Transit’s Role in a Sustainable Future

Transportation helped shape this great nation. From the earliest days, the farm-to-market road sustained the agricultural economy. As the country grew, toll roads, canals, steamships and railroads opened up vast areas to settlement, creating communities at crossroads and where rivers met roads. Transportation helped lead the country’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. In fact, towns created along the inter-continental railroad are the earliest “TODs.”

With industrialization came urbanization, and with urbanization came transit’s growing influence. Streetcars, subways and the “L” helped small and large cities realize their economic and social potential. Compact, walkable “transit-supportive” communities were actually the norm – just not so named. Community, economy and mobility truly were in balance.

The end of World War II marked the greatest economic expansion in United States history, and with it came a radical change in the balance between transportation infrastructure and community form. The highway system became dominant, streetcars were abandoned in favor of the bus, and suburbanization became the norm.

Now, we are entering a new era defined by international and global economies, rapid technological change, natural resource depletion, climate change, a return to cities and a desire to balance sustainability’s “triple bottom line” – environment, community and economy.

Transit and Sustainability
Transit directly corresponds to the triple bottom line. It is environmentally friendly; relieves traffic congestion; fosters compact, walkable mixed-use communities; offers mobility options for all socio-economic levels; and promotes economic development and access to employment.

The manner in which sustainability is incorporated varies from one transit project to the next, due to the diversity in scale and type among project options, as well as a community’s particular needs. Three principal areas where transit makes an impact are planning, design and construction, and operations.

Transit Planning
Every successful transit project starts with a plan. Scale, and environmental and community impacts play crucial roles in the planning process. Sustainable transit solutions are developed through:

  • Socio-economic Analysis – This identifies how a transit plan impacts job creation and household development.
  • Public Involvement – The process is visible, accessible and credible, offering all stakeholders an equal voice in helping define the project.
  • System Planning – Sustainable systems help shape regional settlement patterns, foster mobility and increase community interaction, and protect and enhance environmental assets.
  • Environmental Documentation – Environmental responsibility includes proper documentation and permitting.
  • Sustainable Urban Design – “Places where people want to be” result from sustainable planning and community design for transit corridors, districts and station areas.

Design and Construction
The design and construction phase manifests environmental and economic sustainability implications. For example, corridor and track development might include provisions for alternative delivery, recycling of construction waste, avoidance of negative environmental impacts and using recycled/composite materials. Site and facilities development should incorporate cost-effective, environmentally sensitive site work and construction. “Green”/LEED-certified stations, operations centers and administrative facilities are increasingly common. One such example is the Pentagon Metro station, which integrates Metro rail and bus terminals in a protected, pedestrian-friendly environment that meets security and accessibility goals and offers an inviting arrival experience.

Transit Operations
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
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
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.

Light Rail
Over the last 20 years, light rail has become the most popular – and sought after – new transit mode. With a principal impact radius ranging from one-quarter to one-half mile around stations, it fosters compact, walkable mixed-use development. Light rail lines are typically 15 to 20 miles in length with stations located about one-half mile apart, closer in more dense urban locations. Stations are attractive with significant design amenities such as public art, theme lighting and architectural merit.

Attention to contextual details creates better community fit. Light rail has a high propensity for land-use effects due to its numerous stations and service frequency (10 to 15 minutes or less between trains). Like most transit modes, light rail is a new form of “access” to development. In fact, it helps stimulate transit-oriented development. While the principal focus is within one-quarter mile of the station (125 acres), it commonly reaches one-half mile (500 acres).

New light rail systems such as Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City and Portland have multiple examples of sustainable development along their transit lines. This mode, too, supports the connecting bus system, increasing ridership system-wide. Perhaps most importantly, the development community has great confidence in this transit mode – it is predictable and permanent.

In addition to sustainable, walkable communities, light rail offers access for residents needing affordable “local” transportation to meet their daily needs.

An emerging example is Metro in Phoenix, set to open in late 2008. Impacts to the city’s land-use pattern in the form of sustainable, transit-oriented development are already apparent as a result of the light rail transit project. Major transit-oriented development projects are occurring along the project’s initial 20-mile route connecting Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.

Direct results of the new transit mode include the emerging Arizona State University (ASU) campus in downtown Phoenix, designed to serve 15,000 students. This is in addition to the more than 50,000 students attending the Tempe campus less than 10 miles away along the light rail line. The growing ASU campus environment is enhanced by pricing and controlling parking and relying on increasing the use of transit for faculty, staff and students. Less reliance on the automobile means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, an emphasis on pedestrians and bicyclists, and more productive use of ASU’s valuable real estate assets.

Another potential role for transit is to enhance passenger service to Sky Harbor International Airport. Initially the connection between the 44th and Washington Street LRT station and the airport terminals will be made by an airport bus. However, Sky Harbor is developing an automated people mover to connect the LRT station to the airport terminals. When the people mover is open, passengers will have even more convenient access via transit from all areas of the region to the airport. The other large airport market is employees. Sky Harbor has more than 30,000 employees and these employees will have a more reliable and less expensive means of reaching their jobs at the airport. Such changes in travel patterns can help lessen congestion at the already busy terminal areas and reduce the need for airport parking for travelers and employees.

