fairly ideal as the existing lots in the Valley are non-public ones that could disappear without much political effort to salvage them.  Temporally speaking, however, the long-term goal is to ensure that the TOD that is prospected for light rail stations is maintaining that balance between ‘nodes and places.’  There’s much more on Chuck’s take here.

17 Replies to “Chuck Wolfe Weighs In On ‘Nodes’ And ‘Places’”

  1. I just don’t get what all the fuss is about…

    The Mayor didn’t say that he’s going to seek to repeal the policy preventing park and rides. No tax money is being spent on this. And no private developer is asking to build one.

    Now, it might be an interesting debate if the market were to encourage developers to seek to build parking lots… but that’s STILL not what’s happening here.

    This all started because some owners want to use already existing parking lots to make a little money in this down economy. That’s it.

    Why would anyone prefer to see empty pavement not being utilized in the community instead of letting a few dozen commuters potentially discover how great light rail can be as a commuter option?

    1. Slippery Slope. What would be wrong with me setting up a fruit stand on the corner of our property on 134th in Bellevue? It’s just an empty pasture since we don’t have any horses anymore. There’s certainly a need for a local grocery outlet. Well, the fruit stand starts to sell gardening supplies and then it’s a coffee shop with wifi… As odd as the zoning laws may seem they evolved for a reason. Turning “empty pavement” into pay to park lots is the exact opposite of what the development potential of light rail was billed as. If light rail is only cost effective when it’s used as a traffic enabler then why are we building it?

      1. Bernie,
        In this case we’re talking about land use that is already used for parking lots. This would be more akin to telling fruit stands that are already there that they can’t be open for more than 4 hours per day rather than 8 or 12 hours per day.

        For example the Safeway parking lot or church parking lot are going to be primarily used for parking no matter what since there is no talk about banning surface parking entirely in station areas. The question is should existing parking lots be able to sell day-long parking or should there be time limits to prevent commuter use.

        My personal feeling is if the parking lot is there already the lot owner should be able to lease space to commuters. If you don’t allow the use there are still going to be people doing “hide & ride” just outside the RPZ area and in free lots that don’t do enforcement of who parks there.

        I suspect there is far more “hide & ride” going on in Seattle than anyone really wants to admit. For example the first/last stops of both the 312 and 77 have a ton of people who park in residential areas nearby.

  2. Great stuff. I love the distinction between nodes and places and part of the problem of perception we face here with the Central Link line is sort a variation on the chicken/egg conundrum. Does the neighborhood drive the land use around the station or should the (Some) people presently living in the nodes that would be places view the line as having been “forced” on them or “plopped down” in their “neighborhood.” They view the neighborhood as a static rather than organic thing and thus they abhor the idea of denser, multi-use development that would render those nodes places.

    Contrast for example a year I spent at UPenn in west Philadelphia. Apartment near campus, internship Downtown. Commuted on the trolley and the neighborhood I lived in grew up around the trolley line starting in the 19th century. As a result: several restaurants, a neighborhood market, a barber, a pair of bookstores etc all within 6 blocks of my stop. The guy who owned and ran the cheesesteak shop lived in the apartment over his store. The bartender at Mike’s lived in the aprtment over his bar. The guys who ran one of the bookstores walked to their shops. And each had as much stake in the quality of life in the neighborhood as the several thousand residents there. Packed trolleys everyday and little more than the usual residential street parking spots.

  3. Here I would have to defer somewhat to the go big or go out crowd.

    If you decide to introduce a superior service (superior, faster than buses) to a community, then you naturally attract commuters who would want to take advantage of the service.

    Obvious example: Commuter to Seahawks games says “I’ll park in Tukwila, and pay $5 round trip to avoid a $40 downtown fee”. Commuter in Beacon Hill says, “I used to wait for the bus in the rain, but now I go into the tunnel and take light rail…ideally I wish I could move to a slightly cheaper neighborhood and drive to the station.”

    If you don’t immediately make it easily available at both “nodes” and “places” you create “magnets” that draw in cars and commuters and overload the places and strain the nodes.

    In that sense, the whole cheezy one line at a time strategy while prudent in one way, was very, very foolish in another.

    1. I think the prevention against this “magnet” effect, if that is your concern, is to limit parking near the Link stations — few P&R lots, and limited street parking within a certain distance of the stations. Thus, people using Link stations strictly as nodes (access points to transit) will not crowd out people using Link stations as nodes andplaces; the places will not be overwhelmed.

      As for the hypothetical Beacon Hill commuter, who now uses Link instead of a bus… Is that a large portion of Link users? It seems odd to me that someone already close enough to walk to the Link station would rather live in a more distant neighborhood if he were able to drive to the station (and park there).

  4. Obviously a different Chuck Wolfe than the founder of Bridlewood on 116th in Bellevue. But of course people who don’t actually live here are way better positioned to know what’s best for Bellevue.

