Can Mass Transit Solve City Sprawl?

Commuters in Los Angeles spend some 60 hours a year stuck in traffic. But that could change, some experts say, as the city ramps up its mass transit. Guest host John Dankosky talks with a panel of city planners about how to add mass transit to L.A. and other urban areas — and get people to ride it.

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JOHN DANKOSKY, HOST:

Commuters in Los Angeles spend about 60 hours a year stuck in traffic. In D.C., San Francisco, New York and a lot of other American cities, it's not much different. Now, that is a lot of time to catch up on your SCIENCE FRIDAY podcasts, of course, but wouldn't you rather be home already, out of the gridlock? As the congestion gets worse and worse, cities are turning to mass transit. But how do you transform a city built for cars into one where commuting by bus and train is just as common?

That's what we're going to be talking about this hour: bringing mass transit to your city. Have you already switched from morning drive to metro ride? Give us a call. Tell us what's happening where you live: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Yonah Freemark is an associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. He's also the writer of the Transport Politic blog. He joins us from WBEZ. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Freemark.

YONAH FREEMARK: Thanks for having me.

DANKOSKY: Stefanos Polyzoides is a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He's also an architect at Moule and Polyzoides in Pasadena, California, and he joins us from KPCC today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

STEFANOS POLYZOIDES: Thank you, John.

DANKOSKY: And Ian Carlton's a doctoral candidate in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. He was also an expert consultant on the mayor's Transit Oriented Development Cabinet in L.A. Welcome, Ian Carlton.

IAN CARLTON: Pleasure to join you.

DANKOSKY: We're going to start with you, Yonah Freemark. And the big buzzword when we talk about mass transit planning today is transit-oriented development. Can you explain what it is?

FREEMARK: Yeah, the general idea behind transit-oriented development - which we sometimes call TOD - is that we have these assets. We have these built assets in the form of frequently running rail and bus lines in many of the cities around the country, and some cities like Los Angeles are building more lines. But in order to attract people onto those systems, we have to create new developments, new housing and offices and retail spaces that are located right around the stations, so that people have an incentive to walk to the transit lines and take them every day. And that's what we call transit-oriented development.

DANKOSKY: Now, when we come back from a break, we're going to talk more about how TOD, transit-oriented development, is happening in L.A. Of course, you can join us: 1-800-989-8255 here on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

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DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. We're talking this hour about adding mass transit to urban areas like L.A. What's the best way to do it, and how do you actually get people to ride it? If you want to join us: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. We're joined by Yonah Freemark, Stefanos Polyzoides and Ian Carlton. Stefanos, you designed the Delmar Gold Line Station in Pasadena, California, what many people consider to be the prime example of the transit-oriented development we were talking about just before our break. Tell us a bit more about what this station is.

POLYZOIDES: It is a project that is located just south of the center of Old Pasadena. It involves a train station on the Gold Line, and its program is 347 units of housing, and about 15,000 square feet of retail. And underneath it, there are approximately 1,200 cars, cars for the residents, cars for commuters who come to this point from other places in the region, and also cars for people who want to reach Old Pasadena and park there on a park-once basis.

DANKOSKY: So, it's interesting. There are spaces for all these cars. I thought the whole idea behind transit-oriented development is we were going to try to eliminate the cars. Why is there so much parking there?

POLYZOIDES: Well, because this is one of the prime nodes for parking in Old Pasadena. But the idea of transit-oriented development is not to eliminate parking. It's to seriously reduce it, so that, for instance, a family could live in a location like this, in a building like this and have a choice of having or not having a car. And if they would use a car to commute to a location which is not accessible by rail, somebody in their family might be able to use it to get, say, to downtown or to some other place it is.

And, of course, evenings and weekends, they could walk to all kinds of destinations in the immediate commercial districts.

DANKOSKY: Yonah Freemark, could you pick up on that a little bit, this idea of how cars integrate into transit-oriented development? It's not really about eliminating the car, but certainly it's about giving people other options to get around, mass transit options that aren't just hopping in your car all the time.

FREEMARK: Right. I think, at heart, the idea behind transit-oriented development is that we're giving people another choice. Effectively, in most of U.S. developments since the 1950s, we've built all these suburban areas and often even urban areas with no access to strong mass transit options. In other words, people have to drive to be able to get around. With TOD, we're talking about creating communities where it's easy to walk around, and therefore easy to jump on the train or bus that's available frequently into and out of the community.

