Starting Anew with Community-Oriented Transit

by Mariia Zimmerman


It’s September, which in my household means the start of a new school year. This annual “restart” has me thinking about the many ways that our cities and neighborhoods also go through a constant growth, evolution, and occasionally – a restart. Last week I had the opportunity to join the Transit Choices Coalition where advocates are working with leaders at the city, regional planning agency, and Maryland Transit Agency to try and improve transit options across the Baltimore region. Check out their list of "Quick Hits" that provide tangible, action-oriented steps that can be taken now to improve transit and the neighborhoods it connects.

I confess it’s always a little bittersweet for me to visit this City whose streetcar system was a major character in the great Barry Levinson movie, Avalon – and now struggles to provide safe, reliable and efficient transit to many of its neighborhoods. Yet, this very fact underscores the dynamic nature that is the American city. We have changed the urban landscape in ways large and small, and for better or worse – depending where you live.

"Spraygrounds" like this one along Arlington VA's Colombia Pike are great examples of the kinds of active and multi-generational public space that makes for a complete community. This one is even transit accessible! (Source: M. Zimmerman, 2013)

"Spraygrounds" like this one along Arlington VA's Colombia Pike are great examples of the kinds of active and multi-generational public space that makes for a complete community. This one is even transit accessible! (Source: M. Zimmerman, 2013)

The challenge we face is how we will shape the future of our cities. Will growing demand for urban living and walkable neighborhoods help reduce greenhouse gas emissions but lead to gentrification and greater suburbanization of poverty, or will we find a better balance to great place making, equitable access to opportunity, and greener cities? The good thing is we think we know more than those who came before us. The bad thing is that, most architects, planners and engineers always think that.

What’s changed? I like to think the mere fact that we’ve come to recognize that the fundamental complexity of cities requires not a single silver bullet, but a multi-faceted approach. Towards this aim, is the growing notion of Complete Communities or Community-Oriented Transit (as opposed to plain old Transit-Oriented Development). I confess that I’m rather excited by this concept. To me, Community-Oriented Transit requires the combination of fundamental social elements people value (arts, culture, neighborliness, green space and meeting places) with the technical elements of location-efficiency, good transit planning, and smart land use.  One of my favorite writers on these topics is Kaid Benfield, and if you've not checked out his recent book, People Habitat, now is the time!

Getting it right requires us to build authentic cross-sector partnerships between public agencies, non-profits and philanthropic organizations, community groups and technical experts. We need to make community engagement a priority in all facets and think about how the pieces are connected so that we leverage investments to achieve many goals, rather than try to fix unintended consequences after the fact. For more on my thoughts about what makes for a complete community, I invite you to view my presentation to the Transit Choices coalition. It provides a 10,000- foot look at the elements and processes for integrating land use, design and transit. Of course, the devil is in the details. I look forward to exploring those details with others from around the country later this month at the Rail~Volution conference in Minneapolis, MN. Hope to see you there!

(And, to help regions plan for community-oriented transit, the Federal Transit Administration just announced almost $20 million available for TOD-planning grants. Applications are due by November 3rd, check here for more details.)