Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Money Machine"

This should be pretty common sense. But believe it or not, streetcars are being hailed a "money machine" for building cities. Urban development follows the transportation investments, and in almost every instance of a city getting serious on putting in light rail (LRT), streetcars, commuter rail--whatever as long as it's not the cheapo scam known as bus rapid transit (BRT)--a major explosion in urban development has followed these transit lines. Whether the city is as big and hopelessly sprawled as Phoenix, AZ..or as small and quaint as Charlottesville, VA, this is is a trend that has proven true. Rail transit is the way to go, and the investment will be more than worth it in the end. There is no reason for OKC and Tulsa to not be BUILDING (not planning or intending to plan) a better transit system right now. We've been talking about this for years now. In OKC we've been trying to get light rail in downtown for over a decade now when it was originally included in MAPS 1 (and I bet we all wish we had gone ahead with light rail back then).

What you have here is a system being put in Charlottesville, VA, population 45,049. The orange is streetcar, which connects UVA to downtown Charlottesville all the way across town. Not even kidding here. So if a picturesque Appalachian college town can do light rail or streetcar, WHY CAN'T WE?? There are well over a million people in the Greater OKC Area. If we got serious about a full-fledged system and broke ground in a week on one, there would be at least 1.5 million in the Greater OKC Area by the time the starter lines were all finished. How many highway projects will we have spent billions of dollars on by then?

Not convinced? Then read this. Last month at a transit symposium in Dallas (and trust me, Dallas transit symposiums go the same way as ones in OKC go, where consultants start off by boldly telling them their city stinks) a writer for the Dallas Observer, Jim Schutze, wrote the following:

"Streetcars did come up. The former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., home of UVA, spoke and talked about how they are the smallest city in the country with a planned streetcar, apparently from the The University of Virginia campus to a downtown area. He said the streetcar won’t be on the ground for another seven years, but, because developers believe the city means business about it, the values and actual redevelopment along the planned route have gone through the roof, a point he illustrated with some amazing photos. Strictly from a development and tax base perspective, a well-placed streetcar line looks pretty much like a money machine."
IN a city with the famed DART system and the Trinity Railway, arguably a transit brightspot in the middle of the Sun Belt, they still realize they have a long ways to go. They have brought in some people who have done incredible things with transit. I think it's incredible for a city of 45,000 people to be doing streetcars. I think it's even more incredible that for this city of 45,000 it is still so true that density will follow the transit investments. There is no need to wait for an area to achieve a certain level of density before even reluctantly deciding to go forward with rail. You just pick an area that you want to see built up and you be proactive by shaping growth yourself AND not letting growth shape your transit network (that would be reactive planning).

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