“We’re not here to ask if it’s a good idea if urbanism and transit are related,” said Paul Goldberger, author and architecture critic for The New Yorker, in his keynote speech at the Canadian Urban Institutes Designing Transit Cities Symposium. It becomes quite clear over the two day event, that the success of a public transit focused city is inexplicably linked to the success of its urban fabric. The symposium asked questions about appropriately scaled development along transit lines, including public transit in the design of beautiful streetscapes and gaining public support for transit-based cities.
Although the focus was for creating cities that are designed around public transportation, “denying the automobile is not going to be the route for transit cities over the long haul,” Goldberger makes clear, “but if you do it right, it can improve the cities for those that don’t drive.” However, “cars, when the only game in town, make decent urban design impossible.” He also states, “doing the right thing in a larger conceptual way, is not in and of itself,” with respects to the Gardiner Expressway, it is not enough to simply remove the highway, it needs to be replaced with a well thought out piece of urban design, such as the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Goldberger spoke about the importance of transit being linked to other transit and the balance of the planned and un-planned within a city, allowing for serendipity.
Robert Cervero, author, consultant and director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at the University of California at Berkeley, spoke about a number of European transit-friendly cities, such as Zurich and Stockholm. Although not a big city, Zurich is one of the most transit friendly, with an average of 600 public transit trips per person per year and a ridership of 62%. Their transit system includes signal prioritization (increased green signals into the city during peak times), bike traffic signals, zonal tariffs, transit integration and car sharing. As Cervero says, all these elements, “blow away notion that transit is a second class form of transportation.” In Stockholm, they put a high importance on station and corridor planning, helping them build their rail system in advance of demand. While Stockholm is known for its great public transportation system, it is not an anti-car city, Cervero explains, “they own cars, but just judicious about when they use them.”
According to Mariia Zimmerman, VP of Policy at Reconnecting America, the key to creating good transit cities is, “everyone needs to be an advocate for better design.” She urged attendees to think about how transportation funds can be used beyond transit projects, such as for community development, and to make sure suburban regions were really ready for transit development, with supportive infrastructure around them, like employment opportunities and services, stating, “it’s easier for jobs to move than for houses to move.”
The theme that seemed to surface the most, was the holistic approach we need to take regarding designing transit cities. G.B Arrington, senior practitioner and practice leader for PlaceMaking at Parson Brinckerhoff, urges Toronto “to not be a transit city, but to be a transit region.” There was much discussion on how to create a sense of urban in the suburbs, by thinking more broadly about the area around the transit lines and stations, activating street edges and the public realm. “It’s easy to focus on what’s happening at the centre,” states Arrington, “but just as important to look at what’s happening on the edge.” There was also agreement on the importance of good street design, as Goldberger says, “in an effective city, the street means more than the buildings.”
What I found most interesting was how little discussion there was on actual modes of transportation, showing the significance and importance of the urban design that surrounds it. Transit alone does not make a successful transit city, but paired with good infrastructure, effective street design and inviting public spaces, both systems will boost each other.
Image by WATERFRONToronto