Within the transit world, there seem to be two types of transit advocates — there are those who are strong believers in efficient grid-based networks meant to emphasize anywhere-to-anywhere geographic coverage, and then there are those who favor implementing high-capacity transit between urban centers to spur dense growth and land use in these corridors (let’s call them Group
A B and Group B A, respectively). There’s a lot of grey area where these two camps mix, but ultimately it shouldn’t be forgotten that both are on the same side.
Often, there gets to be a pretty weird dichotomy that plays out between both factions. All of a sudden, you start characterizing the latter, Group A, as the pro-density pro-rail long-term visionaries in contrast to the former, Group B– pro-bus pro-efficiency short-term pragmatists. For a slightly clearer example, Human Transit highlights a good quote demonstrating this split in the context of
Tampa’s Tallahassee’s recent bus network restructure (emphasis mine):
This quote from Scheib was interesting:
“If you talk to a land-use planner, typically they would want you to keep … service focused more on the downtown because they want more people to live downtown, in that dense environment. I’m all for that, I’m all for urbanization, I’m all for denser places,” Scheib said. “But the reality is that people need to get to work. And you’ve got to go where the jobs are.”
I can assure you that this change won’t damage downtown. I was hanging around Portland’s TriMet in 1982 (in the indispensible role of teenage transit geek) when they totally restructured the inner city bus system, creating a grid pattern with many crosstowns that don’t go downtown at all. Several of those crosstowns are now among Portland’s most productive lines. But downtown Portland survived, to say the least.
The bottom line is this: if we focus on efficiently structuring our network that tends to follow land use instead of shaping it, does it hurt our ability to promote high-density growth using transit as a catalyst?
First, Group A.
Jarrett’s defense of the Portland’s decentralization of its bus network is a little too anecdotal for my taste and doesn’t really address the true forces behind the city’s ability to maintain a strongly centralized downtown core. But I think what’s important here is examining the level of influence a transit network has on local land uses. The Portland case is interesting — the bus network restructure occurred before MAX and at a time when the city didn’t really have a strong transit identity. An interesting to thing to think about is whether or not you’d have the same effects if MAX were decentralized today.
What it comes down to is capacity and service levels of your core transit system. The greater the capacity, the higher the frequencies, and the better the reliability, the more land use-inducing your system becomes. We like to trend towards rail because it offers these key advantages and is usually a better bet of TOD (though there are examples of BRT-induced TOD). Basic mathematics tells us that the densest areas are the most conducive for transit.
But what of Group B?
People in this camp tend to be interested in the here and now, making Route Y more productive or restructuring Quadrant X to save on resources. What it usually means is quick short-term changes that can happen within a year – in other words, changes that are limited to what you can do with a bus network on non-fixed guideway, typically lower-capacity local-running transit. This approach sometimes disturbs members in Group A who tend to be alarmed by such efforts that seem to be more about following land use than shaping it.
In defense of Group B, bus restructures aren’t primarily focused on land use because real estate markets never really respond to local-running bus transit anyway. This is an entirely different layer of transit being emphasized– that which focuses on serving the majority of transit users that don’t live in high rises. If we know there will always be people living in lower density environments outside of dense well-served transit corridors, then people in this camp will always have a job to do.
Ultimately, the answer to the bottom line is no– focusing on efficient network restructures does not hurt our ability to promote density. Good transit networks are composed of multiple layers – frequent trunk corridors, peak-only express routes, local buses, etc. – and can still encourage strong centralized land uses that we know are good for transit. This allows different groups, like Group A and Group B, to address specific layers suitable to their expertise. What’s truly important is the ability for these groups to work together instead of disassociating themselves from one another.
If you want real proof of how well this can turn out, look at TransLink’s network in neighboring Vancouver– radially-built frequent SkyTrain lines help emphasize centralized growth downtown and along dense transit corridors. All the while, an overlapping complementary bus grid that is both frequent and efficient helps riders travel from place to place outside of these dense areas. This is what transit synergy is about and this is what we should be striving for.