We’re Talkin’ ’Bout a Railvolution!
Communities are finding solutions to their
growing pains by developing convenient, green neighborhoods along accessible
transit lines. It’s called “Transit Oriented Development.” But for most, it’s
just a return to way things were.
Flash forward a generation to Chicagoland, circa 2030.
The number crunchers tell us we’ll need to make room for 2 million new neighbors
– plus their homes, schools for their kids, industrial parks and office
buildings where they can make money, and stores where they can spend it. And
then there’s the not-so-trivial matter of providing space on the roads for the
million or so cars they’ll probably use to get around
Or will they?
Right now, communities across
are making decisions that will
determine whether existing and future residents get more traffic, pollution and
sprawl, or less. The savviest are turning to our first line of defense against
road congestion – Chicagoland’s vast public transportation system – to find
solutions to their growing pains. To do so, they’re borrowing some pages from
the history books and rewriting others.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s,
communities in all corners of the region, from
, came to
because of their proximity to the
region’s earliest rail lines. That legacy is alive today: our metropolis boasts
the nation’s second largest transit network and dozens of great neighborhoods
accessible by train and bus. Recently, Chicagoland had the opportunity to show
off many of these neighborhoods when 1,500 urban planners came to town from as
far away as Melbourne, Australia, for the annual Rail~Volution conference. The
how local communities are using transportation
connections to fight congestion, ease workers’ commutes, boost local business,
and attract new housing development.
Rail~Volution also proved
earned its reputation as the “granddaddy of
transit-oriented development.” At its best, “TOD,” as it’s known among community
planner types, is the creation of vibrant, walkable neighborhoods where homes,
jobs, and shopping places are all conveniently connected by public
transportation. Some urban planners champion “TOD” as a highly efficient use of
land and tax dollars, and a way to attain the elusive “sense of place” absent in
so many communities over-run by parking lots and strip malls. Case in point,
visit Wicker Park, Bronzeville, Logan Square and other “hot” city neighborhoods
whose development got a big shot in the arm from nearby El and bus service. (And
Flossmoor are proof that it can work in the suburbs,
development near transit is popular because it meets the needs of many markets,”
says Scott Goldstein, vice president of policy and planning for the nonprofit
Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC).
businesses get a steady source of customers, he says, while communities reap new
tax revenues. Residents save money, time and sanity by not having to drive
everywhere. And all of us are better served when we develop where expensive
infrastructure, like roads and sewers, already exist, rather than digging up
precious green space.
the clear benefits of TOD, a new development pattern heavily financed by the
government and private corporations began to take hold after World War II.
Veterans and their growing families settled giant tracts of suburbia on what was
then the outskirts of our region, making the grass on their side of fence
greener by sheer force of pesticides, lawn mowers and will. They created
enclaves of tidy, cookie-cutter homes purchased with the help of VA loans. And
they got in when the land was cheap. Just a few years later, the arrival of the
behemoth, federally subsidized Interstate Highway System would turn these
“greenfields,” or clean, developable land,
into developers’ goldmines, ushering in the era of car-centric
development. Ever since, the scales have tipped in favor of auto-oriented,
rather than transit-oriented, development.
high gas prices, global warming, grinding traffic congestion, and cultural
shifts are creating the perfect storm to temper the lure of the automobile, and
with it, car-centric development. Even die-hard road warriors are alarmed when
they learn that the average household spends more on driving than on food,
education or health; or that one-third of land in our cities is consumed by
streets and parking lots.
once again are being re-imagined, with transit-oriented development applying the
best of the “good old days” to a modern context. But the re-learning curve has
municipalities still abide by zoning codes created during the height of the
industrial era, when the prevailing theory of community development was to keep
homes and soot-belching factories as far apart as possible. Today, these
-century zoning rules separate where we live from where we shop,
learn, and gather – bad news for transit-oriented development, and for people.
like south suburban
are finding they must u
pdate outmoded policies to make way
for “new-fashioned” TOD.
three commuter rail lines make 80 stops each day
is embarking on a transit-oriented
revitalization plan to attract new jobs, shops and homes. Back when the city’s
35-year-old zoning code was written,
people were still riding around in ’64 Lincoln Continentals; today’s cars don’t
need the mammoth
180 square feet required for off-street parking,
according to Jodi Prout, the city’s planning and development director. Other
regulations call for provisions that by today’s standards are ridiculous, like
mandating parking space for eight cars
at all medical or dental
facilities. The irony of
’s extreme parking requirements is that the city is
just 4.5 square miles – very walkable. In fact, six out of 10 kids walk to
school each day, says Mayor Don Peloquin.
