Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Future of Suburban Transportation

Rendering of the Bridge Street District
Dublin, Ohio
Hello Everyone:

Today we're on the topic of transportation.  The focus for this post is on what transit will look like in the new suburbia.  This is subject Leigh Gallagher considers in her recent article for City Lab, "what Transit Will Actually Look Like in the New Suburbia Or, why we should fall in love with ride-share, buses, and walking."  As the rest of America takes on the character defining features of Manhattan, New York, Ms. Gallagher observes that much of this transformation is taking place in the car-dependent suburbs.  As developers tout walkability as a way to create a sense of community and access the vibrant "Main Street environments," the car is still necessary for commutes to work and any substantial errands.  Kenneth T. Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, "in many of these new developments, you can buy milk, an ice cream , and a great cup of coffee, but can't buy a buy a mattress."  Obviously, Mr. Jackson didn't consider online shopping for mattresses.  The bottom line is, most of the suburban households still need a car or two.

Aerial view of Bridge Street District
This logic is sacrilegious to transit purists.  In the transit purists' mind, "No matter how vibrant a newly developed downtown, if you're not removing the need for a car, you're not really urbanizing the suburbs and making them more livable.  Right?  Like Ms. Gallagher, I too, say no.  My excuse is I live in Los Angeles. The ability to live closer to your neighbors (not always a good thing), people watch on your front porch, or walk over to your nearest coffee emporium is a transformative experience for suburbia transplants.  This urban developments symbolize an important step in the process, even if the transportation issue is totally resolved.  Be that as it may, most of the United States' recent suburban developments is in places where there is little access to public transport-especially rail transport.  The dense transit-centric suburbs of the Northeastern states are a fluke because most of the American suburbs were built in the last fifty years and the commuters who live there drive themselves to work.  This is where the problem resides and this where the band aid solutions are being applied.

Casto Apartments rendering
Yet, the facts lay bare that building rail transit in car-dependent communities is difficult for a number of reasons: density, geography, and cost are just a few of the challenges.  "The residential and commercial densities required for higher-capacity transit are usual far in excess of even the most dense 'town center' developments," according to Shyam Kannan, managing director of planning at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.  In opposition to older suburbs, New Suburbia developments are infrequently "strung together like beads on a string," adds Mr. Kannan.  This enables them to be linked together by an efficient rail line.  Therefore, the economics of a light rail lines becomes a big challenge without relying on huge subsidies.  Still, while the debate over the car's role in New Suburbia continues, there are a few emerging approaches worth mentioning.

Google Chrome loge
There are many new experiments in process involving ride-sharing, and while none have moved beyond the testing phase, they draw heavily from the Silicon Valley influence.  Leigh Gallagher's colleague Michal Lev-Ram reported in Fortune's "New Metropolis Issue" about the end of driving.  Silicon Valley giant Google has partnered with General Motors for a pilot ride-share program service at its Mountain View corporate offices which gives its employees access to a fleet of fifty electric Chevrolet Spark EVs that are linked to a mobile app, matching car to driver for the morning and evening commutes. This is not too unlike Streetsblogger Mark Gorton's idea for something he calls Smart Para-Transit, based on a fleet of cars with a central dispatch that matches driver to destination.  In Palo Alto, California Mercedes Benz is trying out "Boost by Benz," a program that replaces mom/nanny-as-the-driver schelpping junior to soccer practice or piano lessons with brightly colored van pools.  Moms and nannies everywhere rejoice.  Ms. Lev-Ram reports that General Motors and Toyota recently announced they would start giving new-car discounts to Uber drivers.

Bridge Park West Down Park Avenue
 In Dublin, Ohio, located seventeen miles northwest of Columbus, the city has rezoned 1,100 acres to create the Bridge Street District. This innovative plan for a dense mixed-use urban environment, featuring a $14 million pedestrian bridge intended to "create a rich and robust non-motorized environment."  Local developer Crawford Hoying is planning a $300 million mixed-used project on one side of the river and developing forty-two high-end condominiums on the other side.  "Walkability is the number one reason for every person," declares principal partner Brent Crawford.  Dublin has no access to rail transportation.  However, the Central Ohio Transit Authority recently announced it was reconfiguring is bus routes to offer more higher-frequency service to denser areas, including new routes to Bridge Park.  Mr. Crawford said this meant his residents would have access to everything they needed without using a car.

Washington Metro Rail car
Shyam Kannan believes that cities need to seriously reconsider buses, a much cheaper alternative to buses, can carry a lot of people, and can go anywhere.  "Today's buses aren't your father's buses...they're high tech, clean, energy efficient, sleek, and in some cases, highly amenitized." Speaking from my experiences on Los Angeles buses, I can vouch for clean and energy efficient, amenitized, not so much.  However, there's still a stigma attached to riding a bus.  However, this mindset could change.  Consider the popularity of the controversial private buses in San Francisco operated by tech giants Google, Facebook, eBay, Genentech, and others.  Also, intercity carriers Boit Bus and Megabus have recently increased in popularity as an alternative to Amtrak as a way to travel along the Northeastern seaboard.  Something larger may be in the works.

School Street
Libertyville, Illinois
Leigh Gallagher offers up another solution-best way to build New Suburbia is out of Old Suburbia.  Rather than build shiny new housing tracts, developers are pouncing on the opportunity to build updated, urbanized housing tracts where transit lines are already laid out. Another form of transit-oriented development? One example is in Libertyville, Illinois, a prewar suburb thirty-five miles north of Chicago.  John McLinden created School Street, a row of twenty-six porch lined single-family row houses on narrow lots.  This development runs through Libertyville's main street Milwaukee Avenue, dotted with boutiques and family-owned retail establishments, restaurants, and late bars.  Right behind the housing tract, commuters can can pick up the North Line into Chicago.  Mr. McLinden is now planning to replicate this model in Skokie with a new development called Floral Avenue.  Skokie is near the Chicago Transit Authority''s yellow line-"Skokie Swift."

To borrow a phrase from Robert A.M. Stern, "suburbs are like cholesterol: there are good ones and bad ones."  While we have more bad suburbs, the good suburbs have a lot of offer including old-fashioned urban DNA and a plethora of public transit.  Will Silverman, senior managing director at Savills Studley in Manhattan, enthusiastically predicts that inner-ring transit is going to be the next big thing because it has already emerged as a separate entity from car-centric suburbs.  This is occurring in places like Forest Hills, Riverdale, and Douglaston, Queens and inner suburbs such as Pelham, Hastings-on-Hudson and Bronxville.  All of this leaves one to wonder, what will happen to the private car?

Like me on Facebook
Follow me on Twitter and on Pinterest
Instagram- find me at hpblogger

No comments:

Post a Comment