Equilibrium or Imbalance? Rail Transit and Land Use Mix in Station Areas

Recently published:

  • Wang, Yuning, Lu, D, and Levinson, D. (2022) Equilibrium or Imbalance? Rail Transit and Land Use Mix in Station Areas. Transportation. [doi]


Although it is widely reported that rail transit has the potential to encourage higher density development, it remains unclear whether rail transit leads to more mixed urban development across station areas. This article provides rare quantitative analysis of changes in land use mix around the rail transit system in Tianjin, China through an investigation into the spatial effects of a rail transit line which cuts across both highly developed and lessdeveloped areas. By using longitudinal data over a twelve-year period (2004–2016) and by comparing the entropy-based land-use mix index, the study shows that with the operation of rail transit, land use mix has increased in formerly low-mixed station catchments, but the change is not obvious for already highly diverse areas. It also shows that a more balanced development occurs in station areas with higher land use dominance, while the leading functions are intensified in station areas with lower land use dominance. By presenting a clear picture of the spatial distribution and patterns of land use mix changes over time, this article concludes that rail transit leads to more balanced development across different station areas in the context of China’s rapid urbanization. The outcome provides a base for further exploring how the planning of rail transit stations may help tackle the differentiated development in cities.

Keywords Rail transit · Land use mix · Spatial variations · Tianjin

Fig. 3 The land use of M1 in 2016
Fig. 3 The land use of M1 in 2016

The Canal Zone – Transforming the Precinct between Green Square and Mascot

There is unquestionably a continuing housing shortage in Sydney, leading to some of the most expensive real estate in Australia and the world.

It is a law of modern cities that no urban water feature should stay underdeveloped. The Alexandria Canal was built around 1900, widening Shea’s Creek, a tributary of the Cook’s River, to serve industrial activities like tanneries that lined its shore. Proposals have been floated to transform it to into a Little Venice, but these were spiked for environmental reasons, disturbing the canal would let loose toxic sediments which would contaminate other waterways. So instead it was left fallow, to wallow in its chemical filth. While that may (or may not) have been a wise decision under one set of economic cost calculations, considering the current costs of remediation, the environmental costs of doing nothing and the value of the redevelopment, conditions have changed and the decision should be revisited.

Alexandria Canal, NSW looking north. Source wikipedia.
Alexandria Canal, NSW looking north. Source wikipedia.

The parallel Airport Rail Line opened a century later in 2000, just prior to the Sydney Olympics. It was financed under a poorly structured public-private partnership which initially levied exorbitant station access charges, that the NSW government eventually bought down for the non-airport stations. Nevertheless it has significant excess capacity which could be taken advantage of.  If we assume it eventually becomes a normal line, we can think about how it might be used to promote the kind of growth that is beneficial to the public.

Walking Route from Green Square to Mascot. Approximate half way point in orange oval. Alexandria Creek to the southwest. Map by Google.
Walking Route from Green Square to Mascot. Approximate half way point in orange oval. Alexandria Creek to the southwest. Map by Google.


I walked the corridor this weekend. This Airport Rail Line cries out in pain for an additional stop halfway between Mascot and Green Square. This lands just south of Huntley Street and Bourke Road, at the northern edge of the Alexandria Canal, home today to the redeveloped Mill at Bourke Road.

The distance between the rail stations at Green Square and Mascot is 2.6 km, 32 minutes walking, 3 minutes by train. Typical station spacing this close to the CBD is much shorter. Redfern to MacDonaldtown, e.g. is only 1.7 km. Given 800m is a useful threshold for walking distance to rail stations, 1.6 km (1 mile) is a natural spacing. 1.3km might be a bit close between stations, but it is still longer than the CBD stations (Town Hall to Central is 1.1 km). I don’t know the cost of designing and constructing a new station on this existing line, it is undoubtedly more expensive than it should be, but there is experience with infill, and it is less expensive than a new line on a per passenger basis. I would think the real estate development could cover it.

The historic Mill plus a train station  would make a great community centre for a new precinct, perhaps the Mill District, or the Canal Zone, which would feature more intense residential, office, and commercial development  complementing, and eventually replacing, single story warehouses, auto dealerships, big box retail stores, and light industrial between Mascot and Green Square, lining the area from the canal to O’Riordan Street.

Development in Mascot. Photo by author.
Development in Mascot. Photo by author.

The region is focusing on new Metro Lines while forgetting opportunities that lie immediately at hand, incremental investments in the Trains network which likely reveal benefits well in excess of costs. Mascot and Green Square will soon be built out, and new land will need to be engaged.

