I was fortunate to attend a Fettuccine Forum last night, where a leading urban policy analyst showed the “drive ’til you qualify” trend actually costs people more.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for Policy, Transportation and Communications at Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, presented some fascinating studies showing that higher transportation costs more than eat up the savings on the suburban mortgage. In some cases, suburbanites may spend two-thirds of their household income on transportation and housing, leaving one-third for food, clothing, utilities, education, recreation and discretionary income. When transit is available to these suburban residents, they can keep their transportation costs down, in some cases getting rid of one car altogether.

But transit alone isn’t enough; you need a certain kind of land use, one that allows people to comfortably walk from the transit stop to their home, store or office. The original downtowns of Treasure Valley cities are good local exmples, but certainly not the only way to do it. Grimshaw called for  for Transit-Oriented Development. Peter Calthorpe discusses TODs more detail his site, but it basically involves building high-quality but dense housing and neighborhood-oriented businesses around transit stops, a modern updating of the time-honored Main Street way of dense American development.

During questioning, a few people in the audience said the Legislature needs to give cities local option taxation authority, to better fund transit. For their part, however, cities haven’t done much in the past 90 years to build transit-friendly development, despite two decades of comprehensive plans calling for such development. Huge parking lots still intrude between streets and storefronts, cul-de-sacs and long residential blocks remain common and shopping centers remain walled off from neighborhoods. The Legislature isn’t developing our cities – we are – and until we show show they are serious about building for transit, we undermine our calls for greater taxing authority.

At the same time, cities shoot for the most expensive, least-flexible transportation option available: rail, which requires an extremely
dense urban form. I’d say less than 5 percent of the surface area of Boise is rail ready, none of it built in the past 90 years, save maybe for some upscale planned communities, and these are exurban or at the fringes. A busway (or bus priority system) is more suited to our Western sprawl; in a busway, existing rail corridors are paved for emergency and transit use only, retaining their crossing arms and priority to pass, but the busses can leave the busway and go onto city streets as needed. This combines the flexibility of busses with the priority of rail, but the idea isn’t even seriously considered in this area.

After the presentation, I asked Grimshaw if there was some intermediate type of development, something short of a full-blown TOD, that cities could shoot for. Grimshaw wasn’t immediately aware of such a development type, but agreed it’s something to consider. If and when the rails or bus lines do ever come, riders must be let off in a pedestrian-friendly area with housing, neighborhood commercial and workplaces all within walking distance. Such a development style could mesh well with efforts by Victor Dover and other planners to revitalize and redevelop strip malls, as well as with greenfield development.

If we ever are to make the leap from auto-dependent development to transit-friendly development, we will need some intermediate urban form. That’s more of question for professional planners than policy wonks like me, but I would like to see some suggestions on

that.

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