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C200: Transit as a Market Extender

2011 April 12
by Jeff Wood and Dena Belzer

< The context of the Mt Baker light rail station is Southeast Seattle, where the transit investment has not been enough to stimulate significant redevelopment - yet; photo: Dan Bertolet - click to enlarge >

There is a lot of discussion on the effect of transit on property values and redevelopment in cities around the country. Usually the boosters claim that transit helps and opponents claim that it does nothing. The truth? As with many other questions the answer is “it depends”.

As we’ve seen over the last decade the demand for living downtown has been increasing as more and more people see this as a viable option and more developers build to the existing demand. But where does this demand come from? And can it be replicated in any part of a region?

The reason for this ability to build more density actually comes from increasing market demand from people who want to live in these areas, and are willing/able to pay the prices necessary to support constructions costs associated with higher density. To build up, developers have to be able to hit a specific price point that justifies their costs and provides an acceptable return on the investment. While all of the future plans TOD hope for density projects, the truth is that without increasing market values, some subsidies that help the developer furnish the required parking or other amenities, may be required, the further you get from an area with higher market values. The same is true for suburban development—in order to make it pencil, subsidies such as roads and utility extensions need to be a part of the deal.

So, like suburban development needing road and freeway access, urban development becomes more valuable with transit access. Markets can be extended. Some of the most successful redevelopment districts and hip neighborhoods are those which are proximate to downtown and were able to use the power of downtown to increase the viability of their redevelopment potential. We’ve seen this in places like the South End in Charlotte or the Pearl District in Portland. Both of these areas have transit connections that have pulled the downtown, which has the major market, a little closer. Ultimately this is where streetcar and light rail corridors are helpful.

Typically, 15 minutes is the time transit can travel before the market extension starts dropping away. Further down the line, development is possible and still warranted, however it won’t be supporting denser steel frame buildings. But why does this matter? If we want to think of creating walkable communities, transit needs to be focused on connecting major destinations. The major destinations are generally employment centers with less opposition to development and the ability to grow up instead of out. This means development closer to downtowns is better, and, for that matter more transit supportive. Suburban oriented transit doesn’t do as much work carrying people or pushing buildings up.

So with that being said, let’s rethink how we’re developing transit today. While we’ve invested further in roads and other subsidies for sprawl, its time that the pendulum swung back and provided opportunities to build up assets around our regional economic engines, creating a critical mass for the next generation and their economic future. Let’s use transit to extend markets where we can.

< Mount Baker Light Rail Station in Souteast Seattle; photo: Eagle Eye Aerial Photography via Sound Transit - click to enlarge >


Jeff Wood is New Media Director and Chief Cartographer at Reconnecting America in Oakland, CA. Dena Belzer is president of Strategic Economics in Berkeley, CA.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt the Engineer permalink
    April 12, 2011

    Exactly. Regional rail can often just extend commutes, as we’ve seen with Bart. This helps densify downtown jobs, but can create sprawl in the residential sector. The best bang for our density dollars may be in urban transit – transit that just moves people around within a city. Regional rail usually has urban portions, and these sections definately help density. But what really seems to me to be most useful are the Muni(SF) or Max(Portland) style, easy to hop on and off light rail lines. Urban systems don’t have to travel long distances, but to be sucessful they have to be easy and quick.

    • Wells permalink
      April 12, 2011

      Portland’s MAX LRT is to the Bay Area BART as the Portland Streetcar is to Muni. MAX, LINK and similar LRT systems are the equivalent of yesterday’s Interurbans. While Muni existed before BART, the Portland Streetcar followed MAX as an advancement in transit planning that applied New Urbanism land-use principles of mixed-use and transit-oriented development. Both forms of rail are proving to be valuable, but regional LRT and BART-type systems are more important than inner-city streetcar lines. Suburban subdivisions that have sprouted around metropolitan central cities have a thousand times greater need for redevelopment than the central cities they surround. Reaching suburbs with regional LRT systems, where appropriate, is only the beginning.

  2. Kevster permalink
    April 12, 2011

    This station is one of my examples of how Seattle has a hard time connecting systems. At this station the area under the station isn’t utilized for connecting riders to other modes. The bus lines terminate down a block on the other side of Rainier Ave. The exits all face the back alleys of the existing buildings. It would have been smooth to loop the bus lines under the station.
    Other missed connections in the area are: The streetcar not connecting to Westlake, The Airport light rail station being as far from the Terminal as possible, The future Capitol Hill streetcar that will not connect to the defunct Waterfront streetcar or the train station.
    It is frustrating to watch infrastructure built in a way that doesn’t work well together and has little chance of being remodeled anytime soon. It seems ironic in the age of the internet that transit systems are designed in more of a linear fashion instead of a network mesh.

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