In The Atlantic, Chris Leinberger makes a compelling argument for developer produced transit as a means of solving some of the neighborhood and transit problems American cities are currently experiencing. Last winter, in person, in a lunch-hour talk to the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, he made the same argument even more compelling. The logic is so simple, how could it possibly be wrong?
The urban fabric of early 19th century American cities resulted partly from patterns established by developers. Transit systems to ‘outlying’ areas were built by developers who wanted to sell land and houses in areas where access was not otherwise practical. Sadly, those systems were dismantled as the transportation focus in America shifted to automobile based systems. The overcrowded road network that many Americans spend multiple hours per day negotiating are becoming less and less viable. And the public delivery model of mass urban transit is timeconsuming and extremely expensive.
Leinberger’s assertion that the old developer-led transit model should be re-deployed today is compelling, but we need more details. Looking at the two primary conditions that made it work in the early 19th century is instructive: cheap, undeveloped land and inadequate transportation. Our urban areas today suffer due to their enormous size and the pressure that size places on our transportation networks. Cheap, undeveloped land today is so far from the urban center that it cannot be part of any solution. And while we have inadequate transportation, it’s not yet inadequate enough. Too many still people prefer to spend time alone in their cars rather than take public transit.
Still, Leinberger’s idea is not something we should should simply toss aside. It needs to be further developed. For instance, serious consideration should to be given to the specific circumstances where a developer driven transit system would be possible. Somehow, the economic benefits of the real estate development, or re-development, need to be great enough to cover the expense of the transit system. And maybe that means a different form of transit system.
What would happen if developers went into pedestrian-unfriendly areas, altered the fabric somehow to make them pedestrian friendly, and then provided a less expensive link from the redevelped area to a publicly funded transit system?
Leinberger doesn’t have an implementable idea, but he might have a good idea. It just needs to be developed.