  5. My goals of a transit system is to
    1) maximize movement people & goods and
    2) minimize environmental impact (key metrics: energy use per person for transportation, land area whose surface is not alive)
    with those metrics, nodes that aren’t places do add value. Driving to a Park&Ride and taking Link/Bus to work downtown/elsewhere reduces congestion, reduces need for roads, reduces energy use. Not as much as walking to the station, but still significantly in most cases.

    It is interesting that Bellevue is seeking to have South Bellevue link be nodes, but East Bellevue (between Bellevue and Overlake) be a place.

    Now, for McGinn’s drawing board transit investment in Seattle, where should the aim be nodes and where places? How many places in Seattle can really qualify as places (my definition: live, work, eat, school, activities for a whole family within 10 min non-personal-car transit) – and where could addition of more transit increase places?

    1. I’d modify #1 to “maximize citizens’ quality of live and access to commerce”. The goal isn’t to move people, but to allow them to work/shop/visit friends/attend events/do errands as much as they want to. Instead of “moving the maximum number of people”, we can make trips unnecessary by putting the destinations within walking distance, tele-commerce, or other means. So walking distance is ideal, good transit is second best, and adequate automobile access is third. (Automobile access already exists, so we don’t have to worry about it further.)

      Ideally all residences are within walking distance of “places” (except farms and those who prefer to live in isolated locations), and this did exist in the streetcar era, but we can’t wave a magic wand and make it happen now. So P&R “nodes” will be necessary for the foreseeable future.

      Let’s start with the needs: who wants to ride the train but has no station within walking distance, and no frequent bus to the station? Seward Park, Skyway, and those on the south Beacon hillside would ride the train if they can easily get to the station. That means driving for now, and they’d need a place to park. So there is some need for parking at the Rainier Valley stations, until bus service improves. But these stations also need to develop as “places”. So how to do both? I’d say temporary private parking lots, and perhaps a P&R at Rainier Beach, might be good things.

      Going north to the unbuilt track, Capitol Hill through Northgate are all “places”. Northgate is a node because of the P&R and transit center. UW could be a node on weekends (if people park there to ride elsewhere). Capitol Hill, Brooklyn, and Roosevelt have no place for parking and no desire to add it, so they are purely places.

      145th to Lynnwood are nodes because there’s little to walk to, although future TOD could modify that. Lynnwood itself talks about building a “town center” but I don’t know how far along it is.

      On the west side, Ballard is a place, but it’s similar to Rainier Valley in that a lot of people would not be in walking/bus distance of the station. You’d need parking or extensive circulator buses to bring them in.

      Seattle Center is both a node and a place: people live there and go to there, but others park there and ride the monorail downtown. But making some of the parking lots unnecessary would clearly improve the place. If it weren’t for the World’s Fair, lower Queen Anne would look like Capitol Hill.

      Any station in Belltown would be a place. 15th/Dravus is a node, though it could become a place someday. (Too bad about the huge automobile-oriented design of the Whole Foods.)

      West Seattle is similar to Ballard, but more node-oriented because the hills and limited transit make it hard to get from one part of West Seattle to another without a car.

    2. “It is interesting that Bellevue is seeking to have South Bellevue link be nodes, but East Bellevue (between Bellevue and Overlake) be a place.”

      South Bellevue is a major transfer point, empty area, and adjacent to a wetland and historic farm (Winters House). It’s hard to imagine TOD there until it can be built on the parking lot itself. There are few houses and no businesses within walking distance.

      The Bel-Red area is built to low-density (1950s and industrial) standards, and is surrounded by neighborhood centers in every direction. So it’s easy to imagine higher density development there.

  6. Ideally, don’t you want most nodes to transition to places over the long term, slowly pushing out over time as population increases require?

    I realize that building a rail system from the ground up this will be hard to do initially as the system isn’t so much growing organically as being grafted into an existing city layout, but over time is the goal not a solid dense core?

    1. I thought the point of the article is that some places are nodes and places, and that they have separate beneficial uses in both of those modes. Some places might operate mostly as nodes, like park and rides or transit centers. Those might shift to include some place over time, but their primary function will still be as a node.

      Some other places, like the Ranier Valley, may shift to be more place than node. Over the short term, the node aspect is important.

      1. I agree that nodes are important, what I am saying is that with VERY few exceptions we shouldn’t be declaring some stations to be nodes for all of eternity. With a new system like Link some inner stations are going to be nodes, but the push should be to turn them into places (this won’t happen overnight, or even in a decade but is a long term goal). The nodes should be on the outer edges of the system, but again this shouldn’t be a permanent state, but only a transitory one. As those develop into places, the system pushes out…

        We can’t reverse 70 years of automobile dominance and it’s accompanying sprawl, but we should do our best to halt it’s growth. As Seattle grows the goal should be to encourage density from the inside out.

    2. Every station will always be a node, at least in the context of modal transport. But you can’t have a place without a node. It’s like having TOD without the transit. The idea is to increase functionality, livability, and company to make those nodes places for work, play, etc.

      1. Agreed – the fewer “parking structures” the better, for all the reasons discussed here ad infinitum.

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