March 5, 2021

Rail Transit is no guarantee of success in America

For the last three decades, American cities have promoted, planned and built Transit-Oriented Developments – predominantly housing projects on land immediately associated with rail transit or adjacent to station areas.  It’s been a record of mixed results.  And even the successes have required significant government investment.

This paper provides some good detailed analysis of case studies:

Some of the cases are well-known successes, others well-known failures, sometimes in the same city – for instance, the success of the Pearl District in Portland along the streetcar line in contrast to the double bankruptcy of The Round along the MAX line to the west.  Or in the Washington DC area, the long-term dynamic growth in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor compared to the long-term lack of investment around White Flint Metro.

There is still debate on how much rail transit, whether metro-scale or streetcar, has been the primary impetus for urban transformation. In places like North Hollywood or Fruitvale (beyond the Village) in the San Francisco Bay Area, metro rail does not automatically lead to a take-up by the market. In America, tax incentives, subsidies and grants play a much bigger role than in Canada, and even those are insufficient in the face of market weakness for high-density TOD – another cultural difference between our region and most American examples.

Even a single station area on SkyTrain like Brentwood or Lougheed dwarfs almost every US example, and rarely requires any more government support than a rezoning and a commitment to funding non-market housing.  As well, rather than the subsidy by government, the growth in land values and extraction of CACs is expected to help fund the social and physical infrastructure anticipated by the growth itself.

In any event or by any comparison, in the US rail transit does not automatically result in favourable conditions for high-density development, or even any at all.  That is a prayer not always answered.



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  1. To be fair, the Pearl is immediately adjacent to Portland’s downtown, so it was not all that radical of a step as a site for redevelopment. Indeed it recapitulates earlier urban renewal projects, such as South Auditorium, which was likewise an expansion of downtown. Both also had scale and cleared land–the former thanks to rail infrastructure brownfield sites, the latter due to subsidized condemnation and clearance.

    By contrast, the Round was built in the deep suburbs, in a community of tract homes built in the 1950s onwards, and at the time still producing suburban sprawl (growth boundary or no). The culture of Washington County is *still* car centric and anti-urban. Its largest employers are all in vast sprawling campuses, one of which, Nike, is still legally on unincorporated land specifically to avoid paying taxes to the city of Beaverton.

    Finally, and crucially, Portland is a second tier city whose primary leadership is regional and sometimes even parochial or provincial. It is a cultural aphorism that Portland is “just a big town” and not a metropolis. Vancouver metro, by contrast, is Canada’s most important Pacific Coast city and an international metropolis. Those contexts create different cultures, and widely different levels of expectation and acceptance.

    The presence or absence of rail in these projects are not at the heart of the issue. The readiness and demand for urban living is. To those moving to a place like Portland from other major cities, moving into a place like the Pearl is an obvious choice. To those who work at Tectronix or Intel or Nike or so on, the suburban life dominates perceptions or normalcy, and shape demand.

    This is changing, but slowly. Downtown Beaveton is become denser, in a mid rise way. But the culture of the westerb suburbs is still resistant to letting go of motordom, and no amount of rail transit will have an iota of imapct on that. Only generational and population turnover, or external events that change the financial locus of driving, will ever change that.

    1. I don’t think that Vancouver is really much more sophisticated or “1st Tier” compared to Portland’s “2nd Tier” status. Certainly transit planning is much better, but that is probably more to do with institutional difference and just luck. Toronto ought to be even better than both cities, but it is clearly worse than Vancouver. Again institutional differences are partly to blame and political culture is partly to blame. In Vancouver, there hasn’t been too much negative political influence on transit planning. In the early 90’s the second line was going to be the north south, but that was put behind the east west line for political reasons. But both lines, now built as the Canada Line and Millennium Line, were valid routes. And we were probably just plain lucky that the elevated, automatic trains chosen in 1982 because they were cool also turned out to be a good idea.

  2. I think it’s highly a function of zoning and the municipal willingness to accept density in each area (or panding to local residents unwilling to accept density).

    Look no further than Commercial-Broadway Station, Nanaimo Station or 29th Ave. Station in Vancouver and you can lump that in with the American examples, versus the highly successful Burnaby examples. (Note: Joyce Collingwood is different beacuse it was an “unattractive” light industrial area before its “opportunistic” redevelopment, rather than the politically more sensitive displacement of single family houses.) For Vancouver, the density along the Canada Line was a change in policy, and it will be interesting to see what happens along the Broadway Extension, particularly at Arbutus Station and those westward once the line is eventually extended to UBC.

    In Toronto, look at the Bloor Danforth Line and the city’s unwillingness to densify along that line versus the dense nodes along the Yonge Line.

  3. Actually I think that the focus on Transit Oriented Development in the US is part of the problem. Transit infrastructure is too much viewed as a tool of development instead of as a tool for getting around. If you build a useful tool for getting around, the development will come naturally.

    The real problem with rail transit development in the US is that they build way too much crap. Our two nearest neighbours, Seattle and Portland, provide obvious examples. Portland’s latest expansion, the Orange Line, cost 1.6 billion USD for 11,500 boardings per day (pre covid). This is fewer riders than the #22 bus. This is just inefficient use of money. A much better use of money would have been to speed up the system through downtown where it is very slow. Such an expansion would have cost more than 1.6 billion, but would have made the system more useful to many more riders than the Orange Line. Or even just spending the money on making sure the frequency is always 5 minutes or better.

    In Seattle, 15 years after opening the system, they are already planning for a second tunnel downtown parallel to the current alignment. Parallel. Demonstrating a total lack of planning on how the system was to be sensibly expanded as further sections were built. Link was only opened a few years earlier than the Canada Line. Can you imagine the situation if we were presently planning for a second line between Cambie-Broadway and Vancouver City Centre? It would be the mark of a planning blunder. Yet they persist in Seattle. The current planning for the extension to Ballard is making approximately no one happy. The proposed station locations are very poor for transfers. Some of the other extensions to the north and south will be slower than the buses they are to replace.

    And this brings me to my beef against focusing too much on TOD. The planning for the Link system, and I have followed it since the monorail initiatives, pays too little attention to bus transfers and too much attention to walksheds. Building a complete system, something that is integrated as a proper system actually should be, means figuring out how all the parts work together. Not just single station developments and catchment areas. The success of Vancouver’s rail infrastructure has been its tight integration with the bus system, but actually Seattle and Portland commentators often seem to think it is the development around the stations that is key. The first planning reports for the Ballard extension didn’t even seem to account for any bus transfers but instead estimated ridership solely from the walkshed. (These obviously had very low ridership estimates which have since gone higher in later reports.)

    Of course build TOD, and also biking and walking oriented development (TOD, BOD & WOD), but if you build a better system to start with, the development will come naturally.

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