Effective transit planning requires high density

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Spread out cities don’t work well for effective transit planning. High density is a necessity for effective transit planning in a growing city. It is, in fact, one of the biggest reasons why big cities like New York, London, Singapore, and Tokyo continue to function so efficiently. When you visit one of these for the first time, it seems like the entire world is gathering around you. You can feel the pace of these cities through all of your senses.

This high density facilitates effective transit planning, which is one of the pillars of sustainable growth. If you look at the big cities listed above, efficient public transportation is stressed upon a lot. There are very few cities who have grown without efficient public transit. 

When you know that millions of people would be visiting one train station every day, shopping complexes, small businesses, etc can all come naturally around them. This has the potential to create immense wealth. At the same time, the government doesn’t have to worry about its public transit systems not being used by people. 

Transit-oriented development

With a high density of people, urban planners can use Transit Oriented Development to speed up the growth of the cities while ensuring sustainability over the long term.

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is a hot topic among urban researchers. TOD means developing cities with transit centres as focal points. Rather than spreading the city out horizontally, TOD believes in growing cities vertically and developing mixed-use spaces. The focus is on keeping buildings as close as possible to transit centres. 

For example, a financial district can be built around a few railway stations, while ensuring that people can walk to any building after getting off a train. 

New York’s financial district instantly comes to mind when I think about this. One of the biggest strengths of New York is an excellent public transit. It is drastically different from many other US cities in this one aspect – it’s excellent subway network. 

Photo by jonathan riley on Unsplash

Advantages of TOD

Because of this railway network, you can plan your travel well, without having to worry about spending hours stuck in traffic. With trains running round the clock and used by a majority of the population, the city functions fast. Planning is much easier and mixed-use of land leads to better revenues for not just the government, but also the small businesses that can flourish around these transit nodes. 

TOD is also better for our environment. Maximum use of public transit is the easiest way to reduce our carbon footprint on the environment. While electric cars are all the rage today, they can do only so much. Studies suggest that the environmental footprint of cities could be reduced by as much as 40 to 50 percent using TOD. TOD emphasizes on increasing walkability and mixed-use land, which has a direct correlation to a reduction in vehicle miles. 

Another benefit that is not often highlighted is the safety of citizens. The denser a city is, the better it is for the safety of the citizens. People feel safer when they are among other people. Police officials can better plan their resource utilization to monitor denser cities. 

But despite these benefits of TOD, which are being highlighted for at least the past decade, cities across the US are slow to adapt to such a radical change. 

Consider cities like Los Angeles, which are the best examples of spread-out cities. These cities are primarily built with a “car-first” mindset, which mandates enough parking spaces and an excellent road network over a top-notch public transit system. Because of this expectation, the cities are spread horizontally. Roads can span tens of lanes, which seems like a good thing, but it is not. Urban researchers have time and again pointed out that building more lanes is never a solution for our expanding cities. More lanes lead to what is called induced traffic. This study found out that for every 1 percent increase in highway capacity, traffic can increase up to 1.1 percent in the long term.

As a result, the road networks across cities in the US are showing signs of tremendous strain. In LA, drivers spent more than a hundred hours in traffic in 2018. This leads to a loss of billions of dollars, because of lost productivity. 

To control traffic, several cities are nowadays starting to implement congestion pricing – during the peak hours of morning and evening, cars are required to pay a higher toll tax. For example, Singapore restricts use by charging vehicles S$3.0 for entering its central business area between 7:30 and 9:30 am. 

Disadvantages of TOD

One argument that is made against higher density is that it leads to higher property prices. For most people, it is hard to think of buying property in the big cities in the world. Yet, it is not an unsolvable problem. 

Government interventions to ensure enough affordable housing schemes are entirely possible. We shouldn’t rule out the benefits of TOD because of rising property prices. For example, Denver has used a number of financing tools to provide TOD, despite the concerns that housing would become expensive because of a new light rail.

The time is running out!

Cities today are under immense pressure. With the world’s urban population growing every year by more than 1.5%, a lot of new cities are coming up, and existing cities will have to grow. Cities like Seattle, where I live, have already been topping the “Fastest-growing city” charts in the US.

If we don’t plan our cities well, density can lead to its biggest weakness. For example, drivers in Bangkok spend an average of 64.1 hours a year stuck in congested traffic. The traffic situation in big, spread out cities like Los Angeles is not getting any better. As stated above, this has a tremendous effect on productivity and the environment.

To avoid a disaster, we need to plan our cities better, which begins by embracing density.

After all, high density is the biggest gift modern transit planners and researchers could ask for. 
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