The Future Arrives by Train

Reports from the Field by • 09/30

Event: Greening the Iron Ribbon: Redefining the Northeast Corridor
Location: NYU Kimmel Center, 09.16.08
Keynote: Eugenie Birch, FAICP — Co-Director, Penn Institute for Urban Research and Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research, University of Pennsylvania
Introductions: James McCullar, FAIA — AIANY 2008 President; Allison C. de Cerreño, PhD — Director, NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management; Robert D. Yaro — President, Regional Plan Association (RPA); Donald Burns, AICP — President-elect, American Planning Association (APA) New York Metro Chapter
Speakers: Along the Corridor: Center City Transit Oriented Development: Mark Kocent, AIA, AICP — Principal Planner, Office of University Architect, University of Pennsylvania; Daniel Baudouin, AICP — Executive Director, Providence Foundation; Along the Line: Between the Stops: Tom Suozzi — Nassau County Executive; Michael Kearney — Director of Design, JBG Properties; David Dixon, FAIA — Principal, Goody Clancy; The World View: Lessons Learned from Beyond: Donald Burns, AICP — President-elect, American Planning Association (APA) New York Metro Chapter; Mustafa Abadan, FAIA — Urban Design, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Craig Schwitter, PE — Buro Happold; Respondents Panel: Petra Todorovich — Director, America 2050, RPA; Martin Tillman — Associate, Steer Davies Gleave; Ernest Tollerson — Director for Policy and Media Relations, Metropolitan Transit Authority
Moderators: Ernest Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA (moderator, Along the Corridor); Mark Strauss, FAIA, AICP, LEED AP (moderator, Along the Line); Lance Jay Brown, FAIA (moderator, The World View); Mark Ginsberg FAIA, LEED AP (moderator, Respondents Panel)
Organizers: AIANY; NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management; Regional Plan Association (RPA)
Sponsors: AIANY; NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and Wagner Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems; RPA; APA Metro Chapter; ULI NY District Council; Boston Society of Architects; AIA Philadelphia Chapter; AIA Washington Chapter

Amtrak rail lines cut through the suburbs of Stamford, CT.

Courtesy Google Earth

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is not just a green solution; it is a logical answer to sprawl, and a well-timed response to recent fossil-fuel price shocks. Craig Schwitter, PE, of Buro Happold, articulated the symposium’s consensus: regardless of improvements in station design and efficiency, “getting more people to use mass transit will take a bigger chunk out of our carbon use than anything [else] we’ve talked about.” Presentations of urban-reanimation success stories in Philadelphia, Providence, metropolitan Washington, and overseas showed how appropriate incentives for developers are producing demonstrable results in the forms of mixed-use TOD and infrastructure improvements.

Mode shifting is under way: Petra Todorovich, the director of America 2050 at the Regional Plan Association (RPA), cited Amtrak data claiming that the rail-to-air split among NY-D.C. travelers has reached the highest rail percentage to date. The rising downsides of auto dependence could signal the resurgence of passenger rail, at least between Boston and D.C. However, there’s a gap between recognizing the economic and ecological strengths of the rail-ready northeast and convincing regional and federal policy makers to strengthen and integrate America’s rail system. With a capsule history of the region’s development-transit relationship, keynote speaker Eugenie Birch, FAICP, spotlighted a few notable victories in planning and restoration despite chronic underfunding for Amtrak. (The problem persists: Sen. Tom Coburn [R-OK] is currently procedurally withholding $11 billion in Amtrak support, obstructing majorities in congress as well as rail advocate groups.)

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi outlined various plans to build a “New Suburbia,” staving off the decline of low-density areas into “slumburbs” (as defined by Brookings Institution reporter Christopher Leinberger). Proposals include incentives for high-skill industries, arts- and entertainment-based “cool downtowns” aimed at attracting both young-adult and empty-nester populations, and strategically placed interventions such as greenways and light rails. But he also spoke starkly about the cultural factors that drove many Long Islanders there in the first place — they dislike cities and their residents. Many are untroubled by segregation and resist any development that urbanizes their space.

Recounting a conversation with NYU President John Sexton about how major cities are centered economically on particular industries, such as NYC’s massive FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate), Suozzi asserted that the economic future belongs not to FIRE but to ICE: ideas, culture, and education. Still, he takes suburbanites’ anti-urbanism as an ideological immovable object, claiming that most of his constituents would view this conference as heresy. He also condemned the subsidies that redistribute wealth toward cheap and wasteful development approaches, thus locking many regions into transport monocultures. The tax system, he noted, is biased against the very regions with the best-developed transit networks. Until the northeast can stem this sprawlward cash flow, we are effectively “subsidizing our own demise,” he contended. In response, MTA’s Ernest Tollerson was more optimistic: “This region has the intellectual capital, the financial capital, and the social capital to do it on its own.”

The revival of rail and the spread of TOD are dependent on design solutions, political will, and ingrained beliefs on all scales. Ernest Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA, considering the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts to foster transit habits among employees as it expands along the Schuylkill River, emphasized that mass walking-distance preferences are a function of the quality of pedestrians’ experience, and thus of design. British planner Martin Tillman noted that standard preferences remain just 400 yards to a bus and 800 yards to a rail station, and less in harsh climates. Panelists stressed that to catch up with France, China, the U.K., and other nations, America needs to change some of its core beliefs about transportation. The U.S. needs to integrate two governing factors: funding and organizational coordination (Istanbul’s new Bosporus Straits rail tunnel, described by SOM’s Mustafa Abadan, FAIA, may allow single-seat travel from Europe to Asia before riders can take a comparable trip from Long Island to New Jersey), and grassroots assumptions about different transit modes’ purposes and implications.

History offers grounds for hope, even amid financial collapse. AIANY 2008 President Jim McCullar, FAIA, mentioned infrastructure programs of the New Deal as a precedent — perhaps underscoring Governor David Paterson’s commitment, voiced at last week’s Building Congress forum, to completing Moynihan Station. As McCullar’s reminiscence of growing up in a small rail-connected Texas town implied, Americans’ view of the future would benefit from a look back at what railroads meant in the past.

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