DC Streets Blog recently asked the question: Can Transit Expansion Produce Sprawl Like Highways Do? The question was also brought up years ago during Roads and Transit debate on the original Sound Transit expansion plan. More recently, the Obama Administration’s High Speed Rail plans have brought the question along with them, this time as to whether high speed rail would cause sprawl.
Can rail cause sprawl? Answer below the fold.
First, I think it’s worth defining what “sprawl” is exactly. There are two main connotations to the word. The first images that comes to mind are far-flung environments far from the center-city, and the second are car-oriented, low density developments.
Transit can certainly cause – or be the cause of – the first sort of “sprawl”. In Japan’s post-war boom, many heavy-rail transit lines were built through what had previously been farmlands around major cities. Areas such as the Tama New Town were communities planned by the government around transit lines to ensure that new communities had enough infrastructure to become economically sustainable. The line I lived on in Japan was built the same way in the 1950s.
Transit-enabled sprawl has also taken place in America. The streetcar suburbs, while much closer than modern suburbs, were some of the first suburban developments enabled by motorized transport. While streetcar suburbs are generally less dense than center-cities, most streetcar suburbs that remain are more dense than the surrounding areas. In Seattle, Ballard, Fremont, the University District, Ravenna and Columbia City originally developed as streetcar suburbs. This paper by University of Washington student Clay H. Veka is a good introduction to the subject for those curious.
Most of these places built around transit wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as sprawl today. None of the original streetcar suburbs come to mind when thinking about sprawl, and in fact most were built with a quite a bit more density – to say the least – than modern greenfield developments are built. Generally these areas were built with walking in mind as the streetcar commuters were transit dependent. The same holds true for the heavy rail example: forty-five years later, Tama New Town has a population of over 200,000 in an area barely larger than ten square miles, meaning it’s a bit more dense than San Francisco.
Today’s commuter isn’t as transit dependent as those in yesteryear, and modern America isn’t as space constrained as Japan was in the middle of the 20th century. This means the process is not at all fool-proof. As the Streets Blog post notes it is possible to create the second kind of sprawl with bad planning around station areas:
Portland-area Congressman Earl Blumenauer said transit-oriented development can create walkable, livable communities, but “building nothing but a park-n-ride outside the station will create sprawl.”
Every transit line has some stations that fail this test – stations that are anchored in an ocean of parking, with no other services nearby. If there are no residential or commercial opportunities within walking distance of the station, no one will ever walk there. In these cases, transit is an engine for auto-oriented sprawl.
It’s worth noting that not all development that starts low-density or far flung remains that way forever. As these maps of Manhattan show, in the early 19th century, the Upper East Side – now the most residentially dense neighborhood in the country – was a low-density exurban environment. The Seattle Times mentions that in Victorian times even First Hill was sprawl.
Still, it’s obvious that land use planning is key. Again from Streets Blog:
…[W]ell-planned station area development [is] key. It doesn’t just make for nice, semi-urban enclaves – it channels outward development along compact corridors, says APTA President Bill Millar.
“We have a long, long history in the country of building compact towns around railroad stations,” Millar said. “We know that the value of land goes up around stations and intensity of development goes up around stations and that’s anti-sprawl.”
It’s unlikely that any rail transport – including high speed rail – built in our area will cause sprawl of either sort. None of the plans for light rail expansion, streetcars or high speed rail include stations in greenfield areas like the streetcar suburbs or the post-war Japanese boom, thus the first sort of sprawl is ruled out. As for the second sort, even with bad planning in areas around stations, these places are already either urban, standard suburban or low-density sprawl, so it’s difficult to imagine station areas becoming less dense after the introduction of transit.
With population increasing and household size shrinking we are going to need a lot more housing to to accommodate everyone in the future. It would be logistically, economically and politically impossible to pack all those people into our current urban centers. The best way to manage population growth is to follow the pattern of places like Bellevue and Northgate and create new urban centers outside of the center city. This of course means more people living in places that are farther away from what’s currently dense development, but it won’t necessarily be what most people think of when they hear the word “sprawl”.