On the ‘Three City’ Plan of Sydney

I have been hearing and reading a lot about the Greater Sydney Commission’s  (GSC) Our Greater Sydney 2056: A metropolis of three cities – connecting people Plan for Sydney.

As the title says, the core idea trifurcates Greater Sydney into three “cities” *

Three city plan from Greater Sydney Commission. Source: https://www.greater.sydney/map-room
Three city plan from Greater Sydney Commission. Source: https://www.greater.sydney/map-room

  • Eastern City/ Sydney/Harbour City,
  • Central City/Parramatta/River City,
  • Western City/Aerotropolis/Parkland City.

In one very important sense, these are all Greater Metropolitan Sydney. In another legal sense, the “City of Sydney” is a legally-defined ‘local government area’ including the most famous bits and surrounding areas. There are many legally-defined cities (local government areas) in greater Sydney,   and these get periodically redefined by the state government to which they genuflect.

Now I am sure in part the use of the word “City” is a rhetorical device, to find some way to combine the vast area of the West into a coherent thing.  But absconding with the word “City” to mean neither the integrated metropolitan Sydney nor the local government areas does violence to the language and creates confusion where clarity is desired. The word “region” is overused and indeterminate, but surely there is another word here. I like “Quarter” but that implies 4 parts, at least to the purists, or “Borough”, but someone can figure this out. New York and London have ‘boroughs,’ perhaps that is what makes a world-class city.

The idea of three “cities” (or even “boroughs”) may seem innocuous, but if not carefully unpacked and dismembered, it risks becoming like the lines on the map of transport plans decades ago which inevitably get realised, and eventually find itself as yet one more layer of government, or a replacement for existing local government areas and increasing the remoteness of the ever less-local local government.

While there are maps showing these regions, it is unclear what actually differentiates them along the continuum of urban development. Arguably, a park-belt separates the West from the Center, and that would seem an almost natural boundary, but if you look closely at the map, it splits the western city from itself.   The only thing that differentiates the East and the Center is orientation to a primary node of activity (Parramatta or Sydney), and that is so overlapping as to be not very meaningful. Nor is orientation systematically defined, and even if it were, it is subject to change with the economic fortunes of each core. Moreover, there are many activity centers located throughout each of the “cities”.

Activity Centers in Sydney from Greater Sydney Committee
Activity Centers in Sydney from Greater Sydney Committee

While the eastern and central cities of Sydney and Parramatta have core central cities, in addition to numerous local activity clusters,  the West is a core-less cluster of cities.


Planners imply the void will be filled in the west will by the planned Western Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek (on which a lot seems to hang), and the surrounding Aerotropolis of rental car vendors, cheap hotels, sex shops, establishments serving quickly prepared food, and warehouses. An airport is a decidedly non-urban land use, even if the terminal is city-like in perverse ways. The airport is shown looming large on the map, larger than the existing Sydney Airport, which in all but area it will be smaller and less important than for decades to come.

The West, with an airport smack dab in the middle  seems a network or cluster of activity centers more than a single coherent thing deserving the label “city”.


The definitional argument is intimately related to the idea of the “30-minute city” wherein a majority of people (say 70%) have commutes less than 30 minutes. Ensuring people can reach more things in less time is the correct planning goal of accessibility. And today, most people in Sydney have a 30 minute or less one way commute (be careful of means vs. medians here, there is a long tail), but as the city grows, this becomes harder and harder to achieve as people seek out better matching opportunities farther away, and there is more growth away from the center. All else equal, entropy dictates commutes will on average get longer not shorter as metropolitan areas grow. People will adjust their homes and jobs.

For Sydney to remain a 30-minute city, and more importantly, for Western Sydney to achieve this, many more jobs must relocate westward, or be created in the western region. (Or people just stop commuting as much, or transport connections become much faster.) This is one of the points of the plan. If the plan is successful, and jobs do materialise in the west, most Western Sydney residents would not need to commute east for jobs.

Identity: West vs. East

Planning doyenne and the Chief Commissioner of the GSC, Lucy Hughes Turnbull,  said Wednesday November 15 at an Industry Briefing: Planning the future of transport and land use in Greater Sydney and Regional NSW, that  the  Western city comprises “Campbelltown, Liverpool, Penrith, et cetera”.

I would be unsurprised to find those who live in the town of “Et Cetera” view it differently.

