Research Spotlight: Creating more Sustainable Communities through Planning

For the past several decades, urban planners have been promoting transit-oriented development (TOD) as a paradigm for building sustainable communities. TOD involves building compact, mixed-use, and walkable development around transit stops. This type of development ostensibly provides a place where one can live without a car while maintaining easy access to goods and services. 

In practice, rather than TOD, one often sees large parking lots around major transit stops. These park-and-ride (P&R) facilities are useful in making public transportation a viable option for those living outside the immediate vicinity of transit lines, which is the majority of people in the auto-focused metropolitan areas of the US. However, the presence of a large parking facility often undermines the walkability of an area and potentially detracts from the quantity and quality of TOD.

Planners interested in effectively combining TOD and P&R might consider siting P&R facilities at the periphery of development around transit stops. This allows placement of TOD directly adjacent to the stop in the space otherwise occupied by the P&R lot, thus minimizing walking distance to the station for TOD residents and patrons. Furthermore, moving the P&R lot away from the stop means that the majority of station area properties would have a direct walking path to the station that avoids the P&R facility (and the traffic safety concerns and poor aesthetics that go with it).

In the scenario where parking is moved away the station, P&R users would need to access transit stops by walking longer distances from the parking lot. This additional walking may cause some to quit using transit. However, a pedestrian-friendly environment, as should be present in a well-planned TOD, may offset the deterrent associated with the additional walking distance. 

In a recent article published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, my co-author (Jason Cao) and I delved into this issue by surveying P&R users in the Twin Cities. After providing respondents a set of scenarios (using illustrations) where walking distance, intersection safety, pedestrian infrastructure, and building appearance systematically differed, they were asked to choose the scenario in which they would feel most comfortable when walking from a P&R lot to the transit stop. 

Using a statistical model, we were then able to estimate the walking distance equivalence of a given design feature. We found that relative to an unsafe intersection, a safe intersection can compensate for the impact of 0.6 blocks of walking distance. Similarly, good pedestrian infrastructure (wide sidewalks, benches, and street trees) can compensate for 0.7 blocks of walking. Finally, an attractive building appearance can compensate for 0.5 blocks. Cumulatively, all the three dimensions can mitigate the impact of about 1.8 blocks (which would be just under a quarter mile). 

In sum, our study suggests that, when coupled with a good pedestrian environment, P&R facilities can be moved roughly two city blocks away from the transit stop without creating an additional deterrent to the average P&R user. Despite the seemingly short distance, moving a P&R facility just a block or two away from the transit stop could open multiple acres for TOD immediately around the station. It would also take the P&R facility out of the immediate path of most people walking to/from the stop. 

The findings of our study come with the caveat that what people say they would do in a hypothetical scenario (like those presented in our survey) may not be what they would actually do if that scenario became reality. As such, caution is required when applying our findings to practice. However, I believe our study findings justify the implementation of some pilot projects where the P&R location is moved away from the station, the pedestrian environment is improved, and the resulting behavior of the users is carefully tracked. If such pilot projects prove successful, it would verify that moving the P&R facility away from the station can provide an effective compromise between trying to increase sustainable development through TOD and making sure the transit system is accessible to the largest number of people possible.

Dr. Michael Duncan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Learn more about his work here.

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