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The challenge of integrating transit systems and land use planning

I’ve traveled across the US and Canada and I’m always fascinated to see how pervasive some very basic mistakes are when it comes to integrating transit systems. Our awareness of these ill-advised practices allows us to be advocates for better solutions.

When ‘We’ve Always Done It That Way’ Doesn’t Work

At the most basic level it is very common for the design and engineering of transit systems (particularly LRT and BRT) to be done separately and first, and then the land use planners and urban designers are called in to create vibrant, compact, walkable, mixed use neighborhoods, or transit oriented development (TOD). Of course the corridor is already chosen and the station areas determined and the planners are left to make the best of the situation.

Unfortunately the corridor selection and station area locations are frequently made based on cost to acquire and ease of construction, or in some cases the reuse of existing freight rail lines. These are rational criteria but the land is often cheaper because it is industrial or developed with lower valued uses, which are both far away from existing residential areas and employment centers.

In my home, the Twin Cities, much is made of our integrated approach to planning for transit and land use. The truth is that many of our recent corridors were either built or at the preliminary engineering stage before attention was turned toward TOD. At this point there were opportunities lost that even the most talented land planners and urban designers couldn’t recover.

Showing Our Clients Better & More Integrated Approaches

At Stantec we have transit system planning, engineering, construction, and even operational experience. We also have great talent for land use planning, urban design, and place-making but we too get hired to do specific pieces of the overall transit and land use puzzle. The good news is that team members across our company are aware of this issue and we are showing our clients better and more integrated approaches.

Recently my team in Minnesota completed a “pre-planning study” for the proposed Bottineau LRT corridor. We engaged the very diverse communities along the corridor and completed typologies and development assessments for the station areas long before preliminary engineering. Far from complicating preliminary engineering, this work will actually make it much easier and efficient for that work to follow. The truth is that this integrated approach leads to better outcomes for both the systems and the communities they serve.

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