DANKOSKY: Ian Carlton, now, you worked on the transit report for former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. What was the take-home idea there? Do you need this sort of development that is being built in Pasadena around transit to actually make this successful, in your mind?

CARLTON: Well, to make transit successful for the transit agency, they need riders for the city. They need to achieve the vision that they hope to see. And with the city of L.A., we stepped away from the concept of transit-oriented development and began to think more about transit orientation more broadly. We produced a list of 200 tactics that the city could begin to implement to bring about more transit orientation in their city. And we found that only about 10 percent of them are related to new development.

Only 30 percent of the tactics that the city of L.A. suggested that we found in their own policies, that we found in best-practice case studies from around the world, only 30 percent of those were related to the physical planning and the planning department within the city of L.A., which is sort of the world that Stefanos lives in, and building new buildings.

DANKOSKY: Are developers resistant to building in certain places? Are they somewhat resistant, do you think Ian, to the idea of building around a brand new train station, say?

CARLTON: Absolutely not. Developers are resistant to losing money. And I would say if they can make money building around transit, they certainly will. I think what we face in the United States is that we are building transit for many reasons. And building TOD, or building new buildings around transit, is but one of many objectives that we have for building our transit systems.

Therefore, we often locate our transit stations in places that are already built up, that are low-income neighborhoods where it's difficult to make a project pencil. A developer might lose money if they were to build something there. We even build our transit along freight rail lines, and for good reason. It's inexpensive long, linear corridors that are available in built-up cities. But those aren't the best places for a developer to come in and make money. So they may be reluctant to do so.

Therefore, we've focused a lot of our energy on subsidizing development and focusing our energy on putting affordable housing - which is subsidized development - near these transit nodes, so that those citizens can be served by this amenity of transit.

DANKOSKY: Stefanos, of course, L.A. is well-known for its car culture, but it has lots of small urban centers. It's actually a place that's very, very ripe for connecting with transit, right?

POLYZOIDES: I think the beginning of the urbanization of Southern California was based on the Transcontinental Railroad, so that in Los Angeles County, where we have five million people living in the core of a region, there are 88 different cities, each one of them with its own center, with its own downtown, in effect. So that in the first 30 or 40 years of the 20th century, and as the city was evolving, transit was the key driver behind this growth. The centers were connected with each other, and people had remarkable choices moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from neighborhoods to districts and town centers.

And the freeway phenomenon is really a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century to overlay the structure of the transit system. And it is a well-known fact that the transit system was destroyed in the 1960s, as the freeway system was being built, to the extent that up to about 20 years ago, the region - the Los Angeles region - was entirely dependent of the car, which is currently another case, of course, because so much more rail is being built.

DANKOSKY: What do you think about cities that are truly sprawling right now in America, places like Atlanta or Houston or Phoenix? Places that have sprawled in a much different way than L.A. has?

POLYZOIDES: It would be much more difficult to operate in a similar way there than it is in Los Angeles. Los Angeles, of course, has also the outer suburbs in the outer counties, where the same problem is very much in evidence. In places like that, introducing TOD as a strategy of augmenting existing centers, one would have to introduce it as a strategy of off-generating the centers from scratch at, of course, various densities, because TODs don't operate at one density only. They are fit to their context in terms of program.

But nonetheless, it is much easier to introduce a complex urban setting in a place where the ingredients of urbanism have been in evidence for decades. It's much more difficult to do it in a suburban setting, where one has to regenerate the setting in its entirety.

DANKOSKY: We're talking about big ideas in mass transit here on SCIENCE FRIDAY today. Maya - or Maya - is calling from Portland. Hi, there. You're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MAYA: Hi.

DANKOSKY: You're on the air. Go ahead.

MAYA: Oh, hi. I was just going to say that Portland has a really dense transit system, and it's partly because of what you were talking about earlier, the density in Portland. And not only that, but we've got a really well-integrated biking system. So you can get anywhere within an hour between the buses and the bikes. And we have separate maps for both the transit system and the biking system. And not only that, but we prioritize the bikes and the pedestrians over the cars.

And as more and more people have been moving to Portland over the last few years, the highway system just isn't built to accommodate that. So more and more people are turning to transit.