Another holdover of
post-World War II development – and an obstacle to TOD – is fear of the “D”
word: density. Density is the ratio of the number of living units in a
development to the amount of developable space; the higher the density, the more
single-family homes per acre or apartments per square foot.
community planners often encounter vehement opposition to dense development.
Than Werner, planning and zoning administrator in west suburban
, says community fear of density almost doomed a
recent 123-unit condominium development one block from the train station, and
two blocks from
Resistance to density
can be traced to historic examples of poorly-planned developments. Consider
public-housing high-rises, which stood for decades as monuments to poverty and
crime – and in the process, tainted many Chicagoans’ perceptions about
“sustainable development” like MPC, Congress for the New Urbanism, and Smart
Growth America see density
essential to preventing sprawl and building appealing communities. They’re
working to educate the public and decision makers about a more holistic way of
viewing density: It preserves land and natural resources, such as wetlands, they
say. It drastically reduces the amount of roads and sewers that need to be built
and maintained to serve new neighborhoods. And a certain level of density is
increasingly essential to attracting retailers, many of whom will only set up
shop in neighborhoods that can promise a certain number of shoppers.
What’s more, recent studies show
people living in condos and apartments tend to have fewer kids and cars than
those in single-family homes. Yet people often are surprised to learn that
denser multifamily developments put
strain on our already-overcrowded
schools and roads, says Werner, who combats misconceptions about density by
dropping zingers like that one at community meetings.
ultimately approved the condos – which
sold out very quickly, by the way – Werner says well-reasoned arguments don’t
always do the trick.
some, logic will never work,” said Werner. “The only way to do it is to put out
the carrot and the stick.”
Doug Farr, founder of Chicago-based
architecture and urban design firm Farr & Associates, is betting on the
carrot. Farr is a nationally recognized proponent of sustainable or “green”
building design. Now, he’s helping the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) craft
and pilot a set of green standards to apply to entire neighborhoods, known as
LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND).
The idea, he says, is that the green
building craze has been good, but a green neighborhood movement would be even
better. Many of the proposed LEED-ND guidelines, however, conflict with
development regulations on the books in Chicagoland and across the
“LEED-ND is illegal in half of
the country,” he says, due to outdated policies. “Sprawl was done quite legally,
and now a series of reforms are necessary to allow change to happen.”
LEED-ND not only is intended to make
green development a badge of honor for communities, but also to encourage the
market to start offering more sustainable choices. In other words, a little
nudging is needed to change the (long-subsidized) business as usual.
Some local governments are ahead of
the curve. In December,
’s Advisory Committee voted to
advance a proposal (based on LEED-ND guidelines) that would give developers a 40
percent discount on impact fees if their plans encourage walking and reduce the
need to drive. The proposal will come before a final vote in spring 2007.
Communities have been overwhelmingly supportive of the measure, says Kai Tarum,
’s planning director
– and she believes developers will be, too.
The ultimate coup for TOD, according
to many community planners, would be a seismic change in the way the state doles
out funding for new transportation projects. Backroom deals and clout would take
a backseat to a set of criteria requiring all state-funded projects to
incorporate plans for nearby workforce housing and retail development. The
result: fewer roads to nowhere, more transit-oriented development.
2030 is barreling toward us. Whether
reforms come at the local or state level, a “railvolution” is needed now.
"Transit-oriented development is a
great way for communities to reduce traffic because every person who rides a
train or bus is one less person on our roads,” says Goldstein.” Changing
policies to allow for more TOD will help us create more healthy, walkable,
economically vibrant neighborhoods to meet the needs of our growing population.
We need to start now; by 2030, we won’t have a choice.”
This article first appeared in the February 2007 issue of Conscious Choice