BART, Beyond the Bay, Contra Costa, East Bay, Oakland, Pedestrian Experience, Peninsula, Project Proposals, San Francisco, Transit Villages, Tri-Valley

On Walkability, Density, and Transit Villages

It’s official: according to the rankings, San Francisco has been determined to be America’s most walkable city, as reported by the Chronicle. Our fair city’s score of 86 out of 100 just edged out New York’s 83, Boston’s 79, Chicago’s 76, and Philadelphia’s 74. The WalkScore algorithm does have some shortcomings (which the site frankly admits) — pedestrian conditions on Stockton Street in SF’s Chinatown could be much better than they are now, but that did not stop Chinatown from receiving a top score of 99 out of 100, a score largely based on the high density of a large variety of shops and services in a very compact area. But for anyone who has strolled through San Francisco’s downtown or neighborhood commercial districts, this news does not really come as too much of a surprise. Check out the complete listing of neighborhood scores here.

But the most revealing part of the article was not the part glorifying San Francisco, but rather, the part indicating that the Bay Area, taken as a whole, could be much more walkable than it is now. The Bay Area region fell in third place, “well below the greater Washington, D.C., and Boston regions,” according to the Chron. This reflects the fact that while the Washington, D.C. area has allowed Metro to shape dense land use patterns near stations (even for stations outside of the central core), the Bay Area has been slower to allow BART to have the same effect. We should be careful about discussing density and walkability in the same breath, as they are not equivalent. An older suburban downtown whose buildings front directly onto the street is quite walkable, if not particularly dense, and on the flip side, high-rises alone cannot make a neighborhood truly walkable if the street level fails to provide safety and amenities for pedestrians. But well-planned density that is sensitive to the street provides the extra bodies that make a walkable district that much more bustling and successful.

Courtesy Beyond DC.

Consider Bethesda, Maryland, pictured at right. Located on the D.C. Metro Red Line, Bethesda is a great example of how dense, walkable districts can bloom around rail nodes, even in an otherwise suburban setting. (Check out this Google satellite map of Bethesda. It shows how the densely urbanized streets that are within easy access of a Metro station are very clearly delineated from the suburban neighborhoods further from the line.) The Bay Area, by contrast, is adamantly low-rise, not just in the suburbs, but also in most neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland. In general, only the urban downtown districts make any attempt to reach for the sky — so we have not truly leveraged the potential inherent in most of the rail nodes scattered around the Bay Area. The idea of mid-rises or even shorter high-rises at places like San Leandro and Millbrae BART stations might seem unthinkable — but the Bay Area’s conception of cities, walking, and transit would be quite different if even suburban cities had permitted miniature skylines to sprout at their rail stations. It is also interesting to note that the different development patterns have given rise to contrasting effects on transit ridership. Both BART and Metro are slightly over 100 miles long, and the two systems are of comparable age (Metro is just a few years younger). And yet, while BART reported an average of 367,570 daily riders last quarter, Metrorail set a record last Friday, July 11 of 854,638 riders — a higher ridership than BART can even support as long as its service patterns require operation of four routes through a single transbay tube. What explains the pronounced difference? The fact that Metro has twice the number of stations as BART for approximately the same amount of track certainly goes a long way toward making the system accessible to more people. But another factor (though certainly not the only other factor) that explains the difference must be that Metro has helped give rise to dense, walkable cities, which feed the system with a natural ridership base that is largely missing from BART because the land use around BART stations (already too few to begin with) is often not that intense.

Courtesy City of Union City.

Efforts have been made all around the Bay Area, with varying degrees of success, to transform rail-accessible downtowns into greater and denser places, including at BART’s Richmond, El Cerrito del Norte, Hayward, and South San Francisco stations. A 450-unit TOD with retail just broke ground today at Pleasant Hill BART, and still another phase of the project will add about 300,000 square feet of office and conference space. Meanwhile, one station south of Pleasant Hill, a transit village at Walnut Creek BART proposed by BRE Properties would include a mixed use development featuring about 600 residential units, office and retail space, fourteen bays for County Connection buses, and the implementation of market-rate pricing in the BART parking garage; the project, which the City Council has greeted with some skepticism, is up for environmental review. San Leandro has compiled a strategy for transit-oriented development, and one of the largest transit village plans — including about 75,000 square feet of retail and commercial space and close to 2000 units of housing — will crown a confluence of BART, commuter rail lines, and bus routes at an intermodal Union City Station, a rendering of which is pictured directly above. On the Peninsula, Redwood City has grand plans of downtown renewal centered on its Caltrain station, but despite plans to add about 2500 homes, residential development has been somewhat slow to trickle in. Further east, along the congested Interstate 580 corridor, a few projects in the pipeline will add hotel rooms, retail space, and close to 900 rental and condo units near the infill West Dublin/Pleasanton BART station currently under construction.

