Where's our mobility scenario? As the country adds its next 100 million people by 2042, what's to save us from massive roadway congestion, incredibly long commutes and a degraded environment?
Increasingly, we resist new gas taxes and vote down referendums for more roads; instead, many people insist, "fix it first." Privately financed toll roads? We react skeptically.
So how about public transit — new streetcar lines, regional heavy- and light-rail commuter lines? Polls show people strongly in favor — to get to work or to reach entertainment and stadiums — at least to ease other drivers off the roads. More than two-thirds of transit-related measures were approved by voters in last month's elections. Kansas City suggested the shifting public sentiment — after earlier rejections, voters approved a ballot measure authorizing a three-eighths of a cent sales tax for a 27-mile light-rail system.
Just since June, St. Louis has opened a $678 million, eight-mile expansion of its existing, previously one-route MetroLink light-rail transit line. Inaugural commuter rail lines have opened to serve Nashville and Albuquerque. Two weeks ago, Denver's 14 miles of light rail suddenly expanded to 33 as an $879 million southeastern extension opened to much fanfare. New highways have fueled the American economy by staggering sums since World War II. But the new Denver line suggests transit can be economically potent too: Even before the extension opened, a stunning $4.25 billion in new residential or commercial development was either under way or planned near the new line's 13 station locations.
Add in the highly successful regional rail lines built or being built in such regions as Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Dallas and Minneapolis, and a new American transit future emerges. Since 1995, public transit ridership has expanded 25 percent (to 9.7 billion trips in 2005). From 25 in 2000, the country's fixed-guideway (rail or bus) transit systems are likely to grow to 42 by 2030, adding 720 stations to today's total of 3,349.
Yet, as expensive as new and expanded transit may be, the ultimate question isn't money (indeed the federal government's "New Starts" fund is swamped with 200 applications and shrinking dollars). Rather, it's whether we have the will to reshape urban America in more compact, livable, energy-conscious ways. That means organizing regionally on multiple fronts:
• Champion transit-oriented development — new or expanded town centers and housing near transit stops, aggressively planned and zoned for high densities. No more stations sitting alone in the midst of vast commuter parking lots. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) even recommends recycling existing station parking lots — 23 million square feet in the Chicago area alone — for more-intense business/residential development, shifting parking to smaller, scattered lots or multistory garages.
• Make transit stops beacons of living for America's new millions. Already, the CNT reports, areas around stations support more race and income diversity, city and suburban, than the average neighborhood. But for new suburban stops, it is critical to assure moderate-income housing opportunities (employing devices such as inclusionary zoning).
• Inventory our millions of acres of "fallow" sites — brownfields, abandoned railyards, failed shopping-center sites. Then create strong incentives for owners to combine, recycle, redevelop them. And work up the political courage to say "no" to NIMBY groups trying to block reasonably denser housing and development in their communities.
Do away with mandatory parking slots for new buildings — let the market decide. Discover transit opportunities in all sorts of settings. Along with rail or bus rapid transit at development nodes, encourage linear development along streetcar lines — a historic formula several cities are now reinventing. And work to convert auto-only, low-grade retail strips into tree-lined, transit-served boulevards.
Focus on reducing auto trips for errands — they're much more numerous than commute trips, studies show. To keep the cars parked, make "erranding" by foot or cycling much easier.
Finally, and critically, we need fresh vision to associate compactness with lively and resilient towns, combating climate change and making us less dependent on foreign oil. We owe it to ourselves and our children — a new, highly relevant 21st century patriotism.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.
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