Modernized mass transit is the way forward as we shift from automobiles
By Malcolm Dougherty
Now more than ever, the concept of mobility is changing greatly. Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) – high- density, mixed-use development within a short walk of a transit station – was once an emerging idea, but is now becoming more mainstream. However, the name Transit- Oriented Development is deceiving: this trend has evolved to become more than just about transit, but rather creating neighborhood centers with real urbanism and plenty of amenities.
After decades of suburban migration, many people are returning to cities to live. TOD projects will continue to increase in large part because of a cultural shift that is redefining how people live, work, and play. There are many benefits to TOD: increased access to jobs and entertainment/recreational services, improved mobility, quality of life, health benefits, lower infrastructure costs, and reduced congestion, to name a few. There are also financial benefits, both to individuals living near TODs, who can save time and money using mass transit over owning a car, as well as the private sector, where developers can augment their investment funds by applying to various state/federal grants to help densify the growth.
As with any emerging planning concept, there is a need to identify current trends that can enhance future developments. With TOD, we are exploring new ways of moving people. Fixed guideway transit lines and bus rapid transit will allow for more reliable and faster service than traditional options. Connected and autonomous vehicles could also play a huge role in mobility and TOD moving forward. We will increasingly look to incorporate connected and autonomous mobility systems into existing infrastructure as it is more cost-effective than expanding existing roadways or creating an entirely new system for transportation, like a light rail.
Connected and autonomous vehicles may also provide a first/last mile solution to increase ease of travel to stations. Piggybacking off these trends is the idea of demand-responsive transit, which allows transportation services to be deployed where and when needed, rather than run on a fixed schedule.
Another trend that we are seeing is the shifting priority when it comes to transportation options. More and more people are walking, cycling, and using high-quality public transit – and they are using a mix of all these modes of transportation, so we need to design accordingly. TOD is creating regions with shorter commutes and the goal here is to maximize public transit by getting the highest level possible of riders living, working, shopping, or going to school near stations. In master planning, we are seeing increased emphasis on the incorporation of streets, public areas, plazas, parks, etc. that cohesively fit together – the focus being on efficiently moving people and quality of life.
As we extend beyond just individual TODs, another trend is looking at the bigger picture of corridor planning. We are aligning corridors with existing travel patterns to relieve the pressure on current roads and connecting major regional destinations to allow people to take quick trips by public transit. As a result, residents or employees in one area can easily visit nearby shops, entertainment venues, or restaurants in another.
We are talking a lot about coupling affordable housing with TODs. It makes sense – transportation nationally is second only to housing as a household cost and the more people that can use public transportation, the more cost-effective, self- sustaining, and affordable it will be. One way we can make this happen is by reducing parking requirements in order to lower construction costs and be able to create more dense and affordable developments. More aggressive subsidies to develop affordable rental units could assist in increasing the number of units available, as will incentives for landlords to keep existing units affordable after the initial covenant period.
It is important to consider how future growth can be factored into TOD at the design stage. How shared mobility and the use of connected and autonomous vehicles progresses is a big focus since we are in uncharted territory. Previously as populations increased, we were developing for sprawl and suburbia. This simply is not the case anymore. We are looking at long-range planning for land use and a changing mindset.
As an example of current TOD incorporating some of these trends, Michael Baker International is a part of a joint venture team tasked with creating a state-of-the-art regional TOD center in Jacksonville’s La Villa neighborhood. The $57.5 million project will improve the flow of traffic by integrating multiple modes of transportation, including local and regional bus networks, taxis, rental car services, elevated rail service, bike share, car share, and any future rail service. In addition to uniting these transportation entities, the design accommodates and encourages future active modes of transportation. The elevated urban plaza features a large open area with mixed-use retail opportunity. We have also widened sidewalks and created new walking and bike paths linked to the existing roadways and the design accommodates for future connected and autonomous vehicle usage.
At the end of the day, TOD is transforming urban spaces and creating vibrant, livable and sustainable communities across the country and around the world. As we look ahead, we will see the continued application of this smart land use strategy.