March 5, 2021

Rail Transit is no guarantee of success in America

For the last three decades, American cities have promoted, planned and built Transit-Oriented Developments – predominantly housing projects on land immediately associated with rail transit or adjacent to station areas.  It’s been a record of mixed results.  And even the successes have required significant government investment.

This paper provides some good detailed analysis of case studies:

Some of the cases are well-known successes, others well-known failures, sometimes in the same city – for instance, the success of the Pearl District in Portland along the streetcar line in contrast to the double bankruptcy of The Round along the MAX line to the west.  Or in the Washington DC area, the long-term dynamic growth in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor compared to the long-term lack of investment around White Flint Metro.

There is still debate on how much rail transit, whether metro-scale or streetcar, has been the primary impetus for urban transformation. In places like North Hollywood or Fruitvale (beyond the Village) in the San Francisco Bay Area, metro rail does not automatically lead to a take-up by the market. In America, tax incentives, subsidies and grants play a much bigger role than in Canada, and even those are insufficient in the face of market weakness for high-density TOD – another cultural difference between our region and most American examples.

Even a single station area on SkyTrain like Brentwood or Lougheed dwarfs almost every US example, and rarely requires any more government support than a rezoning and a commitment to funding non-market housing.  As well, rather than the subsidy by government, the growth in land values and extraction of CACs is expected to help fund the social and physical infrastructure anticipated by the growth itself.

In any event or by any comparison, in the US rail transit does not automatically result in favourable conditions for high-density development, or even any at all.  That is a prayer not always answered.



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