DANKOSKY: This is interesting, and thanks for your phone call. Yonah Freemark, this is something we've heard for years and years about Portland, about the great public transit system. And our caller is essentially saying, because so many people are riding the rails and getting around by bike, the highway system's sort of falling apart, maybe. And that means more people are riding transit.

FREEMARK: Well, I think Portland has been seen nationally as a pretty good example. There are other places that have invested tremendously in new transit lines and seen some commiserate new development. I mean, you can look at Arlington in Virginia, Cambridge in Massachusetts, Charlotte, North Carolina, and even Phoenix and Houston have seen some considerable new investment in projects built by the market around transit areas. Now Portland has been particularly interesting because they've worked so hard to encourage biking and walking. But Portland interestingly, has not been as successful in changing the regional mode share towards transit. Which is to say that the percentage of people commuting to work by transit in Portland has not increased nearly as much as it has in places like Arlington or Cambridge, that I mentioned before. And one reason for that is that more people are biking and walking, so they're not taking the train and they're not taking a car. But another reason is that Arlington and Cambridge have done a great job attracting jobs into areas right by transit and ultimately jobs are really the generator for, you know, people deciding to take the train or the bus to work.

DANKOSKY: What about the idea of actually taking out highways? Is this something that city planners Yonah, are thinking about to encourage more transit, you just get rid of the cars altogether?

FREEMARK: Well, the goal in any sort of city is not to say to people, you know, we don't want you to drive. It's more like we want to give you the option to take the train or bus, and we want to make it easier for you to walk or bike. Now there have been plenty of cities across the country that seen big highways built especially a longer waterfronts. Portland is one example, but also San Francisco, Milwaukee and other cities like that. Those highways that were built along the waterfront destroyed the beauty of those cities and made it more difficult in those places to walk and bike around, and to even take transit. So those cities actually went ahead and tore down their freeways. They decided not to reconstruct them. They decided to create new parks in the spaces that formerly been used by highways. And they've created a better living environment for the people who live there. And in fact, those cities have actually seen an increase in the people who choose to walk around and bike and take trains.

DANKOSKY: Hm. Now, Ian Carleton, you've said in the past that L.A., for instance, is a place that does actually have lots of public transit. But the key is to actually get people to use it. So how do you get people to decide, I want to take the bus or I want to take the train today?

CARLTON: Well, certainly we're talking about one strategy, which is to build your city around the transit system. But L.A. has many opportunities and actually, they're doing it now. They are the third largest transit system in the United States by ridership. We just don't think of them as a rail city, but they're running up a bus system that's, you know, incredible. And people in L.A. are just first of all, unaware of the transit that exists and bringing about that awareness is very important.

The next thing is making it attractive. And it's all about relative attractiveness, as Yonah was mentioning. It's more about getting people can attractive option relative to driving their car. And making transit attractive can be things such as making it safer to walk to and from, making the frequency of transit faster or more frequent. Therefore, maybe you wait less at a station and you wait less when you transfer between a bus and a train. There are other things that can really level the playing field in Los Angeles, and when I say level the playing field, level the playing field between cars and transit, so that when someone is making a decision they feel like they actually have a choice. And you can charge people for parking. You could put in more shuttles. L.A. has a great system of DASH shuttles that are typically around the employment centers and bringing people to and from transit, but expanding those shuttle systems so that you can go two miles on a shuttle from your home to a transit system. There are a lot of ways. And, as I said, you know, of the tactics that we found in L.A., 90 percent of them were not related to development. They were these other tactics that one could take to bring about more ridership and more transit orientation.

DANKOSKY: I'm John Dankosky and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Now Ian, of course, one of the things though, is we've seen this all around the country. It seems as though with business commuters, trains are more attractive for some reason than buses. Do you find this to be true? Is there some way to make the bus, I don't know, sexier so people would get on it?

CARLTON: Well, there's been considerable attention paid to a new form of bus called bus rapid transit, one where you put in stations where you brand the bus, you create a line, so to speak, so that it shows up on your map. L.A. has done this with the Orange line. Other cities are pursuing this. And that idea of making a bus more like train is one way of doing it. But I think that we may be facing just a fundamental perception issue, where there are a lot of people who are incentivized to make trains more attractive than buses. For instance, those people who build these very expensive infrastructure projects.

