New FTA Rules Are Good News for People Who Like Walkable Neighborhoods

MBTA Silver Line bus

Public domain image

The Federal Transit Administration is rolling out an important tweak to its grant criteria for mass transit projects in a way that should make the New Starts program substantially friendlier to dense walkable neighborhoods.

I wrote about this a year ago at an earlier stage of the process. But under the old rules, basically the only criteria was how much do you speed-up commute times in the metro area in question. The way you speed commute times in a cost-effective manner is you take an existing congested freeway, and you expand freeway capacity by building a commuter rail line in the median, with park-and-ride stations spaced far apart (so the trains don’t waste time stopping and starting) surrounded by open air parking lots. That creates a new transportation option that’s not slowed down by traffic jams.

But it doesn’t create anything like the walkable transit-oriented neighborhoods that we know from traditional cities. Urbanist rail transit requires stations to be relatively close together (so you get an extensive neighborhood) and it requires the stations to be surrounded not by parking lots but by fairly dense patterns of dwellings, shops, and offices. There’s no question that systems built on that model don’t move people as quickly as systems built on the park-and-ride model. And yet all the most-used rapid transit systems in America are built on the urbanist model rather than the park-and-ride model.

As Angie Schmitt explains, the idea of the new model is to judge systems based not on time but “instead on the number of passengers expected to be served.” That doesn’t prohibit a park-and-ride plan if that’s what’s best-suited to local conditions. But it means that projects focused on density—not just in terms of the transportation infrastructure built but the existence of complementary zoning and such—have a much better chance to win.