Back in 1995, the FTA asked transit advocates Robert Cervero (of the UC Berkeley planning school) and Samuel Seskins (of Parsons Brinckerhoff) whether transit let to changes in urban form. After reviewing the literature, they concluded that “Urban rail transit investments rarely “create” new growth, but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment” (page 3). They added that this “redistribution” mainly favored central city downtowns at the expense of the suburbs.
I’ve been citing that study as definitive for many years, but recently someone asked me if there is anything more recent. As a matter of fact, there is.
In 2010, Brookings published Urban and Regional Policy and Its Effects (volume 3), which included a paper by USC planning professor Genevieve Giuliano and one of her colleagues that addressed the same question. Based on “more than three decades of research,” they “found little evidence that transit investment has had significant impacts on urban structure.”
Even more recently, the latest edition of the University of California’s Access magazine includes a report by UCLA urban planning professor Matthew Drennan and New York University planning professor Charles Brecher asking, “can public transportation increase economic efficiency?” “In theory, public investments in mass transit can make urban economies more efficient by enhancing employersâ€™ access to a larger labor pool at lower transport costs,” they say. But, the Antiplanner would say, that theory would only be valid if the new transit is faster, more convenient, and/or less expensive than existing transportation–which is almost never true.
The results of the research by the authors of this paper support this notion. “Our analysis did not show that expanding public transit would achieve large gains in economic efficiency,” Drennan and Brecher say. “Even in cities with a high concentration of office space in the CBD, we estimate that increasing transit ridership by 10 percent will increase office rents by no more than 0.5 percent. For all other cities, we estimate that increasing transit ridership will have no effect on office rents.”
Cervero and one of his grad students also have an article in Access that attempts to calculate the minimum-density thresholds needed to make light- and heavy-rail cost-effective. While some may quarrel with their definition of “cost-effective,” they conclude that “many recent [rail transit] investments have failed” to be cost-effective because they were built in areas that weren’t dense enough to support them.
So why do so many urban leaders seem to believe that anything from streetcars on up will lead developers to spend billions on urban redevelopment? Or, as the Antiplanner asked recently, do these “officials know that they’ll have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get . . . redevelopment they think will come from” rail transit, “or are they just building it because the federal government agreed to pay X percent and they don’t want to lose that federal funding?”