To my outsider eyes, the West really seems to me to be a collection of disparate areas that might eventually conurbate into a continuum of suburbia with traditional existing centers as nodes of activity. But is the “West” really the identity people will have? Won’t they say I am from Blacktown, or I am from Sydney instead of I am from Western Sydney (Western City/Aerotropolis/Parkland City) or whatever name wins out? I suspect they will go for local (Blacktown) or global (Sydney) recognition rather than I am from Aerotropolis, or the Western City, or the Parkland City or any other sub-metropolitan, supra-municipal objectifier.

For instance, in American Major League Baseball, the Los Angeles Angels/California Angels/Anaheim Angels eventually became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Not the Orange County Angels, nor the Eastern LA Angels. (And Los Angeles c. 1955 is probably the best American analogy to Sydney, the populations and geographies are similar, with San Francisco c. 1980 next best.) The “Greater Western Sydney” Giants, an Australian-Rules sportsball team, plays in Spotless Stadium at the Olympic Park, which is East of Parramatta. Will they eventually be renamed the Parramatta Giants, or the Sydney Giants of Greater Parramatta/Olympic Park?

Results of Gay Marriage Postal Survey.

Identity matters. As can be seen from the results of the Gay Marriage Plebiscite, people of Western Sydney have, on average, different political opinions and social values from the East, or most of Australia. But these political preferences don’t align cleanly with the Western/Central/Eastern City.

Other Matters: West vs. East

Addressing local needs matters. Housing is less expensive out west, but travel costs are higher since commutes are longer.

Building connectivity matters. The west is much more auto-reliant than the east, and will remain so largely independent of public policy. That’s what the land use dictates. The land use won’t change much, as that’s what the transport system enables. This is largely locked in through a decades long process of mutual co-evolution. Even as they rise with population growth, the densities of the west will remain lower than the east.

The first figure shows three transport hubs (presumably transit hubs, though out west this might not be the case in an important way), that are anchors of an interlocking hub-and-spoke system. These three hubs are identified as the centers of the cities. Well Central Station, is not, despite it’s name, Central to Sydney CBD, it is at the edge. This may evolve over time as the CBD marches south. Parramatta station similarly is at the southern end of the local business district. And I can’t imagine too many people walking around Aerotropolis after exiting the station there. It’s early days at Badgerys Creek, but this is little better than a crayon drawing, and building transit to serve the vast wasteland of an unbuilt airport is likely to be a hard sell when there remain so many existing real needs and areas of much higher transit potential in the eastern parts of Sydney.

Encouraging economic development out west, at the expense of losing some economies of agglomeration in the east, is important for spatial equity and transport, if not efficiency, reasons.

E Pluribus Unum

Arbitrarily dividing Sydney into three (or more) cities doesn’t seem especially helpful, even as a framing device, and results from the kind of remote thinking to persuade distant decision-makers rather than an organic expression of how people self-associate. It’s how marketing and economic development officials think.


Instead the job of a Greater Sydney Commission is not to exacerbate the already existing divisions, and keep the westerners out of the east, but to unify, to forge One City, One Sydney.

* What is a City?

We can start with the etymology. Wiktionary writes:

From Middle English cite, from Old French cité, from Latin cīvitās (citizenry; community; a city with its hinterland), from civis (native; townsman; citizen), from Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European *ḱey- (to lie down, settle; home, family; love; beloved).  …

So a ‘city’ is a community, a place where people settle. It is also larger than a town. The actual dictionary definitions are vague, as are the way people use the words. In the US, a city generally is a legally-defined municipality which is large and has more legal authority than the surrounding unincorporated area, and more than smaller towns or townships. So the more appropriate term might be ‘urban’ area. `Urbs’ is just a Latin word for city:

From Middle French urbain, from Latin urbanus, from urbs (city).

The US Census, which needs to operationalize these things says:

The Census Bureau first defined urban places in reports following the 1880 and 1890 censuses. At that time, the Census Bureau identified as urban any incorporated place that had a minimum population of either 4,000 or 8,000, depending on the report. The Census Bureau adopted the current minimum population threshold of 2,500 for the 1910 Census; any incorporated place that contained at least 2,500 people within its boundaries was considered urban. All territory outside urban places, regardless of population density, was considered rural.

The Census Bureau began identifying densely populated urbanized areas of 50,000 or more population with the 1950 Census, taking into account the increased presence of densely settled suburban development in the vicinity of large cities. Outside urbanized areas, the Census Bureau continued to identify as urban any incorporated place or census designated place of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.

