Since the 1800’s, Europe has used streetcars and trains in their cities to move people around. North America had similar extensive streetcars and interurban rail networks. Indeed most of our pre-world war two neighbourhoods were built with the streetcar in mind, but these rail lines were dramatically abandoned for the automobile in the 1950’s rail-to-rubber movement.
Most of our North American communities today have been built around the automobile. Our places of work, shopping, and entertainment have been separated from our homes and made accessible only by auto. This has translated into long commutes and a loss of transportation diversity. These new communities are difficult to serve with public transit, and next to impossible to walk through because of long distances between the places people need to go. Numerous communities even lack sidewalks because we have become so accustomed to maximizing pavement for cars. But some communities are different.
Some cities’ streetcar systems, like Toronto and San Francisco, were spared. Other cities, like Portland, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton, and even Phoenix, are in the process of rebuilding their rail systems. These new interurban and streetcar routes are what we now know as light rail.
Cities around the world are rediscovering and using light rail. Light rail is flexible, cost-effective, safe, and popular. Unlike subways or elevated rail systems like SkyTrain, light rail can run in a tunnel, in the sky, in the middle of the road with other traffic, or on it’s own track.
New and old light rail systems are sparking a renaissance of sorts across North America. People are rediscovering downtowns and neighbourhoods built around people and not the automobile. New developments along these lines are no longer strip malls, business parks, and single-family houses, but are now “Main Streets” and mixed-use buildings with housing from apartments to row-houses, and even single-family homes. We call this Transit Oriented Development, or TOD.
TOD is built with the transportation hierarchy of pedestrians, bicycles, public transit, commercial vehicles, taxies, then the automobile, in mind. TOD creates walkable areas that bring together people’s homes with workspaces and amenities. These liveable, people-oriented and sustainable neighbourhoods can then be connected with high-quality transit like light rail to create liveable, people-oriented and sustainable communities. These new urbanist neighbourhoods encourage transit use that is incorporated into the daily life of the residents. Instead of sitting in single occupancy vehicles in gridlocked traffic, they can ride the rails with friends and neighbours, while they keep on the move.
As an example: You can create low-density business districts that consist of only shops and office space, however in doing so, you remove transit options for people getting to these areas. In the old school model, we built these shops and offices in one place. When the workers left work at 5:00pm, the shops were forced to close because of a lack of customers, leaving these spaces utilized perhaps only 10 hours per day. In the new world of TOD, we build the offices and shops, with some trendy, upscale condominiums and housing options above it. We also place a mix of housing types (single family homes, row houses, etc) around these mixed-use areas creating TOD nodes. This creates spaces with more eyes and ears in the neighbourhood that are populated 24 hours per day. TOD creates lively street scenes and extended business hours. These streets provide opportunities for neighbours to socialize, building a sense of communities.
This concept is nothing new. Its been used in Europe, Asia (and even North America) for hundreds of years! Take Bangkok, Thailand for example. Most neighbourhoods are compact and consist of a mixture of shop-houses (commercial space on the ground floor and housing above it), apartment complexes and other “stacked” options. Of course, the population is much higher than in your typical North American community, but the walkable areas, density, and design allow for a 24-hour night bazaar! Buses, and now rail, connect these communities to others like it. A long car trip to travel 4 miles away to a nice restaurant zone now takes just 10 minutes by rail. The neighbourhood and the transit options sure relieve the stress of this mega-city and contribute greatly to quality of life.
Some TOD Principles:
-Provide appropriate community densities
-Minimize walking distance
-Provide mixed land use
-Organize density, land use, and buildings to benefit from transit
-Create a pedestrian friendly environment
-Route transit into the community
-Reduce transit travel time
-Build quality, user-friendly transit facilities
In Calgary and other places, research has determined that realistically, most people will not walk more than 1,300 feet or about 400 meters to use transit, and generally, all housing should be within the same walking distance of a transit stop or light rail station. Long, indirect walks, especially in inclement weather, deter people from using transit. People are more likely to use transit that has a stop close to their point of origin and destination. Hills and the type of walking path that is required to reach transit will also impact walkability.
To help you understand some of the concepts of TOD development, we have borrowed these drawings from a City of Calgary publication on Transit Oriented Development.
Example of Transit Oriented Development