Also, we have a history in the United States - which is incredibly unfortunate -where civil rights played out - our changes in civil rights as a person from the Southeast, I've seen this play out in our culture in the Southeast, where buses are something that have become associated with that civil rights movement and we still hold onto these negative opinions that are race-based, class-based about buses and we really need to move past that for buses to be an attractive option.

DANKOSKY: Steve is on the line from Orlando, Florida. Hi there, Steve. Go ahead.

STEVE: Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

DANKOSKY: Yeah.

STEVE: Yes. I'm in Orlando, Florida, which is considered the Los Angeles of the East. And having grown up in the Los Angeles area, I'm very familiar with what's going on there. Orlando is a little bit behind the curve as far as transportation planning is concerned. But we do have something that is being implemented right now, it'll be operational next May, and that's a system called the SunRail, in which commuters will have the option of taking on regular train tracks, park their car at strategically located train stations and commute by this SunRail train. It was demonstrated a couple of weeks ago here in Orlando and everybody was impressed. I was impressed. And even though we don't have the best bus system in the world, it's better than nothing. And yet, all these people take it, it's a good system, in my opinion, it could be better. But the SunRail system I think is going to be the forerunner of something that's going to make it even better by expanding into a city that is traditionally noted as a car culture city. And I think that it's just one step in a series of steps that we need to take nationally. I liked the comment of a lady from Portland when she said that they have their system in place and that it's, it works. People like it and they're using it.

DANKOSKY: Well, and hopefully, people will start using it. I've not heard Orlando refer to as the Los Angeles of the East before, Steve.

(LAUGHTER)

STEVE: Well, we've got Universal Studios, MGM is here. The Disney studios are here and that's why and that's why they call it that.

DANKOSKY: There you go. And a little bit of a change in car culture perhaps, as well. Steve, thank you very much for your phone call.

We've got to take a break. When we come back, lots more on urbanization, mass transit, transit-oriented development. Please stay with us.

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DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. We're talking this hour about mass transit and how to build it in car centric cities, like L.A. in other places with my guest. Yonah Freemark is an associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. He's also the writer of the Transport Politic blog. Stefanos Polyzoides is a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He's also an architect in Pasadena, California. And Ian Carlton is a doctoral candidate in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, an expert consultant on the mayor's Transit-Oriented Development Cabinetin Los Angeles. You can join us at one 800-989-8255 or one 800-989-TALK.

So Stefanos, how do you think we can make a city more pedestrian and more bike friendly, like we were hearing from our friend in Portland?

POLYZOIDES: Well, I think that the possibility of building around stations is part of the story. It seems to me that in a lot of places transitory-oriented development implemented as a building or two or three. And the most important thing to think about is how to build in a manner that is neighborhood-based, that actually affects a larger number of places beyond the immediate station in such ways that people can walk to the station, can bike to the station and can, and perhaps, be brought to the station by some form of vehicle in use among a variety of people. And it is really through this process of focusing on particular places and attending to the larger picture - mix of uses, the variety of uses, the compactness of uses around walkable space, and the design of buildings in a way that generate not only buildings themselves, but also the spaces between them that attract people than to live in this new nodes and regenerate the life of not only suburban settings, but also urban settings indeed, of all possible settings, where growth can happen in cities, avoiding the conflict with established neighborhoods, which was very much the parted partner of development in the United States in the '60s and '70s and '80s, to major cities in conflict and NIMBYism.

DANKOSKY: Ian Carlton, it's all those other things that Stefanos was talking about that I think are important for us to talk about here. It's not just about where you live and where you work and getting between those two places. But it's where you shop, whether or not you can get to the grocery store, do all the other things in your life. Is that part of how this transit-oriented development needs to grow around the country, where you actually have all the things right at your fingertips, maybe within walking distance?

CARLTON: Certainly. And research has showed that there are places, new urbanist places - like Stefanos designs - that do not have transit that still allow people to walk and bike and opt not to drive. Building our cities in that way is certainly a positive thing. But we can also retrofit, so to speak, our existing environments. We can provide sidewalks. We can provide safer streets, lower speed limits. We can put some paint on the ground and build out crosswalks. And all of these things are critical to making livable environments. Transit is just one of those tools that can help bring about a more livable environment. So I certainly believe that there are many other factors that we should be looking at as we consider transit orientation broadly.