Urbanized areas and urban clusters form the urban cores of metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, respectively. Each metropolitan statistical area will contain at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more people; each micropolitan statistical area will contain at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 and less than 50,000 people. Metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas represent the county-based functional regions associated with urban centers (hence, the generic term “core based statistical areas”).

Other statistical agencies undoubtedly have similar definitions.

A Markov Chain Model of Land Use Change

Recently published:

Minneapolis Aerial
Minneapolis Aerial

The set of models available to predict land use change in urban regions has become increasingly complex in recent years.  Despite their complexity, the predictive power of these models remains relatively weak.  This paper presents an example of an alternative modeling framework based on the concept of a Markov chain.  The model assumes that land use at any given time, which is viewed as a discrete state, can be considered a function of only its previous state. The probability of transition between each pair of states is recorded as an element of a transition probability matrix.  Assuming that this matrix is stationary over time, it can be used to predict future land use distributions from current data.  To illustrate this process, a Markov chain model is estimated for the Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, USA (Twin Cities) metropolitan region.  Using a unique set of historical land use data covering several years between 1958 and 2005, the model is tested using historical data to predict recent conditions, and is then used to forecast the future distribution of land use decades into the future.  We also use the cell-level data set to estimate the fraction of regional land use devoted to transportation facilities, including major highways, airports, and railways. The paper concludes with some comments on the strengths and weaknesses of Markov chains as a land use modeling framework, and suggests some possible extensions of the model.

Thoughts on Transit and Urban Form

Hypothesis: Regular frequent transit service remains feasible even in single family homes in neighborhoods with a modicum of density.

The Land Use

Consider the 1 mile grid landscape that is common in the post-Revolutionary United States due to the Northwest Ordinance and the ease of development. The is roughly the streetcar era land use design.

While there are a variety of ways this grid can be carved up, one common way is to have

  • 10 cross-streets per mile of grid long direction (520′ )
  • 20 cross-streets per mile of grid in short direction (260′ )

This arrangement produces 200 blocks per square mile. The size of each block is:

  • 520′ x 260′ block (center line – center line)
  • 480′ x 240′ block (edge to edge), allowing space for roads.

If houses have a 40’ frontage with 110′ depth ( allowing 20′ for alley?) = 4,400 sq. ft. (~1/10 acre)

Note there are  640 acres per square mile and 43,560 square feet acre per acre.

This spacing gives 12 houses per block face long direction, or 24 houses per block. In this configuration, no houses face the short direction. Obviously this can be adjusted.

If there were only housing, this would give 4,800 houses per square mile

At 2 persons per household (which is definitely on the low side for single family homes, this gives us 9,600 PPSM in single family homes at typical built density. At 5 persons per household, this leads to 24,000 PPSM.

At 5 persons per household, we could increase lot size to 1/4 acre (neglecting roads) and still can get 2,560 houses per square mile  or 12,800 PPSM.

While some space is devoted to schools, parks, retail, commercial, and industrial activity, among other uses, I hope this is persuasive that 10,000 PPSM is feasible over large areas without being Manhattan-like high density. The City of Minneapolis for instance according to the 2010 Census has a density of 7,417 PPSM. At its peak population, it had over 10,000 PPSM.

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.
Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

The Transit

The target density for successful transit is often given as 10,000 persons per square mile (PPSM), as per Zupan and Pushkarev (also discussed here).

If we assume that every person originates lots of short trips (which can be dealt with by walking or biking) and one long trip per day (say going to work), the 10,000 PPSM would generate 10,000 transit trips per square mile. So we have 10,000 Boardings. This is roughly streetcar era demand in cities.

If we space transit routes on the 1/2 mile routes (as was typical of streetcars) both east-west and north-south, with stops where transit routes crossed and half-way between (i.e. 1/4 mile spacing between stops), the area is served by 21 stops. The four stops at the outer corners are shared with 4 other areas, and the 8 non-corner stops at the perimeter are shared with 2 other areas, while 5 stops are internal to the 1 mile square, gives us 12 equivalent dedicated stops for the area.

With 10,000 PPSM and 12 stops, each stop serves 833 people per day. If transit vehicles carry 50 people each, that is 17 full transit vehicles per day. Of course transit vehicles do not generally fill up at one transit stop, and over a 17 hour day, this would be 1 transit vehicle every hour. If instead we wanted service at 10 minute headways, but full vehicles, we would expect each vehicle to fill up 1/6 of its load at each stop (or about 8 passengers per stop). That would be a much higher load factor than generally observed.

