There is often a lot of criticism over expensive transit projects that aren’t fully utilized when they are initially built. I’m not advocating transit projects to nowhere, but transportation projects shape growth. If we want to build more transit-oriented developments we need to start by building more transit.
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Sometimes we buy too much of a good thing. For example you could buy too many fruits and vegetables and they could go bad before you have a chance to eat them. Fortunately infrastructure projects don’t go bad (although they do take money to operate and maintain). I cannot find many wasteful transportation projects that have been built – there are only a handful of airports that come to mind. Even projects that were initially heavily criticized for lower than expected initial ridership, such as BART, have turned the corner over time. Largely this is because of the transportation/land-use connection – if you build it they will come, sometimes it just takes awhile.
Critics will say that this fact ignores that there are trade offs between transit investment decisions. It is true that there are trade offs. However, we need to look at these trade offs over a longer period of time – not just a handful of years after a project opens. It takes time for developments to take shape, often times decades. Yet if these changes are to take shape we need to start think about shaping them now with proper, large scale investments in urban and regional rail.
Unfortunately, buses don’t have the same affect in shaping land-use decisions as rail does. (Trust me, I wish buses did, then transportation planning would be easy.) Rail isn’t just an efficient way to move people – it’s a monument: it says we are here to stay, you can rely on us. Developments inherently involve risk and the best way to attract developers is to minimize the downside risk. Often times this involves perception. Take for example a bank: banks are large stately buildings that convey stability, power, safety and above all that “we’re not going anywhere.” A developer wouldn’t take out a loan from someone dealing out of the side of his car because he could just take off. Likewise a developer won’t base his decision to develop on a bus line. A person might rent an apartment for a bus line, but developers want something more.
Still, critics will argue that the present state of affairs (in where transit is being cut but capital intensive projects are being fast tracked) is unjust. In Oakland, California for example transit ‘advocates’ are trying to stop an airport connector by claiming civil rights violations. I agree that the cuts that are being implemented in transit service are unjust. However, we need to focus our efforts on the lack of state and federal government funding in areas of need – not on areas where there is funding.