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Transit Thrives On Density

Tom Condon

June 05, 2011

It's very hard to serve sprawl by transit. If folks live helter-skelter all over the countryside, they are pretty much relegated to driving. If we want to make transit work, two things have to happen: People need to live near it, and it has to go where they want to go.

These useful notions are from a major study last month on transit availability by The Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Center.

The study looked at the number of residents within three-quarters of a mile of a transit stop in the nation's 100 largest metro areas, and the number of jobs within a 90-minute transit ride from those stops. The study found on average that almost 70 percent of large metropolitan residents live in neighborhoods with access to transit service of some kind, with availability better in cities than suburbs, but that typical metropolitan residents can reach only about 30 percent of the jobs in their regions via transit in 90 minutes.

I should note this study has been whacked around a bit. Critics cite research showing most people won't walk more than a quarter-mile to a transit stop, and that many won't commute 90 minutes each way.

Also, the study's focus on accessibility and job availability, and not actual transit use, led it to curious conclusions. In its top 10 cities for transit availability we find Modesto, Calif., but not New York, which is ranked 13th. The California city's transit use is very modesto, indeed, with only .08 percent of commuters on public transit. In Greater New York, more than 30 percent take transit.

That oddity aside - 99 percent of city rankings are a stupid waste of time anyway - the study's main points are worth the attention of Connecticut leaders. Transit helps reduce pollution and climate change, dependence on foreign oil and personal stress, thus should be a goal of public policy. But transit needs density. If Connecticut is going to have something resembling a sustainable future, we need to rebuild city and town centers and creatively develop the land around transit stops.

The good news is that this is starting to happen. Some of the state's large cities, notably New Haven and Stamford, have enjoyed a resurgence of their downtowns in the past decade or more, and other large cities are trying to follow suit. The construction of Blue Back Square in West Hartford, essentially an extension of the existing town center, has become the touchstone or measure for other town center development projects.

Other towns are pushing toward the same goal. Simsbury sponsored an extensive charrette process for its town center and adopted a form-based (as opposed to use-based) zoning code to encourage mixed-use development. First Selectman Mary M. Glassman said the change is attracting considerable developer interest. Bristol, Hamden, Meriden and a host of other towns are working to rejuvenate their town centers.

Glastonbury just came out with its "Glastonbury Center 2020 Shared Vision Plan." This recommends greater density; bringing buildings up to the sidewalk; reducing curb cuts; solving parking problems; and a new street. For all of that, considering what other towns have done, the plan feels a bit timid. Some official at one of the meetings said, "We don't want Blue Back Square." Why not?

But, Glastonbury has a strong Town Center Initiative group which is pushing for bolder changes - such as the inclusion of transit. While much of the center of Glastonbury is strip-mall sprawl, the southern part of Main Street is as pretty as any street in New England. More like that.

With the Hartford-New Britain busway and New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail projects in the offing for central Connecticut, it's imperative that the state, towns and businesses aggressively plan or enable mixed-use development around the stations. This has got to be the future. Some towns are busy at it, while the rest - and the state Department of Transportation - need to get cracking.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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