DANKOSKY: Oh, let's go to Phillip. Phillip is calling from Oakland California. Hi, there. You're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PHILLIP: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. One of the I think the major difficulties I have with how this critical mass of people using transit that will make it so that the money will be there and people will use it, is the interstitial connection between cities and those nodes. Because people, when they want to go from their town to visit a cousin in an adjacent town, inevitably need to have a car or rent a car. So one of the thoughts that I've had is that in the '50s, we put in the interstate freeway system. Those connect all the cities, most of the major cities and almost all the small cities in the United States. This has an interstitial piece of real estate that is free to place mass transit that would connect it everywhere. And as soon as people can go, hey, I want to go from San Francisco to L.A., or I want to go to Stockton, I can go to wherever the nearest interstate is, get on something and go there. As soon as that frequency occurs, the convenience, the necessity of having a car will start to go away.

And I just wondered if anybody has been approaching this. I mean, some of the things you could do is you could design - in fact, I've worked on this myself. You could design systems where the gravitational force of the mass transit where it's, you know, freeway systems were set to about 70 to 80 miles an hour. If you wanted to go 120 or so, you would rotate the rail system itself in the tracks, so that force of gravity would be perpendicular to your body's spine.

DANKOSKY: Well, I've - that is one that I've not actually heard about. Something, Yonah Freemark - thank you very much for the phone call. Something I have heard about, Yonah, is using these interstate systems. And in building all these rights of way, how much are we looking into doing this right now?

FREEMARK: Well, I think there are two ways of thinking about this. One is whether or not we want to invest in improving the transportation links between our cities, and I think certainly the answer to that must be yes. But, unfortunately, we've seen considerable opposition to making those kind of investments from, quite honestly, the Republican Party over the past four years.

President Obama has been a big advocate of increased investment in inner-city rail, some of which might go on corridors that parallel interstate highways, but Republicans have gone out of their way to make that impossible. Now, when it comes to using interstate highways for transportation within metropolitan areas, in general, I think we should steer away from that, because when you think about it, nobody wants to get off at a station that's located in the middle of a highway, and the reasons for that are obvious.

You don't want to be standing in the middle of a highway waiting for a train. You don't want to be walking over a bridge on top of a highway to get to that train. And if you want to increase real development around stations, you probably don't want to build the corridors in the middle of the highway.

DANKOSKY: So, Stefanos, last thing for you: These interstate highways that we're talking about that gave rise to the car culture, gave rise to all of this suburban sprawl, one of the things that's happened over the course of the last 50 years or so is a lot of people like these suburbs. If, in a push for more density, how do we change people's minds enough to get them to want to buy in dense urban hubs if they've got their little backyard and everything that they like already?

POLYZOIDES: I don't think transit-oriented development is a one-shoe-fits-all recipe. In fact, where trams and trains and heavy rails stop - because there are all kinds of different modes that one can consider when thinking about transit-oriented development. Where they stop, there is always a context. Sometimes this context is a very dense urban center, like in downtown Los Angeles. Sometimes there it is regional subsidy centers, like in Pasadena. Sometimes they stop in neighborhoods, and some - that are urban and relatively dense. And sometimes they stop in neighborhoods that are not dense at all. And I think the idea of developing these nodes, developing them at the general quality and character of what is there in place, and changing them marginally in such a way so that they are not - they're not perceived as being of a kind that doesn't fit their current condition in play.

So that people living in those other suburbs or in the center cities can make appropriate choices and choose to use the train, because their way of life is fully accommodated by not only the single two or three or four buildings around the station, but their neighborhoods as a whole, wherever these neighborhoods may be.

DANKOSKY: Stefanos Polyzoides is a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He's also an architect at Moule and Polyzoides in Pasadena, California. Thank you so much for joining us.

POLYZOIDES: Thank you for having me, John, very much.

DANKOSKY: Thank you also to Yonah Freemark, an associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. He's also the writer of the Transport Politic Blog. Thank you, Yonah.

FREEMARK: Thanks.

DANKOSKY: And thanks to Ian Carleton, a doctoral candidate in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkley and an expert consultant on the mayor's Transit Oriented Development Cabinet in L.A. Thank you, Ian.

CARLTON: Thank you, John.

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