Bus Rapid Transit
This is a “new” mode developed to mirror light rail’s transportation benefits at a lower cost. Bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors generally run up to 20 miles, and advanced BRT design includes a separate fixed guideway, innovatively designed vehicles, the same stations as light rail and an emphasis on customer convenience. Unlike light rail, the vehicle can leave its fixed route to serve neighborhoods and return to the guideway. This flexibility is seen as a distinct advantage in some locations.

The history of BRT in the United States is limited, and the expectation is that BRT will bear similar positive land use effects as light rail - moderate to potentially high. For example, Canadian and Australian BRT systems are creating increased land values at stations, although not generally to the same magnitude as light rail. Research is ongoing as more BRT systems come on line. The frequency, type and scale of BRT service (10 to 15 minutes) are land-use supportive. Like light rail, BRT has the potential to create new development and, foster compact mixed land uses. BRT has a principal impact area ranging from a one-quarter to one-half mile radius around stations.

An intriguing example can be found in Houston, Texas. Houston is the prototypical Sunbelt city – sprawling growth and no zoning, heavy use of the automobile and less reliance on transit. However, over the next 20 years some two million new residents will call Houston home, and transit is seen as an important feature of Houston’s future mobility network. The innovative Metro Solutions transit system plan, underscored by extensive public involvement and voter approval, offers an integrated light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit system to improve regional mobility. It also provides broader travel choices, serves diverse neighborhoods and reduces dependence on the automobile.

While the initial light rail line receives attention as one of the most heavily used LRT lines in the country, the bus network is the backbone of the Metro Solutions plan. This is actually common to most successful rail systems, since the bus expands the total service area. For Houston, the approach is to make its initial fixed-guideway BRT lines convertible to LRT as ridership grows. Metro Solutions’ goal is to have more rapid transit at a lower cost, sooner rather than later.

The Streetcar
With the 2001 opening of its Central City streetcar, Portland, Ore., initiated a new era for this traditionally reliable urban transportation mode. In the past six years some 100 communities from coast to coast have became part of the streetcar movement. An important aspect of this movement is that the cities attracted to the streetcar are small- to mid-size places. These are communities whose transit systems are underdeveloped or virtually non-existent. For them, the streetcar offers residents, businesses and visitors a unique means of accessing in-town districts.

Streetcars, whether modern, replica or vintage, bear some common characteristics:

  • They are run by overhead electric power using a single string wire.
  • They are one third the cost of light rail on a per mile basis with 65 percent of the vehicle capacity.
  • Cars hold from 45 to 110 passengers, depending on type.
  • The “starter line” is in the 2 to 3 mile range with an initial fleet of five vehicles.
  • Future extensions are easier due to the success of the initial line.
  • Track construction is simplified and fast compared to other modes.

The streetcar’s twin goals are connecting people and shaping places. In this capacity, it is serious urban transportation, not a “toy” to satisfy tourists only. As an urban circulator, the streetcar helps:

  • Complete the “last mile of the trip” by linking to the regional transit system;
  • Serve as pedestrian accelerators (pedestrians are the first class riders);
  • Reduce traffic congestion during peak afternoon periods;
  • Improve the carbon footprint of less-sustainable transit modes;
  • Provide affordable transportation to jobs; and
  • Promote economic development and urban infill.

From a development perspective, streetcars demonstrate a high to very high effect on land use. They act as an economic development catalyst. Development tends to follow the streetcar line, with the principal impact area three blocks on each side of the line. It creates compact, walkable mixed land uses and enhances the pedestrian environment.

The Pearl District in Portland is the quintessential example of the streetcar’s positive effect in helping create “America’s No. 1 exciting new urban neighborhood.” The Pearl’s sustainability benefits include its:

  • Reclamation of an abandoned, brownfield rail yard as a mixed use neighborhood;
  • Density and intensity offset by parks and open space;
  • Introduction of affordable housing to add socio-economic diversity;
  • Orientation as a place for singles and families;
  • Virtually free public transportation and lowered parking requirements;
  • Contribution to the city’s tax base; and
  • Ability to leverage the initial public investment of $56 million into $1.5 billion in private investment.

With nearly 20 streetcar projects in various stages of development, this old mode of travel becomes new again and, in the process, is changing the face of cities across North America.

Transit’s Bright Future
The era of environmental stewardship and sustainability is here, and transit is an important part of the sustainable transportation formula. Transit in all its forms can help shape the way we move, work and live. With transit as part of a coordinated mobility and settlement strategy, energy can be conserved, greenhouse gas emissions lowered, congestion relieved, open space preserved and the benefits of healthy, livable cities realized.

David Taylor is the National Director of Sustainability for Transportation with HDR Engineering Inc.