Transit villages have also been planned at Oakland BART stations, but here I am more critical — in part because the potential is greater, but also because when discussing these developments in Oakland, the conversation is at least as much about urban revitalization as it is about TOD. At the 19th Street Station in downtown Oakland, a couple thousand new homes (provided through several projects discussed on this blog in the past) will help breathe new life into the neighboring Uptown and Valdez downtown subdistricts — but such a transit-rich downtown location would ideally support much denser housing than the collection of Forest City low- to mid-rises currently under construction. Meanwhile, at the Fruitvale BART station, plans to build retail and over a thousand combined units at Fruitvale Gateway and Phase II of the transit village project — both of which would supply some of the new residents and additional vitality needed to fulfill the historical prophecy of the Fruitvale District as Oakland’s second downtownhave not moved forward, leaving just the 47 residential units and a substantial amount of commercial space included in Phase I of the transit village. At MacArthur Station, plans have long been in the works to build densely over BART’s surface parking lots, but they have morphed from the originally envisioned 800 units, including a 20-story tower and a 22-story tower — to 675 units in four- to six-story buildings, joined by retail and a seven-story parking garage. Here is a rendering of that project:

Courtesy MacArthur Transit Community Partners.

In the past couple of years, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has done a better job of encouraging cities to pursue dense growth near transit nodes — although these plans, as the above discussion indicates, have not nearly risen to the level of my personal dream of miniature skylines dotting the Bay Area, linked by high-quality, frequent rail transit service. But there has been some progress, and some mixed results as well. Increasing density within walking distance of BART and Caltrain stations will make central downtown districts more walkable, successful public spaces, and ultimately, we should go further than we have to date toward maximizing the potential of these rail connections. This whole discussion began with the announcement that San Francisco proper is America’s most walkable city. We certainly can and should celebrate this fact, but let us not stop there. Regional problems have regional solutions — and we cannot overlook the importance of reproducing San Francisco’s success, to the extent that we can, in cities across the Bay Area.



6 thoughts on “On Walkability, Density, and Transit Villages

  1. The walkscore info is great but your discussion of TOD’s is VERY interesting to me. Here in the PHX area, they have an opportunity to make some amazing changes in the mind set of some of our communities. During the developmental planning of our new light rail system, the city of Tempe hired a firm from the bay area to discuss TOD planning. We are making progress in allowing greater density and planning easier access to light rail stations. There is talk of approving even higher density for projects that will incorporate affordable housing.

    Posted by Nick Bastian | 19 July 2008, 5:49 am
  2. Hi Nick, thanks for writing in about Phoenix. One criticism of TOD and smart growth in general is that it can cause gentrification or create economically stratified neighborhoods, but the “density bonus” you mentioned is one tool not only for getting more housing immediately adjacent to rail, but also in creating communities with a mix of income levels.

    I’m glad to hear that Phoenix/Tempe is taking TOD seriously, because it will help to make the new light rail line all the more popular. If you happen to come back and check this comment again, I’d be interested to hear what sort of zoning changes, if any are required, that your area is making in the vicinity of the new stations.

    Posted by Eric | 19 July 2008, 8:22 am
  3. Hi Eric, the overlay districts appear to be slightly different in Phoenix and Tempe. I have 2 different reports mentioning some of the proposed changes and will try to write about them in the near future. The Tempe study does talk a lot about affordable housing and it is an element that I hope they take advantage of. I am trying to finish a bunch of stuff this weekend as I head out to your fine city tomorrow! I am excited to ride the BART directly to my hotel. :-)

    Posted by Nick Bastian | 20 July 2008, 12:35 pm
  4. Nick, that’d be great, looking forward to reading your reports on that.

    I hope you enjoy your trip to SF!

    Posted by Eric | 20 July 2008, 12:37 pm


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