Significant opportunities exist to advance sustainable operations as well, from using less hazardous fluids to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental management systems facilitate policy development, help set goals and establish processes for monitoring performance and reporting results. Coordinating office, operations and maintenance facilities leads to operational and environmental efficiencies. Converting to non-caustic solutions and employing recycling programs can reduce hazardous waste. Further gains are possible by maximizing fuel efficiency of the transit system. This can be accomplished by employing new technologies and alternative fuels, making vehicle/mechanical adjustments and consolidating routes.
The Mode Makes the Difference
Different transit types bring different strengths and opportunities. A review of the primary transit types – heavy rail, commuter rail, light rail, bus rapid transit and streetcars – reflects the varied urban form/sustainability relationships.
Heavy rail is primarily commuter-oriented, and has high effects on land use. The principal impact area is up to a one-half mile radius (500 acres) from the station. Positive influences come from heavy rail’s capacity, speed, service frequency and accessibility. Often heavy rail is in a subway configuration. This allows direct, vertical access to the system, and offers great efficiency since it uses no additional real estate. Elevated stations, while less approachable than at-grade or subway stations, can be effectively incorporated into mixed use complexes. The high frequency of service is land-use supportive, and compact, walkable mixed-use results are possible. Located only in our largest cities, this mode promotes significant high density urban development. Communities such as Washington, D.C., (Metro), San Francisco (BART) and Atlanta (MARTA) take advantage of their transit systems by promoting and implementing transit-oriented development. In return, these agencies are able to structure joint development agreements that provide ongoing income.
The Pleasant Hill BART station in Contra Costa County, Calif., is a successful example of turning an office complex and regional park and ride garage into a truly walkable mixed-use community. The most important issues in the master-planned development were:
- The design of the future development on BART property;
- Vehicular traffic and access;
- Open spaces and greenways for pedestrians and cyclists;
- Maintaining parking capacity for BART patrons and local residents;
- Adding new services and facilities for area residents; and
- The proper mix of uses within the site.
The plan includes a large public plaza adjacent to the BART station, surrounded by ground-floor retail and offices, and town homes facing the Iron Horse regional bike trail with views of Mt. Diablo.
Commuter rail, primarily using existing railroad lines, serves longer distance commuter trips, up to 50 to 75 miles in length. From a transportation perspective this mode clearly offers an important commute option. Without commuter rail, thousands of additional cars would travel long distances, adding significantly to air pollution and the annual number of vehicle miles traveled.
Land use implications for commuter rail are not as great as for other modes, since there are usually fewer stations located five to 10 miles apart. Generally the effect on generating significant land use changes is low. Many commuter systems run through industrial areas and have large park-and-ride parking lots, making them less attractive as mixed-use development locations.
Intermittent and less frequent service (30 minutes or more between trains) also contributes to its low capacity for land-use change. This mode typically provides morning and afternoon service for commuters; generally there is no mid-day service. Commuter rail provides access, including reverse commute opportunities, to regional employment. The rail stations typically have nominal residential and office use.
Prior to creation of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), commuters in the Washington, D.C., region had no option but to drive. When VRE was introduced 15 years ago, affordable commuter rail service began changing travel patterns. VRE now runs 35 miles from Manassas, Va., to Union Station in D.C., and 55 miles from Fredericksburg, Va., to Union Station.
VRE’s sustainability benefits include reducing reliance on single-occupancy vehicles for long commutes and integrating with the greater Washington, D.C., Metro heavy rail system to increase transit ridership. In addition to reducing the number of auto trips, it promotes transit-oriented development at several key stations, which offers new housing and living opportunities. VRE has an adopted transit-oriented development policy to provide a coordinated public/private development process.