Durable Growth, Transportation

Getting urbanism wrong: Transit-adjacency

Richmond BART

Richmond BART

In my last couple of posts, I argued that urbanism is a potent form of environmentalism, but one that can be easily misapplied.  And then I offered examples of urbanism, and environmentalism, gone sideways.

I’ll finish this three-part journey into the environmentalism of urbanism with a look at the potential, and the potential to do badly, of transit-oriented development.

I recently met a local transit advocate over sandwiches at Ray’s.  After chatting about several other subjects, including the possible parklet at Ray’s, my lunchtime companion raised a topic that was important to him.  Looking at the planned mixed-use development next to the downtown Petaluma SMART station, he asked how we could be sure that the future residents would ride the SMART train.

It was an insightful question, so insightful that urbanists have coined a word for transit-oriented development gone awry.  In transit-oriented development, the nearby transit stops are an essential element of the residential lifestyle.  Take the transit away and the entire nature of the development changes.

In transit-adjacent development, the nearby transit stop is a nice amenity, but the residents remain likely to live much of their daily lives in their cars. The disappearance of the transit would make only a small difference in projects.

So my companion was asking how to ensure that the Petaluma Station development would be transit-oriented and not transit-adjacent.

The line between transit-oriented and transit-adjacent is fuzzy and subjective, with data about the demographics of the tenants, the sizes of the unit, and the approach to parking being key elements in assessing where a project falls.  However, even without that data, I’m moderately comfortable pointing out examples of transit-oriented and transit-adjacent development in the Bay Area.

A couple of years ago, I took a tour of mixed-use projects near BART stations.  Although the eyes I brought to that tour are different than they would be today, I think I can still discern transit-oriented from transit-adjacent.

Pleasant Hill BART

Pleasant Hill BART

The apartments at the Pleasant Hill BART station, with its many larger apartments and convenient parking is transit-adjacent.  Even in its website, it’s positioned as a luxury apartment complex that happens to be next to a BART station.  If BART were to disappear tomorrow, the ad copy would need to be edited, but the nature of the project wouldn’t change significantly.

I’m sure that many of the Pleasant Hill apartment residents use BART regularly, but I suspect that many of those do a daily calculation of whether they should drive to work or use BART.  In a true transit-oriented development, that computation is never made.  The residents are committed to using transit and many don’t even own cars.

Fruitvale BART

Fruitvale BART

In contrast to Pleasant Hill, the developments adjoining the Fruitvale and Richmond BART stations are transit-oriented.  Less parking for the residents is provided, the retail stores are arranged to serve folks heading to or from trains, and physical connection between the BART station and the housing is more intimate.

Some may point out that the Fruitvale and Richmond developments serve a less affluent segment of the population.  The observation is correct and offers further proof of a thought I offered in my last post, that poverty, or at least reduced resources, is an indicator of a more green life.  The Pleasant Hill residents can keep a luxury coupe in the covered parking and decide, depending on destination, whether to drive or to ride BART.  Many of the residents at Fruitvale and Richmond don’t have that option.

This brings us back to the question of how to ensure that development near transit stops become transit-oriented in North Bay communities, many of which don’t have the affluence of Walnut Creek/Pleasant Hill, but generally have more resources than Fruitvale or Richmond.

I’ll offer three standards required for transit-orientation.  First, the mix of housing units should be attuned to the people who are more likely to live transit-oriented lives.  Studio apartments for young professionals  trying to pay off student loans by living car-free or for seniors who no longer drive, but still like to travel around, are better transit-oriented residential units than three-bedroom apartments that would attract families with school and recreational needs that can’t be met by transit.

Second, there must be parking maximums and those maximums should be set low.  Singles without cars or families with only a single car are more likely to use transit.

Third, the cost of parking should be separable from the cost of housing.  If every unit has an assigned parking place with a monthly cost embedded in the rent, then it’s easier to justify buying a car.  But if someone trying to live a green or frugal life can save both the cost of a car and another $200 in monthly parking, that person is more likely to rely strictly on transit.

Appropriate architecture and site planning, with visual integration between homes and transit stop, along with convenient walking routes, can further ensure transit-orientation over transit-adjacency, but if the above three standards are met, then the development is already well along the path to transit-orientation.

And now I can return to my companion’s question, how is Petaluma doing at ensuring that the Station Area development will be transit-oriented?

The answer is not very well.

Although the final distribution of unit types, studio versus one-bedroom versus two-bedroom, will be dependent on a developer submittal and the City entitlement process, there are ways the City can incentivize developers to focus on the smaller units that would tend more toward transit-oriented.  The best tool is to tune the impact fees to encourage smaller units.

Unfortunately, the City has done nearly the exact opposite, with impact fees that are the same regardless of unit size.

Let’s take a simplified example of a developer having 1,500 square feet of space that could be made into three 500 square-foot studios that would likely rent to singles or couples who would use transit daily or a single 1,500 square-foot two-bedroom unit that would likely rent to a family that would need a car to convey kids to school and sport and might generate, at best, one transit rider per day.

Clearly, transit-orientation requires the three studio units.  And the City of Petaluma assesses impact fees that would be three times as much for the three studios as for the two-bedroom unit.  So the incentives run the wrong direction.

To be fair to the City, I understand some of the underlying reason for the impact fee schedule.  Having accrued significant debt and deferred maintenance under the suburban model, the City is trying to capture enough revenue from urban development to balance the books.  But having backed the wrong horse between urbanism and suburbanism, trying to get square by putting a bigger burden on good urbanism feels like doubling down on a failed proposition.

And that’s before we tackle the question of whether a transit-friendly unit in downtown should pay the same road impact fee as a car-oriented unit on the urban fringe, as is the case under the current fee schedule.

The story on the parking side isn’t much better.  The weak link of low maximum parking counts and decoupled parking costs is off-site parking.  A tenant could choose to not rent a parking space, or to keep a car above the maximum allowed, and instead park a car in an adjoining neighborhood, irritating the neighbors and undermining the intent of transit-orientation.

The solution, a parking management district, is clunky, but effective.  Neighbors would be issued parking stickers and only cars with stickers could park in their neighborhood.

When the master plan for the Station Area was prepared, the consultants saw the need for parking management and called for it in the final report.  And three years later, nothing has been done.

So, transit-orientation remains the environmentally-friendly goal.  But my lunchtime companion was correct in worrying about whether the City of Petaluma has the will to avoid the unacceptable fate of transit-adjacency.  Once again, the better environmental outcome might not be realized.

With my next post, I’ll stay in on the topic of the environment, but go a different direction, returning to a favorite topic of how urbanism fares under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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