The maximum walking distance to a transit stop would be (by Pythagoras SQRT of 0.25^2 + 0.25^2 =) 0.35 miles.

The Car

So what guarantees people will make 1 transit trip per day? If there is no good alternative, this is an easy choice. Today, this depends. The argument for using transit is that in our idealized grid-like city with a grid-like transit system, the transit system is as direct as every other mode, so there is no lost distance due to circuity. The only lost time is the schedule delay (which is a maximum on average of 5 minutes, less if people can time their wait to match the transit vehicle), and the time when the vehicle is stopped (and accelerating and decelerating) boarding and alighting passengers, which we know can be faster if people pre-pay, and the transfer time between vehicles (with a maximum of one transfer in the idealized grid, again with a maximum on average of 5 minutes, less if the routes are timed well). Finally with any transit advantages (e.g. signal timing priority, exclusive lane or stopping in lane, as opposed to weaving into stops) transit can recover some of the time lost vis-a-vis the automobile.


Where transit is better (faster, cheaper) than alternatives, and frequent enough, people will use it in large numbers. This is observed daily in large cities. Thus it must be feasible to obtain such faster, cheaper, frequent enough service levels. In most places in the US, the transit service and ridership is not there. Let’s work through an example.

For a five mile trip, there will be about 20 stops at 1/4 mile stop spacing. If each stop results in 30 seconds lost time (2-3 seconds per boarding plus acceleration/deceleration), that is 10 minutes of time lost there.  This will generally be slower than an automobile, even with  stop signs or red lights every 1/4 mile, as the time spent stop at the stop will be less than for transit, even with pre-payment. (Unless the auto is stuck behind a transit vehicle and cannot pass).

Initial schedule delay is 5 minutes assuming random arrivals.

Walk access time of (let’s say 1/2 of 0.35 miles or 0.18 miles at 3 miles per hour) is about 4 minutes. This is obviously farther than from the front door to a parked car at the home end. Destination walk egress time is probably similar  for most people. For transit to downtown, lower for transit (and higher for the parked car).

Transfer time is also non-trivial, and can be as high as another 5 minutes if it is effectively uncoordinated.

So now even with our idealized transit system we have lost something like 10+5+4+5+4 minutes or 28 minutes compared with the car for a 5 mile trip. At a value of time of $15/hour ($0.25/minute) this is the equivalent of $7. If the transit fare is $2, and the cost of gas (at $5/gallon and 25 miles per gallon) is $1 (not even considering carpooling), net additional out-of-pocket cost for transit is now the equivalent of $8. Of course, vehicle ownership ($10-$20/day) can be avoided, as can parking charges. We are not considering externalities, and other costs of vehicles that are not internalized.

The Express

We can make transit faster with express routes on limited access rights-of-way. If demand is high enough, we can make transit go faster, or have an even higher frequency, and stop less often. One disadvantage of express routes is a longer access/egress time (they can’t be spaced as close together if they are to achieve economies of scale, so they are on the mile instead of 1/2 mile spacing at best (as per London)). If that access and/or egress is by transit itself, that imposes additional scheduling time penalties. We can compensate because now our land use changes to take advantage of the express services. At express stations, densities rise. Apartments replace single-family homes. We can also give transit a higher frequency. Express buses and commuter trains often have low frequencies, while modern or modernized subways may have one train every 2 minutes or better. So if we increase the highest distance to a station for 1 mile spacing between stations and 1 mile between routes (so every station is a transfer), the walk access time is 1/2 of the maximum time of SQRT (0.5^2+0.5^2) = 0.71 or 0.35 miles. At 3 mph this is a walk time of  7.1 minutes on each end.

For a 5 mile trip with transfer Our lost time is 2.5 (30 seconds [per stop * 5 stops]) + 1 (schedule delay) + 7 (access) + 1 (transfer delay) + 7 (egress time) = 18.5 minutes. This is less than the local transit service above, and can be reduced for people who live closer to the station rather than spread out uniformly across the landscape. If we have higher travel speeds than auto (let’s say averaging 45 mph while in motion on exclusive right-of-way instead of 30 on surface streets), for a 5 mile trip the express transit time is 6.67 minutes instead of 10 minutes. But this 3.33 minute savings does not outweigh the lost delays due to access and waiting costs. This does not even begin to consider the additional costs of operating express vs. local services, or revenues from the service.

