Denver’s Transit Renaissance: A Legacy of Regionalism, Accountability, and Creativity

In 2004, voters in the Denver region passed FasTracks—an originally $4.7 billion transit expansion program.  The program aimed to develop 122 miles of rail and 18 miles of Bus rapid transit improvements by 2017, which is unprecedented in both scope and timeline.  Despite bumps along the way, Denver’s light rail system will expand to almost 100 miles in 2017 (Figure 1), surpassing the 93-mile system in Dallas and becoming the longest light rail system in the U.S.[i]

This blog post features an in-depth case study of Denver’s exceptional transit expansion efforts.  Through document research and expert interviews, I find that Denver’s success is embodied in its long-standing commitment to regionalism, accountability, and creativity.  Political, business, and civic leaders in Denver have created a culture of focusing on the collective purpose, keeping a track record, and being entrepreneurial when delivering large infrastructure projects. From the voter approval of dedicated sale tax increases to the first transit-related public-private partnership in U.S. history, such culture has been critical to bring Denver’s transit renaissance to life. Continue reading

Transit Revival and Urban Regeneration on Abandoned Railways

Passenger and freight systems combined, active railroad mileage in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1910s to 254,000 miles.  Since then, decades of decline[1] have led to a 45% reduction in U.S. rail system mileage, resulting thousands of miles of abandoned, unused railways. Prior to 1980s, most of the abandoned railways were either developed into highway corridors or reverted to adjacent land owners.  In recent decades, U.S. cities and metropolitan regions have explored and pioneered the use of abandoned railways for transit development, including light rail, commuter rail, and bus way developments. 

This blog introduces various transit development examples in the U.S. that have involved abandoned railways.  Among the examples, I provide an in-depth case study of Dallas, Texas featuring how Dallas benefited from aggressive purchasing of abandoned railways and having a strong “development” mindset at the time of railway purchases. The Dallas example was NOT the kind of development-oriented transit we saw in Detroit and New York City where transit development was part of a real estate or urban renewal project. But, Dallas is a unique case of development-oriented transit in which right-of-way acquisition decisions and system-level transit-oriented development (TOD) efforts have been carefully and consistently made to maximize the system’s potential development impacts.  The “Dallas” approach of transit revival and urban regeneration on abandoned railways merits national and international recognition. Continue reading

THE FUTURE OF U.S. TRANSIT (PART II): Historical and Contemporary Development-Oriented Transit

In the Part I post, I had discussed how most transit projects in the U.S. have not embraced their development roles and are mainly justified on mobility needs.  Transit development in this country has entered into a vicious circle with too much emphasis on “transportation-oriented transit” and too little emphasis on “development-oriented transit.” Although it is true that we have set up our transit agencies in this country separately from land use planning functions, it is important to be reminded of historical and contemporary transit projects that were initiated for development purposes. In other words, “development-oriented transit” had happened and can still happen in the U.S.

In fact, in the early 20th century when American transit was mostly built and operated by private companies with real estate interests, “development-oriented transit” was the rule instead of the exception.  Back then, many transit companies held real estate interests along the urban fringe. Streetcar service was used to spur development, even if the service itself was unprofitable. More recently, although rare, transit projects have been built in several cities for development purposes, including New York City’s 7 Subway extension and Detroit’s QLINE streetcar.

This Part II post discusses historical and contemporary transit projects that were initiated for development purposes. These projects, especially the contemporary ones, provide insights into how initiating transit projects on land development promises can be done in contemporary America with or without transit agencies playing a primary role.

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The Future of U.S. Transit is in Regional Place-Making (Part I)

This blog post explains why justifying transit projects mainly on the basis of serving mobility needs is a bad idea, and why the future of transit will largely be shaped by our ability to create a regional collection of places connected by transit.  Here I define places as spaces with a high concentration of people and activities. The emphasis on both people and activities is important because activities are the basic building blocks of a place. Population density itself is insufficient to create places. Places require good quality public spaces with various economic, leisure, and socializing activity opportunities.

In most U.S. cities and regions, the journey of transit projects to regional place-making (Figure 1 below) requires putting both the development and transportation roles of transit projects at the center stage. The traditional role of public transit as a transportation tool to provide people, especially people who cannot afford cars, with mobility is admittedly important. Yet, this traditional role does not explicitly recognize opportunities and limitations associated with the high-capacity nature of public transit. Yes, public transit needs to connect residents to jobs and other destinations. But, public transit also desperately needs a regional collection of transit-connected places to bump up transit demand and restore the vitality of transit systems. Transit revival requires regional and systematic integration of transit planning and place-making initiatives that moves beyond incremental transit-oriented development.

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Transit Governance, Long-Range Planning, and Ballot Measures

When federal funding is involved, transit agencies implementing fixed-guideway transit corridors are required to conduct project-level planning. No federal or state law to date requires transit agencies to conduct visionary long-range planning for transit corridor development. This blog post describes how transit agencies has increasingly carried out visionary long-range planning efforts despite non-requirement for such planning.

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Causes and Consequences of Transit Fragmentation in the San Francisco Bay Area

In large urban regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area, transit services have to across jurisdictional boundaries to meet mobility needs. While multiple transit operators in the Bay Area provide cross-town transit services, the largest operator in the region—the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency—focuses on providing services within the city and county of San Francisco (San Francisco is a consolidated city-county). The lack of coordination between local operators and regional operators means fragmented transit services, imposing significant fare penalties and transferring difficulties for cross-town commuters.

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Beyond TOD: The Emerging Concepts of Transit Oriented Districts and Communities in California

Twenty years ago, California was the first state that adopted legislation to encourage TOD.  The Transit Village Development Planning Act of 1994 allows local jurisdictions in California to make areas within half a mile of transit stations eligible for transportation funding and other development incentives.  Enabled by the law, cities and regions in California were the pioneers in adopting TOD policy in the U.S. Twenty years later, cities and regions in California remain as the pioneers to move beyond TOD, experimenting new concepts such as Transit Oriented Districts and Communities.  This blog post describes how the original TOD concept has failed to transform American cities and how local and regional governments in California has moved beyond the original concept to broaden the impact of TOD.

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Cities in Texas Rival for Transit Development

Statewide policies in Texas have been pro-highway.  The state does not contribute any money to fund transit capital projects or transit service operation, unlike many other states such as Minnesota and California.  In addition, the sales tax is capped at 8.25 percent and 6.25 percent must go to the state. Cities can use the leftover 2 percent sales tax for local initiatives–including public transit–if voters in the city approve.

Between late 1970s and 1980s, voters in all of the eight largest cities in Texas approved to use sales tax for public transit, except in the city of Arlington.  This blog post focuses on the connections between transit finance and ridership in Texas’ largest cities. 

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