Past Parts of the Series
Part I of this series looked at the decline of Greater Greater Washington‘s streetcar and light-rail agenda. The following parts looked at why with Part II focused on the severe problems with our existing Metro system and the high price tags of these projects. Part III turned to how GGW’s rejection not just of single-family homes but also townhomes and higher density new urbanist developments like the Kentlands engendered a backlash against their promotion of only high-density projects.
Instead of Greater Greater’s Going Going Gone agenda, today’s post begins to look at the components of an alternative, more feasible approach. In other words, how can we do smart smart growth and move forward with transit in a more successful way.
No Building Too Tall, No Project Too Expensive
GGW’s light-rail and streetcar very pricey streetcar and light-rail agenda doesn’t just promote higher density, it needs extremely high density that does not comport with the desires of most suburbanites (and many urbanites in low density neighborhoods) in order to make them remotely economically viable and have enough riders to qualify for federal funding.
Increasingly, we end up designing for the transit instead of the people. Light-rail and streetcar systems are designed to fit the cost-driven imperatives rather than those of the community or sensible and sensitive urban planning. When people don’t like it and vote out officials who won’t back their favored plans, GGW labels them retrograde and seemingly thinks that we should “dissolve the people and elect another” in the words of Bertolt Brecht.
But there is a way out of this chicken and egg problem: Build transit that costs less. Build bus-rapid transit (BRT).
BRT is not simply more Metrobuses that move very slowly and get trapped in traffic. Like light-rail and streetcars, it has its own dedicated lane. Signalling technology allows it to make traffic lights that it would otherwise miss.
Bus-rapid transit costs far less per mile than comparable light-rail and streetcar systems. It is more cost effective because it is cheaper yet you can still accomplish virtually all of the same transit goals as pricier streetcar or light-rail systems.
Because it is cheaper and much easier to build, we can afford to construct more BRT and more quickly, which would serve many more people than the equivalent in price of a new streetcar or light-rail line.
Like its pricier cousins, BRT allows for more density to develop around stops. However, because the price tag is not nearly as humungous, it doesn’t require the same ultra high-density buildings, which GGW firmly believes is how we should all live, in order to render it economically plausible.
Moreover, because there would be more BRT lines, we can plan a variety of densities. Some might end up looking more like Bethesda or Silver Spring with many tall buildings, while others might be more like the Kentlands and other new urbanist developments that have more density but fit better how many families prefer to live. And some may even experience little new development.
Less Conflict with Existing Communities
GGW derides anyone who doesn’t want to see a 250 foot high building overshadowing their home as a NIMBY and a barrier to progress. Again, this is because of their ideological opposition to ever choosing lower or medium over high density as well as that the expensive transit lines they desire require it.
Because BRT does not require cramming a tall building into every single bit of available space, it allows the retention of more breathing room between existing communities and new developments. Montgomery County’s Master Plan has long called for gradual stepping down between tall building and existing single-family home communities.
The installation of BRT should engender a lot less friction–not no friction but less–because it allows for respect for existing vibrant communities. It also allows for the retention of open space that helps make developing areas more vital and make them attractive to families.
Smarter Smart Growth
So BRT allows the region to improve transit greatly at a much lower cost. Even as it doesn’t require it to the extent of light rail and streetcars, it also makes possible more density and development and makes it easier to move around. All are good for the long-term future of the region and its economic development.
Finally, because we can build more of it, the displacement effects around transit nodes will likely be much less severe and help cut the link between building transit supposedly for social justice reasons and then seeing the people who live near it forced to move away–an effect that GGW laments but doesn’t realize is the inevitable effect of the policies that they advocate.
Next up: So why have we seen so much emphasis on expensive and greater greater rather than smarter and leaner meaner?