Catching the Train to TND
By Andy Kunz
There are two related but distinct revolutions taking
place in America. The first is new urbanism, the complete reshaping of
our built environment; the second is new trains, the reshaping of our
transportation systems. Just as new urbanism is becoming widely accepted
as the solution to sprawl, new train systems are becoming accepted as
the solution to our growing traffic congestion.
We are truly experiencing a train renaissance in America, and it couldn't
have come at a better time. As many new urban places get built and older
downtowns come back to life, trains help support these pedestrian-friendly
places. People are growing tired of the two-hour commute and the constant
frustration of congested roads; they are searching for a better lifestyle.
The combination of walkable urban neighborhoods served by high quality
trains provides that alternative.
Nearly every region in the country is building or planning new rail systems,
even heavily car-oriented places like Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas.
With growing opposition to more roads, traffic jams and sprawl, planners
are looking to new train systems to solve the problems.
According to the American Public Transit Association (APTA), there have
been over 400 applications for federal new train starts, up from less
than 200 in 1992. Headlines are appearing in newspapers, magazines, and
on the internet: "Houston Light Rail Approved," "Dallas
Rapid Transit on Track With Expansion Program of Epic Proportions,"
"Denver Rail Opens to Record Crowds," "Florida High Speed
Rail Passes Vote." This is good news for everyone, especially those
who spend over two hours per day stuck in traffic.
One of the most aggressive new train systems underway is the Dallas light
rail network (DART), which started construction just four years ago. DART
is now in the process of doubling the size of the original system, with
more than 50 miles of new track being laid and 14 new rail stations under
construction. The citizens voted to expand the system several times, and
it currently receives daily ridership of over 38,000 passengers. The new
train system has spurred new urban development projects around the stations
totaling more than $800 million. Property values have gone up 25 percent
nearby over the past four years.
As Texas is an oil state, it was not an easy thing to get a new train
system started. Oil companies make a lot more money with people stuck
in traffic. U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) went as far as blocking long-term
funding for Houston's light rail line at the federal level. In Dallas,
train advocates started in 1982 to try to get a vote passed favoring the
new train. It went through five campaigns before it finally passed a vote
for a 1 percent sales tax to build the train.
"Dallas ... is not the kind of city that you'd think would take rail
to its heart, but we couldn't build our way out with concrete," said
Sue Bauman, vice-president of marketing and communications at DART. Over
70 percent of Texas voters said yes to the new rail system this past summer
by voting to spend $3.1 billion for long-term funding. This was the biggest
bond ever passed in the state of Texas.
Good design has played a big part in the success of the current wave of
new train systems. In addition to attractive and modern rail cars, DART
has spent a lot of time and money coming up with exceptionally designed
stations, slick marketing campaigns, and an old movie theme to its advertisements
and poster designs. Good design encourages more people to ride and makes
the new trains more successful.
Other new train starts include Phoenix, which passed a "yes"
vote last March for a new 20-mile system after a number of "no"
votes. The new system will have 22 stations, is in preliminary engineering
now, and is set to open in 2006. Denver opened its new 8.7-mile line in
July 2000 with a record-breaking 25,000 riders on the first day and 35,000
on the second day. According to Rail Magazine, "The Denver
Regional Transportation District's new southwest light-rail line is drawing
six times more passengers than express buses that used to cover the same
route. Buses carried about 1,900 people a day, while the train is drawing
more than 11,000. That's 32 percent higher than RTD's estimates."
Los Angeles is currently building the first phase of its planned 37-mile
light rail system. And, Florida voters just passed a new high-speed rail
system initiative in November. This new train is to connect all five metropolitan
regions in the state with high-speed rail service and is supposed to start
construction by 2003.
A number of smaller cities and historic downtowns have begun work on vintage
trolley systems serving their downtown destinations and connecting a number
of "people places" together.
To help make these new train systems successful, land-use changes around
the stations are necessary to promote dense, mixed-use infill projects.
When combined with transit, this is known as (TOD) transit-oriented design
and is the ideal form of development. It isn't enough to build only the
train systems, as many of the previous generation of train planners did.
To realize the full potential of the investment, and to help curb sprawl,
comprehensive land-use changes are necessary to go along with the new
Probably the most impressive part of all this is that
in the majority of cases, all the powerful special interests have lined
up against these new train systems, trying in vain to prevent them from
being built. But even the immense power of these groups cannot stop the
vote of the masses. People are just tired of the same old story, being
stuck in traffic again.
Andy Kunz is director of town planning for the Urban Resource Group, a
division of Kimley-Horn and Associates in Miami Beach. A graduate of the
University of Miami's town planning program, Kunz is a new urbanist and
a proponent of building new train systems to solve our transportation
problems. For more information, visit: www.NewUrbanism.org