Academics and Research

Faculty and students in geography department study transit-oriented development

Eric Boschmann, left, and Andrew Goetz co-authored a new study on transit-oriented development in Denver. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Eric Boschmann, left, and Andrew Goetz co-authored a new study on transit-oriented development in Denver. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

With four new light- and commuter-rail lines scheduled to debut in 2016, the Denver metropolitan area can look forward to lots of TOD in the years to come. TOD — that’s shorthand for transit-oriented development — promises mixed-use, high-density developments concentrated around bus and rail stations.

Before ground breaks on any new TODs, however, planners and developers might want to review a recent study from a faculty-student research team in DU’s Department of Geography and the Environment. Their findings challenge conventional thinking about just what kind of development prompts people to ditch their cars and hop aboard a bus or train.

“In the past,” says associate professor and study co-author Eric Boschmann, “there has been much emphasis on the planning idea that, ‘Let’s make sure that residents have access to the rail lines.’ If the [rail] lines are closer to their houses, then, the theory is, they’ll use those lines to get to work or to make personal trips.

“But what this research does is look at it the other way and ask this question: Is it more effective to make sure that rail transit is centered around workplaces?”

According to the study — co-authored by geography department chair Andrew Goetz, a nationally recognized expert on transportation infrastructure, and Gregory Kwoka, who worked on the project while a master’s student — the answer is a resounding yes. That said, Boschmann cautions, the trio’s research represents just one study of a single light-rail system.

Nonetheless, study findings show that, as expected, participants who both live and work near transit stations are the most likely to use rail to commute to work. But commuters working near light rail report much stronger transit commute habits than those living near it.

And that suggests that, to date, developers may have gotten TOD slightly wrong. “As residents, we see that’s what’s being built [in most Denver-area TODs]: condos or apartments with retail space for coffee shops and yoga studios,” Boschmann says. Office buildings, meanwhile, appear to be less of a priority.

The study is particularly timely given that RTD is nearing completion on its voter-approved FasTracks expansion plan, which, by project’s end, will have introduced 122 miles of new rail to Denver’s existing inventory. With those new lines come 57 new transit stops, each a potential site for TOD. What’s more, other light rail stations are candidates for revitalization, including the University station near DU. In fact, a re-imagined station is expected to play a prominent role in realizing DU’s new strategic plan, which calls for opening the campus and its resources to the larger Denver community.

The research team’s other findings suggest that light rail can play a bigger-than-expected role in reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) within an urban area. After all, transit-using commuters won’t be taking their lunch breaks to drive to a new restaurant or to the closest branch bank.

“People who commute to work by transit, half of their personal trips are by non-car mode,” Boschmann says. “So they might take the rail to work and back and then when they get home, 50 percent of their trips will be by car. But if you drive to work, 90 percent of your personal trips will be by car.”

Kwoka — who now works for the Maryland-based Wilson T. Ballard Co., a civil and structural engineering firm that consults on transportation and other projects — attributes this, in part, to the fact that commuting by rail or bus demystifies the transit experience.

“Once you develop a certain comfort level with using transit, you might be more likely to use it if it takes you to a park or restaurant or someplace else you would like to go,” he explains, adding that “if work places can be concentrated closer to light rail spaces, I think it could spur some changes in personal travel behaviors as well.”

The study, which relied on data from a 2009 travel-behavior survey in the metro area, was first published at Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, one of the top journals in the field. In addition, the study was reported on by CityLab, a webmagazine hosted by The Atlantic and a go-to site for urbanists.

Kwoka, Boschmann and Goetz hope that the study spurs further research into commuter behavior, noting that their findings may not apply in other markets. Even so, Goetz notes, the information should be of interest across the nation, given that light rail has been introduced to numerous metropolitan areas, even some once regarded as unlikely candidates for serious transit investment.

“If you look at what is happening, there’s increasing investment in building rail in a number of cities, including some surprising choices like Dallas, Houston and Phoenix — big sprawl cities that you never thought would invest in building rail transit,” Goetz says.

As a transit proponent, Goetz is encouraged by Denver’s commitment to TOD, considering it “a sign that having access to rail transit is seen as a real positive in terms of both residential land use and employment activity.”






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