The Get On Board! PRT

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Land Use & Transit Modes

©2001, 2010, 2016 Get On Board!PRT
By D.S. Gow, MPA

Note: What follows is a broad comparison of the line haul and PRT service concepts as regards system coverage area. As you would expect, the analysis favors PRT. But it should not be taken as an argument against TOD, or as an absolutist argument against achieving TOD with conventional modes. If anything, it is an argument against trying to provide rapid transit only with one mode. Under real world conditions we could propose other scenarios, such as rail+PRT or (assuming the wealth of Croesus) a Grade A metro network. If this were not a PRT-oriented website, the role of PRT could be filled by streetcar, monorail, APM, or ropeway. At a subtler level we are arguing against socially irresponsible gentrification.

Economic development is one of the side-benefits that Seattle's light rail and monorail proponents say will accompany the building of their systems. Such Transit Oriented Development (TOD) attracts new commercial and residential development in their vicinities, translating into neighborhood revitalization. TOD was a consideration in the decision to place the first leg of LINK light rail (current incarnation) in the Rainier Valley. Monorail supporters believe stations themselves can become commercial centers, that revenue from leases to in-station businesses can help a citywide monorail be profitable.

What if TOD occurs as promised? Two points become paramount. First, in most of the areas where stations might be sited, redevelopment may not needed or, if needed, could be achieved with targeted economic stimulus. In the Columbia City district in Rainier Valley, economic redevelopment preceded the opening of Link light rail. Fremont experienced more than a decade of commerce and new construction without TOD.

The second point has to do with the economics of train transit. Because stations must be spaced far apart (too close together means frequent stops, leading to low speed), most people wanting to ride the train would have to come from outside each station's neighborhood. This leads to "station traffic" congestion, caused by buses and cars going to and from the station. Parking facilities will be needed at stations for those who drive.

TOD is sort of a misnomer. Certainly, new development would be attracted (in theory) by the stations, but the modifier "transit-oriented" implies that transit riders would be the only patrons or employees of station-area businesses, or residents of station-area condos & apartments. This would obviously not be the case, as businesses would attract automobile traffic as well, and residents could drive their cars wherever they wanted. In an inner city this leads to more congestion; in a suburb it creates congestion and a locus for future sprawl. In both cases it is a change in community character which will not please all residents and businesspeople.  And such changes would be irrevocable-- can you imagine huge, expensive rails and stations ever being removed or relocated? No, that would be denounced as a waste of money, the affected neighborhoods would have to live with unintended consequences.

TOD & density

The reason governments are investing so much taxpayer money on TOD has as much to do with creating higher population densities within walking distance of train stations as it does mere economic development.  Trains, with their large-capacity vehicles, are more cost effective the more people they carry per run.  The more people who live, work or shop near stations, the more people for whom the train will be convenient.  So TOD should lead to higher ridership.  But here's the paradox: The demand more likely to be satisified by rail is mostly new, artificially created by TOD.  Because TOD represents new housing, new jobs, and new retail, the pre-existing travel demand that gave rise to pre-rail traffic problems (and calls for a mass transit system) will still be there, largely unsatisfied, after the trains are up and running.

Before rail
Community with 23 "units" of transit demand
©2001,2010 Get On Board!PRT
With rail
Rail line with TOD station development (walking distance radius shaded blue). 20 units of demand remain unsatisfied
©2001,2010 Get On Board!PRT

TOD can destroy community to redevelop it

The ultimate irony about TOD is that, especially with light rail, it is absolutely necessary, because the construction of tracks and stations can remove the businesses in its path through condemnation, or so cripple them that they are forced to move away from the new transit.  This happened in the Rainier Valley-- small, successful, and often minority-owned businesses were relocated or crippled at great cost.  It is true that the owners were eventually compensated. The pricetag for mitigating these and other light rail negative impacts? $50 million.

In contrast, Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is more likely to be land-use-neutral, functioning under land uses determined by planning policies, instead of doing the determining itself. PRT stations would be large-size only in downtown and major activity hubs. In most parts of the city, small PRT stations would be located every half mile, with each station serving an area within a quarter-mile radius. Neighborhoods would not be overrun by station traffic caused by people from outside the area, because each half-mile-wide area would have a station of its own. The tiny size of PRT stations and low impact of the slim elevated rails mean homes and businesses would not have to be demolished.

PRT: any neighborhood a Transit Village

With PRT ANY neighborhood can be a transit village, with or without new TOD. This is because PRT installation is more affordable than conventional rail and minimally disruptive. PRT stations' small size and standardized design would obviously be cheaper than large-footprint train stations. Once operational, PRT service is triggered by actual demand, so each area receives the service it needs—even if planners decide to build a TOD.

With PRT

Transit in more places; more opportunities for TOD
©2010 Get On Board!PRT

A good way to view the PRT-land use connection is that PRT would be a planning tool, whereas rail tends to dictate urban form. PRT would allow urban planners to separate Transit Policy from Land Use/Economic Development Policy. For if PRT is affordable enough to provide excellent transit to all neighborhoods regardless of their form or density, then cities have flexibility to plan new development and redevelopment based on zoning and comprehensive urban planning strategies, of which transit is just one of many considerations.

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