Friday, September 11, 2009

If You Build It They Will Come - Doesn't Work For Transit-Oriented Development

In urban planning there is an idea called Transit Oriented Development (TOD), which is pertinent to our discussions in Waterloo Region about LRT.

A famous example of TOD is Portland, Oregon. Like Waterloo Region, Portland built an LRT to create density nodes. However, while Waterloo is employing the faith-based "If you build it, they will come" style of planning, Portland actually developed the nodes. Around their stations they built streetcar lines and redeveloped a couple hundred acres of urban land. They got private enterprise involved to help pay for the streetcars and to do the development.

Waterloo is just creating the nodes with the idea that it will magically correct decades of sloppy planning that resulted in car dependency and urban sprawl. Some problems with this:

* The idea is to have high density housing and shopping at the nodes, to reduce the need for a car. We may end up with all housing or all shopping around our nodes.
* It's not clear that any of our nodes have the potential for redevelopment. Some proposed LRT nodes, principally Uptown Waterloo, are if anything in danger of being over-densified and are undergoing overly rapid growth. All other Waterloo city nodes, with the exception of Bearinger Drive, have little space left for development.
* Without the complementary transit infrastructure (like the streetcars in Portland), people may end up driving to LRT stations, resulting in parking headaches at LRT nodes and negating the goals of reducing car dependency.

There is just no substitute for proactive, intelligent planning. Waterloo Region still operates on the reactive model: developers make all the decisions, and local government runs after them, trying unsuccessfully to grab the tiger by the tail, ending up having only a cosmetic influence on the process. I'm all for private enterprise driving development, but there should be more proactive design of the big picture.


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