Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reconciling Sprawl and Transit

The United States has seen a resurgence of interest in transit and transportation modes other than private automobiles. While vehicle mileage is still incredibly high, the amount of miles driven has dropped over the last two years after reaching an all time high in 2007. Additionally, more people rode public transit in 2008 than in any of the previous 49 years. Poor economic times, fluctuating gas prices, and continuing negative news about the state of the environment have helped sustain that interest.

Many Americans are beginning to re-think our strategy on transportation and infrastructure. If this trend is to continue it will mean a massive upgrade and expansion of our non-automobile transportation system. While this is clearly positive, in my mind, there is a large amount of sprawling suburban style development which is still in place. Even though this type of development is shrinking, it is doubtful that suburbia is going to disappear anytime soon. This is especially true in the Pittsburgh area. Suburbs such as Cranberry Township (whose population has increased from just under 15,000 in 1990 to approx. 27,000 today) are continuing to expand, despite the economic times and a renewed interest in smart growth.

Sprawling suburban development does not just encompass the cul-de-sac development, there are suburban style strip malls that serve commercial needs and huge sprawling industrial parks with large green lawns, ponds and parking lots larger than the buildings they serve.

These types of developments lend themselves well to automobile transportation but because of the wide distances, large spacing, and long winding access roads they do not lend themselves well to transit integration. A central transit hub or station located in the physical center of any type of suburban development will not usually be sufficient to provide that development, or that mall, or that industrial park with transit service. Spreading the development out makes walking distances longer and even when distances are acceptable, the facilities (i.e. sidewalks) do not often exist to allow people to move between a home/office/store and a central transit hub or station.

I could talk about integrating varying types of suburban development with transit, but for this post I will focus on industrial development. This is partially because of my experience living in the city and commuting to the suburbs and because I think opening up suburban industrial parks to effective transit operations has a good chance for success if done right.

There are many industrial parks in the Pittsburgh area that fit this bill; RIDC Park(s) in Blawnox, and Robinson, Southpointe in Canonsburg, and Westmoreland Business and Research Park, just to name a few.

These existing developments bring up some interesting issues/questions. Are parks like these, "the wave of the past"? Is it worth integrating parks like these? Without "starting over from scratch", how do you integrate these types of parks with expanded transit systems? Is it possible, i.e. financially feasible?

These are all questions I intend to answer (or at least give my opinion on) but this post is growing by the second, so I will leave those opinions for a follow on post.

1 comment:

Mark Arsenal said...

Great post. If I may summarize in my own words:

1. People have been getting back on public transit

2. People have been repopulating denser parts of urban areas

3. A huge portion of our remaining economic development (jobs) is on the periphery

Having lived for years in San Francisco, I think this is old-hat. Cities are destined to be bedroom communities, and since all the factories and office parks are in the suburbs now, a 'reverse commute' will become the norm in most large cities by the early part of next decade, I think, especially since the worst foreclosure rates are in the outer suburbs, where the cost of fuel makes supporting a McMansion too much for the average middle-class family, and where the foreclosure cycle is becoming self-reinforcing.

Not to mention how ghastly much more money it costs to deliver residential infrastructure to sprawling suburbs.

I foresee a future that has farms and fields and maybe a few more factories where exurbs and tract suburbs used to be, and radial commutes are commonplace, only in the opposite direction they took in the early 20th Century.

I find this to be a good thing. I'm sad for the millions that will be displaced and the enormous amounts of lost energy that will be visible as those suburban developments decay and dissolve, but I see the impact on our cities being largely positive.

Besides, denser residential concentrations means more opportunity to bring people together for public floggings and such fun activities as burning bankers at the stake.