To reduce transportation costs with transit-like services, we can arrange cities linearly, thereby eliminating transfers and reducing access costs. This wastes accessibility for non-transit modes. So optimal urban form depends on the technology you are optimizing for. In a city where driving is perceived to cost $1/trip, and it saves between 18 and 28 minutes per trip, it is no wonder the automobile is the dominant mode for long distance trips even in historically transit advantageous places. Changing that requires changing the perceived (and real) cost of driving for drivers, as there is little that can be done on the transit supply side which will make a significant difference in the absence of that for most markets.

In dense areas, the market takes care of that, with expensive parking. In low density areas, there is enough room for everyone’s car without charging.


I believe systematically re-arranging existing cities for transit (or any mode) is putting the cart before the horse. Transportation should serve activities, and while transportation and land use co-evolve, that co-evolution is slow (over decades) and should be adaptable to alternatives.


One word – Plasticity

One word - Plastics

These are based on my brief closing comments at the WSTLUR conference in Delft.

We heard at the conference from two of the keynote speakers that “The Future is Uncertain”. While I don’t know if this is more true than before, it is certainly true. The question is: “How does one deal with uncertainty?”

One word - Plastics
One word – Plastics

In the Mike Nichols film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character (Benjamin Braddock) is advised by Mr. McGuire about the future “One word – plastics“. This advice was not too bad for 1968.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuirePlastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?



I will rephrase that for the transportation and land use context: “One word – Plasticity”.

Plasticity is defined as the ability to change in response to changes in the environment. This may be good or bad (for instance, we might not want plastic deformation in structures). However, since we cannot accurately forecast, and the long-term is unpredictable, we need Transportation-Land Use designs which are adaptable – able to change function over time, and flexible – able to do many things at once.

How do we do this?

I don’t have answers, just challenges.

Now we focus on built environment, embedded infrastructure, and long-lasting constructs, which is essentially the definition of anti-plasticity.

Developing and evaluating new plastic, adaptable, and flexible designs for Transportation – Land Use systems, I believe, is the key research and policy question in our field going forward.

Does BRT have Economic Development Effects?

In a recent post on Streets.MN, I asked if Streetcars had economic development effects, and concluded we have no evidence to date.

In contrast, for Bus Rapid Transit systems, there is lots of peer-reviewed evidence, though not as much as we might like.

First, obviously the nature of the impacts depends on what kind of BRT you are talking about. Broadly, in the Twin Cities we divide systems into freeway-based BRT systems with stations, and arterial-based BRT systems with stops. The differences are that stations are more elaborate than stops, and less frequent. Worldwide, systems are hybrids.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

A 2008 review: Bus rapid transit systems: a comparative assessment by David Hensher and Tom Golob found wide variations in the types of BRT across many dimensions (speed, construction costs, ridership, subsidies, etc.) with some systems offering a peak headway of well better than 1 bus per minute, while others were at 10 minutes between buses.

BRT thus has many distinguishing characteristics, ITDP recently developed a ranking system, the BRT standard. The categories for which points are awarded in BRT Basics are:

  • Busway alignment: 7 points
  • Dedicated right-of-way: 7 points
  • Off-board fare collection: 7 points
  • Intersection treatments: 6 points
  • Platform-level boarding: 6 points

The standard scorecard is more complicated, and includes many other factors as well. The best systems are rated Gold, and so on. I don’t agree with all of the points or categories, but this is a good place to start. The US and Canadian systems (Los Angeles, Eugene, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Ottawa) tend to fall into the Bronze Category, though Cleveland’s Health Line makes Silver (appropriate given the color of the buses and its former name “The Silver Line).

[I have not scored the University of Minnesota Transitway (which may or may not be considered BRT (I would, wikipedia is mixed on the matter)), or the Red Line, which were not ranked (but would make a good term paper for a transportation class).]

As many people worry, something can be pitched as a high-quality service, and then whittled down by the time of deployment, or afterwards to save costs. Frankly, this can happen with any technology, just look at what has happened to service frequencies on the Phoenix LRT, which are since 2010 12 minutes, but were 10 minutes at opening in 2008). Clearly as BRT is developed and deployed, this needs to be monitored. But this is true for any service with net ongoing operating costs that can be reduced over time.

