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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 4 -- JUNE/JULY 2001
 

Transit Villages

By Andy Kunz

The train is coming! This is what many communities are now getting ready for, and it is happening in a big way. Communities across America are changing the way they build to incorporate a new train into the mix. After years of believing that more highways will solve their transportation problems, community planners are now looking to new train systems in combination with building dense, walkable towns to create more livable, sustainable communities.

As the daily traffic jams reach epic proportions across America, planners and developers are looking to combine new urbanist neighborhoods with new train systems to create transit villages. According to Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero, authors of the recent book "Transit Villages in the 21st Century," the transit village combines the disciplines of urban design, transportation, and market economics. As stated in their book, "It is partly about creating a built form that encourages people to ride transit more often. However, equally important, it embraces goals related to neighborhood cohesion, social diversity, conservation, public safety, and community revitalization."

The transit village is a compact, mixed-use community centered with a transit station that, by design, invites residents, workers, and shoppers to drive their cars less and ride mass transit more. Bernick and Cervero set forth certain criteria that should be followed when planning a transit village:

1. The village extends roughly a quarter mile from a transit station, a distance that can be covered in about five minutes by foot.

2. The centerpiece of the transit village is the station itself and the civic and public spaces that surround it.

3. The transit station is what connects village residents and workers to the rest of the region, providing convenient and ready access to downtown, major activity centers like a sports stadium, and other popular destinations.

4. The surrounding public spaces or open grounds serve the important function of being a community gathering spot, a site for special events, and a place for celebrations.

This is new urbanism on a train line. It is a joining of these two separate (but related) revolutions taking place in America (new urbanism and new trains) and creates something much greater than the sum of the two. New Urbanism by itself is a great improvement over conventional suburban development, yet still requires most residents to drive to destinations outside the community for jobs and other trips. Train systems by themselves are far superior to automobiles, but if the destinations at both ends of the trip are not walkable and convenient, few will ride.

The combination of new urbanism and trains not only creates places with a higher quality lifestyle, they are also commanding higher real estate prices. Across America, properties located within a five or 10-minute walk to a train stop are selling for 20-25 percent more than comparable properties further away. When these are also part of a new urbanist community or historic urban center, they sell for even higher prices. In addition, the possibility of living with one less car can save an estimated $6,000 and $8,000 per year.

There are also health advantages to be gained from getting out of our cars. These include reduced exposure to car exhaust, car accidents and injuries. Traveling by train can also be less stressful. One of the main reasons why so many Americans are overweight is because they get very little exercise in their daily routines. Transit villages offer the opportunity to walk and bike as part of each day's normal activities. With good design, safe and pleasant bike paths, and easy bike parking at the train stations, many people who live further than the five to 10-minute walk will also be encouraged to take the train.

A key to the success of transit villages is creating a high-quality pedestrian environment by using good design and including pedestrian amenities. Buildings with shops should front the sidewalks and contain businesses such as cafés, small grocery stores, and dry cleaners that are useful to the residents of the community. Weather protected benches, bike racks, and possibly even shower facilities should be located throughout the village. Another important ingredient for success is fast, easy connections between systems with little or no waiting or hassle.

Higher densities are important for the success of both transit villages and train systems, and, when oriented around trains, actually benefit the surrounding towns.

A number of municipalities are taking the initiative to change the way their communities get built. Huntersville, N.C., placed a moratorium on development within a half-mile of a new train line to prevent poorly planned developments and give the consultants enough time to plan transit villages at the train stations. [See sidebar: The Train Will Stop Here]. Cities in San Mateo County, Calif., were given up to $2,000 per bedroom for high-density housing built near the existing BART and Caltran train stations.

New urbanism has proven to be the solution to sprawl, while new trains are quickly proving to be the solution to our transportation mess. When these two are combined, transit villages are the result. While municipalities across the country plan for transit villages, citizens and developers alike are rapidly embracing the concept as the solution to many of our current problems and the ideal model for creating livable and sustainable communities.

Note: Andy Kunz is director of town planning for the Urban Resource Group, a division of Kimley-Horn and Associates in Miami Beach. For more information, visit www.NewTrains.org, www.NewUrbanism.org, www.UrbanResourceGroup.com.