Talking Transit: Transit stations as destinations pay economic dividends - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: Transit stations as destinations pay economic dividends

Photo courtesy of University City District

The Porch at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia is a lively new urban space and a catalyst for community growth.

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Did you Know? Washington, D.C.’s Union Station is a destination featuring several levels of retail and dining, a public plaza, and bike sharing facilities, in addition to connections to rail.  The neighborhood surrounding it has seen incredible population, housing and business growth over the past decade.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) – dense, mixed-use housing and retail development near a public transit location – is an important community investment approach.  But the “T” in TOD is not an end in and of itself:  While the benefits transit can generate in a community include  increased property values, access to affordable housing, reduced household transportation costs, and decreased traffic congestion, to get the most economic value from transit, TOD must leverage station activity by creating a destination people want to visit.  

Creating a Place

Transit stations are natural focal points in neighborhoods simply because they attract people. That foot traffic brings consumers to local businesses and decreases congestion in neighborhoods, so it makes sense for public agencies to promote and private developers to invest in development around transit.  TOD, in turn, generates more transit riders, makes for healthier neighborhoods, lowers household transportation costs, and makes more efficient use of land. 

But TOD can go one step further, spurring even more economic activity and playing a larger role in community development. That happens when a transit station’s amenities make it a Place with a capital “P.” Sure, many transit stations have on-site services that meet people’s everyday needs, like a coffee shop or a small grocery store; but when the transit station becomes its own magnet for people and catching the train is just secondary, it goes beyond a place that people simply pass through to a destination where people want to stay. These kinds of stations have proven to make communities stronger and generate higher adjacent land values – in turn creating the potential to front future station improvements through value capture financing

Cities across the globe are enjoying this virtuous circle. In Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood, a once-barren sidewalk and parking lane at the 30th Street Station (home to Amtrak, SEPTA, and New Jersey Transit) has been transformed into The Porch, a lively new urban space enjoyed by Philadelphia’s residents and visitors. Opened in November 2011 by The University City District (UCD), a partnership on a mission to improve the quality of life in the University City neighborhood, The Porch recreated a site that has long been in a need of new amenitites. UCD built a block-long public plaza on the site, with low-cost “lighter, quicker, cheaper” features, such as comfortable seating, trees, and moveable tables; this iterative approach is allowing planners to identify what works (and what doesn’t) before investing large sums of money. Depending on the day, visitors might find a farmers market, fitness class, circus, live concert, free mini-golf, or a beer garden. The Porch is within walking distance of 16,000 jobs and, on average, 1,800 pedestrians visit each hour Monday through Friday. The upfront success will result in more capital-intensive amenities, such as a permanent retail space, Wi-Fi and food kiosks. The Porch also has spurred the opening of two more pedestrian plazas and additional planned public spaces along other transit stops in the neighborhood.  The UDC has taken the 30th Street Station from a pass-through to a place people want to visit, resulting in a vibrant civic asset and a catalyst for the community’s future growth.

Denver took advantage of plans to redevelop its historic Union Station to make it the core of a new vibrant, pedestrian and transit-friendly neighborhood, with $32 million of the $500 million renovation dedicated to create public spaces. Ten acres of new public plazas will be built, creating energy in the new neighborhood and “turning a transactional experience of catching a train into an interactional one in which a passenger might purposely arrive early to shop or get a bite to eat while sitting outside.” In San Francisco, one of the most unique features of the planned Transbay Transit Center, the hub of a new neighborhood in Downtown San Francisco, is “City Park,” a vibrant 5.4-acre public space. City Park will feature a wide range of amenities for the up-and-coming neighborhood and visitors alike, including a walking trail, vegetation gardens, lily ponds, an outdoor amphitheater, and retail. Portland’s Pioneer Square, often called “Portland’s living room,” sits next to the downtown MAX transit center. It hosts a farmers market, concerts, pop-up festivals, art installations, chess boards, and even an all-city slumber party, and on any normal day, people visit just to hang out.

The lesson is that if planners and developers take a different approach to TOD, based on serving people rather than designing a station to serve trains, they’ll return greater economic and community benefits. Here in Chicago, there are ample opportunities to do just that.  MPC is advancing the creation of great public spaces across the tri-state region through our Placemaking Chicago initiative. Placemaking Chicago is working with the Chicago Dept. of Transportation to ensure that master planning for the redevelopment of Chicago’s Union Station creates a real place and destination for the West Loop.  Further, Placemaking is embedded as a preferred approach to planning at the Chicago Dept. of Transportation, where the “Make Way for People” program already has built People Spots and soon will turn its focus to improving alleys and streets.

There’s also opportunity at the federal level: The newly passed federal transportation authorization creates a $10 million pilot program for grants to communities to assist in comprehensive transit station area planning. This includes planning for projects that increase economic development and accessibility around the station for pedestrians. 

Creating a Place is more than just “feel good” planning.  There’s real economic payoff when train stations become destinations.





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