Some findings from the peer-reviewed literature are below (sadly some of the papers are behind paywalls, let me know if you wants). Most, but not all of the evidence is favorable to measurable economic development impacts, clearly every system is unique:

  • Bus rapid transit impacts on land uses and land values in Seoul, Korea by Robert Cervero and Chang Deok Kang. “Multilevel models reveal BRT improvements prompted property owners to convert single-family residences to higher density apartments and condominiums. Land price premiums of up to 10% were estimated for residences within 300 m of BRT stops and more than 25% for retail and other non-residential uses over a smaller impact zone of 150 m.”
  • Redistributive effects of bus rapid transit (BRT) on development patterns and property values in Seoul, Korea by Myung-Jin Jin. This study uses simulation, rather than empirical evidence, so keep that in mind. “First, Seoul’s BRT contributes to increased development density in urban centers, acting as a centripetal force to attract firms from the suburbs into urban cores and supporting arguments for Smart Growth proponents. Second, unlike its redistributive effects on nonresidential activities, the BRT has a limited effect on the redistribution of residential activities, implying that residential locations are less sensitive to accessibility improvements made by the BRT than are nonresidential locations. Third, reflecting the transferred space demands from the suburbs to the urban cores, the CBD reaps the highest property value gains, while all of the outer ring zones suffer from reduced property values.”
  • The impact of Bus Rapid Transit on location choice of creative industries and employment density in Seoul, Korea by Chang Deok Kang. “[T]he BRT system is the favorable component for the location of creative industries and service sectors within 500 meters of BRT-bus stops. In addition, the BRT operation increases the employment density within the same distance to the bus stops by 54%.”
  • The Impact of Bus Rapid Transit on Land Development: A Case Study of Beijing, China by
    Taotao Deng and John D. Nelson. “The statistical analysis suggests that accessibility advantage conferred by BRT is capitalized into higher property price. The average price of apartments adjacent to a BRT station has gained a relatively faster increase than those not served by the BRT system. The capitalization effect mostly occurs after the full operation of BRT, and is more evident over time and particularly observed in areas which previously lack alternative mobility opportunity.”
  • Value of accessibility to Bogota’s bus rapid transit system by Daniel Rodriguez and Felipe Targa. “Results suggest that for every 5 min of additional walking time to a BRT station, the rental price of a property decreases by between 6.8 and 9.3%, after controlling for structural characteristics, neighbourhood attributes and proximity to the BRT corridor. “
  • Capitalization of BRT network expansions effects into prices of non-expansion areas by Daniel Rodriguez and Carlos Mojica. “Properties [in Bogota] offered during the year the extension was inaugurated and in subsequent years have asking prices that are between 13% and 14% higher than prices for properties in the control area, after adjusting for structural, neigh- borhood and regional accessibility characteristics of each property. “
  • Walking accessibility to bus rapid transit: Does it affect property values? The case of Bogota ́, Colombia by Ramon Munoz-Raskin . “The main results showed that, with respect to the value of properties in relation to proximity, the housing market places value premiums on the properties in the immediate walking proximity of feeder lines. The analysis by socio-economic strata showed that middle-income properties were valued more if they fell closer to the system, while there were opposite results for low-income housing. Finally, analysis across time reflects slight average annual increases in property values correlated with the implementation of the system in two specific areas analyzed.”
  • Recent developments in bus rapid transit: a review of the literature by Taotao Deng and John D. Nelson. ” In common with other forms of mass transit, a full‐featured BRT has the potential to offer significant effects on land development; the literature review also indicates that more work is needed to investigate this.” (The general cry of the academic – more research is necessary).

All of this is consistent with general observations and what theory would predict about accessibility improvements. A transportation system that adds to accessibility in a significant way warrants a premium in the prices people are willing to pay to take advantage of it.

Five Rules for Vital Streets | streets.mn

Now at streets.mn Five Rules for Vital Streets: “There are three seeds:

Five Rules for Vital Streets

Streets are vital when there is the feeling that there is something going on, of being where the action is. Successful places have vitality. By definition, dead places don’t. We don’t want too much vitality everywhere (I don’t want it on my street after 9 pm) and probably can’t support it. But surely we could have more active places then we do now with a better location of activities.We drive to places we can walk around, rather than walk around our own neighborhood, unless we happen to live in a place with vitality.Istanbul 2004 - 19Why do we want to walk around? Because there are multiple things to do: find food, browse books, hear music, entice the intellect, watch people, stimulate the senses. This concentration of activities only happens because of the crowds around, and the crowds only gather because of the concentration. More begets more.

These are ‘economies of agglomeration’ as the economists might say or perhaps ‘network effects’. But they allow for the spontaneous walk-in business rather than the planned trip.

Many businesses are unlikely to attract spontaneous walk-ins, for instance vacuum cleaner repairs, [I don’t normally walk around with a vacuum cleaner on the hope I will find a repair shop] and thus lose little by not being located in the center of action and save much on rent. There are limits to the value of agglomeration.

