Monday, October 31, 2011

We can do this the sprawl way, or we can do this the TOD way

Recently I've been examining the decision-making process for "bus rapid transit" in the Tappan Zee corridor, in response to Stephen's insightful question, "Can someone explain to me how the hell an I-287/Tappan Zee BRT could cost ("as little as"!!) $1 billion?" I originally listed four parts to the answer: First, all new busways are vulnerable to the dreaded "empty lanes" attack, which (bonus post) can be part of a broader strategy. Second, you're trying to serve a sprawling population with transit, which is always expensive. Third, the transit proposals all include some part of the "full corridor" from Suffern to Port Chester, while the current road proposal only covers the bridge. Fourth, transit advocates didn't have - and never have had, in this country - the political will to formally propose true dirt-cheap BRT.

I've dealt with the first and third factors, so now on to the second. I want to lead with this quote from our State Transportation Commissioner, Joan "Smart Growth" McDonald, speaking to Kate Hinds of Transportation Nation:
Some of the transit issues, whether it’s BRT (bus rapid transit) or commuter rail, are very detailed issues that need to be resolved with localities, particularly in Rockland County. Where do you site bus rapid transit stations, where do you put parking, if you want to add another lane for bus rapid transit, that would entail property takings, and that will take two to three years to get there, and the costs are between two billion and four billion to build that.
Uh, wait. Parking? Adding another lane? This is smart growth?

The inherent nature of sprawl is that transportation is inefficient. It's even more inefficient for personal cars than for transit; we just notice the inefficiencies less with personal cars because that system outsources the responsibilities of driving, fueling and maintenance onto the vehicle owner - typically a single occupant and an amateur, with predictable results. But transit is inherently inefficient in sprawl.

There are two ways to handle this. The first is simply to go with the form of sprawl and cater to people who want to go from far-flung cul-de-sac tract house to far-flung office park to far-flung strip mall, wasting gas, driver time, and bus wear and tear on snaky little routes guaranteed to make passengers simultaneously nauseous and bored stiff. The second, smart growth way, is to foster Transit Oriented Development. This works by starving the sprawly cul-de-sacs, office parks and strip malls and feeding the denser, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use apartments, townhouses and loft buildings. By doing this you encourage people to move their homes and businesses into the denser developments.

With busways in particular, there is a sprawl way and a TOD way. The sprawl way is to run the buses in a physically separated center lane on a highway out of walking distance of anything you might want to go to, with park-and-ride stations, and to keep the sprawl-inducing 1950s zoning. The transit-oriented development way is to run the buses in a corridor that accommodates commercial and residential development within comfortable walking distance of stations, and to throw out the zoning so that people can build more dense walkable buildings. The prototypical bus rapid transit systems - Curitiba, Bogotá, Guangzhou - all work the transit-oriented development way.

The transit-oriented development way is physically cheap - all you need is a bunch of jersey barriers and maybe a signal priority system for the traffic lights - but it is politically very expensive because it involves (a) taking road space from cars and (b) allowing density and mixed-use, two things that are guaranteed to get crowds of baby boomers all steamed up. By contrast, the sprawl way is politically cheap but expensive to build. This is one reason that the transit-oriented development way was pioneered in authoritarian societies like 1970s Brazil and 2000s China.

In the I-287 corridor between Suffern and Port Chester, there is a highway that is out of walking distance of anything you might want to get to, and there is a parallel series of older roads that run right through downtown Suffern, Spring Valley, Nanuet, Nyack, Tarrytown, Elmsford, White Plains and Port Chester. We've got a campaign that specifically invokes Curitiba (PDF) and a project team that holds Transit Oriented Development Workshops. And now we've got a Transportation Commissioner with a reputation for supporting smart growth. So which way did they choose?

Yes, that's right, they chose the sprawl way (PDF). God help us all.


WJF said...

I touched on this issue with a cursory editorial in the Journal News the other day:

It is very frustrating to constantly see my home county shoot itself in the foot. I will certainly not be living there in the future, but I hope for everyone elses's sake that they get their act together.

Alon said...

Authoritarian China is actually doing a lot of sprawl. It's at the same time doing traffic-restraint in central cities, but that's a very recent development (from a year ago in Beijing; Shanghai's been doing that since 1994, but everyone treats it as a special case).