Initial Thoughts on the ITDP Study

The transportation corner of the internet has been abuzz for the last week over the new study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

The report compares the amount of development catalyzed by a variety of transit projects, including Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit and Streetcar – and looks at the ratio between capital investment in the transit system and the amount of development. It reaches the somewhat surprising conclusion that the best return on investment was from the Cleveland HealthLine BRT system.

HealthLine is compared against Portland’s own Blue Line MAX. While the Blue Line has a higher total development amount, the capital investment in transit is also much higher.

Portland Streetcar fares well with the third-highest return on investment.

The report suggests several conclusions about what makes for successful development along a transit line:

  • Run the line through a strong or emerging real estate market area
  • Make sure the line runs through the downtown district
  • Ensure that there are complementary government policies and programs that support development (zoning, comprehensive planning, investment tools, etc.)

These all make sense to me.

The startling conclusion the report reaches however is that the type and quality of transit matter very little:

“Our analysis found no correlation between the type of transit investment and the level of TOD investment. LRTs, BRTs, and streetcars all led to similar TOD investment outcomes under similar conditions.”

“The quality of the transit system investment matters, but only marginally. The very strong TOD impacts in both the silver-standard Cleveland HealthLine BRT and the silver-standard Blue Line LRT (Emerging land markets with Strong government TOD support) outperformed the TOD impacts of the below-basic BRT systems in Strong land markets with Strong government support (Kansas City Main Street MAX, Seattle SLU Streetcar, Portland Streetcar). This is the only clear indication that a higher-quality transit investment helped leverage more TOD impacts.”

The report has a methodology for evaluating the transit in term of “BRT Standard” equivalents, based on an elaborate scoring system, where Curatiba is Gold. The Cleveland HealthLine and our Blue Line are both rated Silver (there are no Gold systems in North America) while Eugene’s EmX is rated Bronze. Portland Streetcar is considered “below basic” (I’m hurt).

If you’re wondering about the choice of “BRT Standard” units as the scoring mechanism, keep in mind that WikiPedia indicates that ITDP “focuses primarily on developing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.”

The reactions from different quarters have been interesting to watch:

So what do I think?

Fundamentally I agree with the idea that a combination of factors need to come together to stimulate development. But I can’t accept that the nature of transit doesn’t have significant impact.

Unfortunately, the report’s methodology (at least as reported) is not rigorous. An academic analysis of the same issues would include things like correlation coefficients, etc. We don’t have anything like that kind of quantitative analysis  here. And I suspect others are going to fact check a lot of details in the report.

I think the report suffers from the same “transit is about long trips” bias that imbues much of the criticism of Streetcar. Many of the reasons Streetcar scored “below basic” are related to not making an effort to support long, fast trips (but at the same time, Streetcar scores very favorably when compared on a riders/mile metric). For those of us working to create sustainable urban environments that rely more on short trips, Streetcar is a smashing success. I do agree with the report’s suggestion that Streetcar couldn’t work if there were not complimentary transit available for trips to other areas.

Fundamentally, the “type/qualify of transit doesn’t matter much” conclusion can’t be correct. My own hypothesis would be that what DOES matter about transit is the commitment of infrastructure in fixed locations that developers know won’t move anytime soon (permanence). Rails definitely serve that function, but it may well be that investment in BRT stations (the report describes “iconic” stations on the Cleveland HealthLine) and dedicated right-of-way is effective as well. Certainly here in Portland a number of folks have posed the question of whether catenary wires for electric trolley buses would have a similar effect. I hope at some point we see a rigorous study that illuminates this debate.


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