Some restaurants are so good, they require a reservation, and thus there is little spill-in traffic. But other businesses, by saving on rent, are foregoing additional business. Moreover, those businesses are denying potential spillover traffic to their would-be neighbors. It is a calculation that proprietors must do for themselves, but there is a coordination function that a good entrepreneur can serve, matching businesses that attract walk-ins with compatible stores, and maybe subsidizing (lowering the rent for) those that generate more spill-over traffic than they attract.

There are three seeds:

  • A concentration of people (customers, though they need not be spending money, that helps)
  • A concentration of stuff (suppliers, who need not be selling)
  • An environment that encourages people to spend time doing stuff (marketplace)

People concentrate for a variety of reasons – to exploit the material resources of the earth, to have safety in numbers, to find a pool of potential mates, or simply because it is at the intersections of routes between two other places. These intersections (nodes in transportation lingo), create opportunities.

In the streetcar era, people might change lines at a node, and those pedestrians would contribute to the street life necessary to support new businesses. In the highway era the scale changed, and nodes are the interchanges of freeways. Businesses, and especially shopping malls, take advantage of these points of high accessibility. But the shopping mall is now clearly the destination, not a side-product of a transfer point in the same way street-car corners were. Some further assertions about human nature:

  • People like pleasant climates – dry, not too hot, not too cold, clean air, not too loud.
  • People want to feel safe – they don’t want a car careening out of control disturbing their sidewalk café meal, they don’t want to think they will get run over crossing the street.
  • People are lazy – they don’t want to walk too far to get where they are going. If they are driving, they want easy convenient parking near their destination. They like to cross the street mid-block and don’t want to have to walk to intersections.
  • People are cheap – they don’t want to pay for that easy convenient parking, they prefer lower to higher prices for the same good.

The last two be summarized by the idea that “People take the path of least resistance”.


Observing cities around the world with an informed, but casual analysis leads me to assert some rules about the environment that lead to vitality or vibrancy.

  1. Buildings on the sidewalk – vibrant areas have buildings that abut sidewalks with not large gaps between the building and the walk. The density of activity is necessarily reduced by space between building and path (and thus other buildings).
  2. Sidewalks on the street – to have vitality, sidewalks must abut the street, or *be* the street in pedestrian only areas. Pedestrian only areas can work, and anyone who says otherwise has other interests at heart. This does not mean that they will work, but given the right environment, people would prefer to shop without having to look out for motorized vehicles.
  3. Streets move slowly – fast streets make pedestrians feel unsafe, and thus reduces the benefits of being on the sidewalk. Ideally streets are moving at pedestrian speed in the pedestrian area. Of course streets leading to the pedestrian area move faster, or people could not get there. One-way streets may not be inherently problematic, but one-way streets are generally that way to move more vehicle traffic faster through the area, which is the opposite goal of moving pedestrians between buildings within the area. On the other hand, one-way streets are easier to cross.
  4. Vehicle space on the street is minimal – wide streets increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach other activities. Narrow streets give access to more stuff in less time. Hence the reason many enclosed shopping malls work better than many shopping streets is the density of stuff is fairly tight.
  5. Opportunities to explore just around the corner – hidden (pleasant) surprises are one of the things that make cities interesting to be in, if I go around this corner what will I discover. The same opportunities do not exist in an enclosed shopping mall, where everything is pre-mapped and tightly controlled, and I know each “block” ends at a parking ramp. Hidden unpleasant surprises however are one of the things that can kill a city, I don’t want to experience dread when I walk down an alley attached to my favorite shopping street.

This set of rules is by no means complete, but rules like these created street life in streetcar era places, and they create vitality in the better shopping malls.

What other rules do you have?

What are the most and least vital shopping areas in Minnesota?

Updated from a Transportationist post: July 12, 2007.

Land Developability


Guangqing Chi has a new website devoted to Land Developability:

“Land developability is a measure of land availability for future conversion and development in a geographic entity, such as a state, a county, a city, a census tract, or other geographically aggregated units. The land developability index is generated using spatial overlay methods based on data layers of surface water, wetland, federal/state-owned land, Indian reservation, built-up land, and steep slope, which are all seen as undevelopable. The land developability index can be used for regression modeling when land use and development is a consideration of an analysis, for detecting potentials for land conversion and development, and for predicting the direction of future land use and development.”

This looks like a very useful piece of research data infrastructure.