We're Talkin' 'Bout a Railvolution - Metropolitan Planning Council

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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.

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 our bulging region.

Or will they?

Right now, communities across northeastern Illinois 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 Chicago Heights to Elgin to Lake Forest , came to be 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 event showcased 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 Chicago has 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 Evanston , Highland Park , Arlington Heights and Flossmoor are proof that it can work in the suburbs, too.)

“Well-planned 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).

Local 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.

Despite 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.

Today’s 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.

Communities 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 proven steep.

Many 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 20 th -century zoning rules separate where we live from where we shop, learn, and gather – bad news for transit-oriented development, and for people.

Places like south suburban Blue Island are finding they must u pdate outmoded policies to make way for “new-fashioned” TOD. Blue Island – where 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 per doctor at all medical or dental facilities. The irony of Blue Island ’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.

Developers and community planners often encounter vehement opposition to dense development. Than Werner, planning and zoning administrator in west suburban Elmhurst , says community fear of density almost doomed a recent 123-unit condominium development one block from the train station, and two blocks from Elmhurst ’s downtown.

Resistance to density can be traced to historic examples of poorly-planned developments. Consider Chicago ’s public-housing high-rises, which stood for decades as monuments to poverty and crime – and in the process, tainted many Chicagoans’ perceptions about density.

Advocates of “sustainable development” like MPC, Congress for the New Urbanism, and Smart Growth America see density as absolutely 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 less strain on our already-overcrowded schools and roads, says Werner, who combats misconceptions about density by dropping zingers like that one at community meetings.

While Elmhurst ultimately approved the condos – which sold out very quickly, by the way – Werner says well-reasoned arguments don’t always do the trick.

“For 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 U.S. “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, Kane County ’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, Kane County ’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 magazine. 

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