A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Can Buses Spur Economic Development?

A recent article in Streetsblog pointed out that Brooklyn's Fulton Street mall, open only to buses and pedestrians, is the most successful retail strip in the city outside of Manhattan.
There's no doubt about it. Buses do spur economic development, by bringing more people into street-level retail spaces, by giving landlords and tenants a much more affordable alternative to building and maintaining huge parking garages, and by saving money for local governments (which spend less on transportation infrastructure) and commuters (who spend less money on gas and cars).

An anonymous comment in the last post asserted (rather scornfully) that only trains can spur transit-oriented development. That's just not true. In Portland, we've seen much more new development happen along the Congress Street corridor between Maine Medical Center and Washington Avenue - a street where buses run every five to ten minutes during workdays - than we've seen in the neighborhood around the train station in Libbytown. Bus service deserves some credit for this new development along Congress Street for reducing employers' parking requirements and their commuters' expenses.

In fact, City of Portland zoning codes explicitly reduce parking requirements if the development is within walking distance of bus routes. And the builders of the recent expansion at Maine Medical Center cited the availability of bus service and its high rate of bus commuters among employees as a reason to build more space downtown than the hospital otherwise would have.

Unfortunately, the economics of intercity rail in Maine require large parking lots for drive-in passengers to access stations that are miles apart from each other. But the economics of local and intercity express buses like the Metro and ZOOM buses require dense, vibrant employment centers and residential neighborhoods where passengers can walk to bus stops that are within a few blocks of each other in downtown neighborhoods. That's the kind of transit-oriented development we need more of.

There's no doubt that a handful of people don't like riding buses, and Anonymous seems like s/he is probably one of them. But for many of us, any option is better than no option. For the vast majority of people - including the thousands of households in our cities who don't own cars - the idea of waiting a decade or more for Amtrak to expand to Auburn with only three trips a day is not that exciting when an intercity bus route could start up within months, serve more destinations, and offer dozens of trips a day, for a much lower price.

Before I get more angry notes from railfans, let me make it known that I absolutely want to see Amtrak expand to Lewiston/Auburn. But it won't happen soon and it will take even longer unless those cities really begin to lay the groundwork of becoming a transit-oriented community. I'll reiterate the points I made yesterday: those cities need to stop throwing away their money away on temples to free-parking socialism. And they need to invite smarter forms of downtown development, by bringing commuters in on buses until they can afford to bring even more people in by rail.

At the end of the day, "sustainable transportation" also needs to be financially sustainable, and transit advocates need to be practical. Connecting two of Maine's largest urban centers by passenger rail does make sense, but building it will be very, very expensive, and it will be at least ten years before our small, aging, and poor state is able to afford it.

In the meantime, though, buses can deliver a similar outcome - the efficient movement of thousands of people - for a fraction of the cost. Rail advocates might be threatened by the idea that buses could become too successful, and make people forget about buying an expensive new train. But that's no reason to sabotage an important new transit connection between Portland and Lewiston.

PS: You don't have to take my word for it - here are a few more examples of places where buses - not trains - have cultivated successful transit-oriented development:
  • Almere (The Netherlands): "North Americans try hard to do 'transit-oriented development,' (TOD) but the Dutch are doing it on a massive scale. Even more heretically, they do it with buses! All of Almere is transit-oriented, and the transit is all in the form of busways," writes transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker.
  • Pittsburgh: "Faced with a long, slender five-acre parcel of land between Centre Avenue and the East Busway, the project needed to encourage tenants to come to the neighborhood without turning it into a suburbanized desert of parking," from a review of a new bus-oriented retail development in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
  • Bogota, Colombia: "Analysis across time reflects slight average annual increases in property values correlated with the implementation of the [Transmileno Bus Rapid Transit] system."


Anonymous said...

Buses are the bestest evah!!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post wholeheartedly, and I AM a railfan. Buses definitely serve a purpose (I use Concord's mid-coast service often) and do encourage economic development and improve mobility in urban centers.

My biggest worry about the rail study was its failure to even consider a train station in downtown L/A. They said from their "feedback received" it was "OK" not to serve downtown. Well, that was NOT the feedback I gave them!

As a recent Bates graduate, I don't think I'm off-base in saying that Batesies would contribute a robust clientele for the service only if the station was located downtown. Androscoggin County's largest employer, CMMC, is right there, too, as are two of the state's largest high schools and a high density of non-car owners.

If I was a business owner in the increasingly vibrant downtown district of the twin cities, I'd be more than a little ticked off by this study.