Letting transit shape development in the Triangle

With the recent election of a new slate of Wake County commissioners, the likelihood of a regionally connected light rail system is one step closer to reality. Transit was a top-tier campaign issue in Wake County this year as all four newly elected commissioners campaigned on expanding transit and increasing transportation options.

While the change in leadership signals new momentum for transit in the Triangle, it is imperative that our local leaders and transit planners move from an outdated approach to transportation planning and embrace the emerging concept that development oriented toward transit can reshape and revitalize our communities.

The traditional approach to transportation planning is based on the foundational principle that people travel because of the need to get to places. This view of travel has permeated how we plan for transportation systems. Engineers estimate demand and then suggest transportation solutions.

Nowhere is this approach more evident than in how we plan for mass transit: the areas with the highest concentration of potential users get better transit service.

Yet, a new paradigm for transit planning is emerging. In this paradigm, transit investments not only respond to needs of the city today but also help shape the future city. Instead of serving only the places with high passenger demand, under this paradigm mass transit investments serve areas where future development can happen. In the same way that the interstate highway system had an enormous impact on metropolitan areas by attracting growth to sprawling residential neighborhoods, planners are turning to mass transit to create the transit cities of the 21st century.

A key ingredient for the success of this new paradigm is to have mass transit investments coordinated with planning for future development that is dense and walkable and with a mixture of different land uses.

Coordinating development and transit service that are mutually reinforcing is critical. Over the last four decades, world-class cities like Stockholm in Sweden, Copenhagen in Denmark and Curitiba in Brazil have shown convincingly that growth oriented toward mass transit investments pays off, protects the environment and creates jobs.

Evidence of this new paradigm is also emerging in the United States. Portland, Oregon, has managed to attract significant growth around its rail system stops, and with it successfully avoided the need for costly urban freeways. Closer to home, Charlotte has been very successful in orienting urban development toward the spine provided by the Lynx rail system, with very positive impacts on the local economy and quality of life.

The success of these cities provide models for the Triangle but also help answer critical questions as to the factors that account for that success. Ongoing research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has evaluated the institutional and planning factors that lead to successful and mutually supportive transit investments and land development. That work identifies several important factors, including transportation investments that create travel benefits, strong municipal planning capacity and a long-term view that includes early financial commitments.

The research indicates that implementing a mass transit system in hopes that development will come is not a recipe for success. Rather, transit planners have the delicate task of balancing the mobility needs of current travelers with the potential of transit to invigorate and reshape areas in between. Under this view, arguing that we have don’t have enough density for a high-capacity mass transit system is unwarranted. This concern misses the point of mass transit as a shaper of cities.

Increasingly cities and regions around the country are using planning decisions related to transit to drive economic growth and create livable communities. As Wake County leaders move forward with renewed purpose for light rail, they should do the same and ensure that the concept of transit-oriented development is fully integrated into the region’s transit planning process.

Daniel Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in the Department of City and Regional Planning and director of the UNC Institute for the Environment’s Center for Sustainable Community Design.