Residential density and urban transit

Regular readers may recall that I have co-chaired the Raleigh (NC) City Council’s Passenger Rail Task Force for almost five years since I (mostly) got off the road in 2008 to be with my family.  Much of my management consulting experience before and since 2008 has been in rail logistics one way or another, and long years ago I worked for the Seaboard, a predecessor railroad to today’s CSX.

Raleigh’s Passenger Rail Task Force (PRTF) has tackled some thorny issues, including recommending how Southeast High Speed Rail (HSR) should enter the city from the north and advising on station location and routes for Raleigh’s first light rail corridor.  Along the way I’ve been yelled at by 200 angry people at neighborhood meetings whose opposition to HSR trains anywhere near them was based entirely on emotion rather than fact.  These were smart, good people who consider themselves progressive thinkers and high speed rail supporters, but who were scared of change and how it might impact them.

It has always been thus; accepting change is hard.  Nonetheless, it is better to bring constructive builds to the change than to rail against it (no pun intended).  Resistance can delay change, but change is inevitable and always comes in the end.

Though intercity rail (like Amtrak and high speed rail trains) are important, our task force focused especially on urban transit. In doing so, we began to grasp the importance of having residential density near light rail and commuter rail stations.  The more density, the greater the ridership.  So I have been heartened to see Raleigh’s development community gamble on building new five- and six-story apartment buildings with commercial and retail space on the ground floors in my neighborhood (called Cameron Village), which is less than a half mile from one of the designated light rail stations.

The buildings, now nearing completion, have attracted the same fear of change from surrounding neighborhoods that the prospect of high speed rail did in Raleigh.  I admire the foresight and courage of Raleigh’s daily newspaper, the News and Observer, which recently came out strongly in favor of higher density in an editorial which can be read here:

That prompted me to comment online as follows:

“A virtuous circle is defined as a complex chain of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop that produces favorable results, such as economic growth. Residential density, retail and commercial development, and urban transit are often said to form such a virtuous circle, and I agree with the editorial. As usual, however, the devil is in the details.

“The private sector takes big financial risks investing in higher residential density like that coming to Cameron Village (where I live). The private sector acts first, which is natural since America has always depended on free enterprise to take the lead, and the commensurate risks, not waiting for improved public transit to be in place ahead of the demand. Private sector business is a proactive approach: the American way.

“The public sector–our city and county governments–should act now to catch up and provide better urban transit to meet the growing need. Lagging transit service is also as it should be. Public sector spending should be low risk and a bit reactive. Prudent public spending is also the American way.

“However, some City leaders have suggested that further density in our area (or any area of Raleigh) be governed by having adequate urban transit in place BEFORE developers could get City permissions to build.

“But that’s a Catch-22. Developers would then not be able to build more density until the City provided more transit. Such a silly rule would almost certainly stop or greatly depress further construction in our area. Rather than creating a virtuous circle, such a rule would instead create a vicious circle of falling demand for transit in a no-growth environment.

“Let us keep the proven model of allowing private sector developers to take the risks and then the public sector can follow with improved transit once the demand is in place.”

We need the density to justify transit.  It doesn’t work the other way around.

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