Award-Winning Transit-Oriented Development May Never Get Transit

Before any transit was built at King Farm in Rockville, Maryland, it was already held up as an example of how to implement transit oriented development in an outer-ring suburb. High-density and mixed-use, it was supposed to be centered around a light-rail line about 20 miles outside of D.C. The project design was so promising it was given an award by the Congress for the New Urbanism and praised by the EPA’s Smart Growth office.

This median was to be the site of light rail. Photo: Switchboard at NRDC

But as construction on the transit line is set to begin, NIMBYism is rearing its myopic head. A campaign has emerged from residents to route the transit around the community of about 3,200 homes. Residents have stated that the transit line would have “no benefits” and would be “incredibly disruptive.” Last month, the Rockville City Council validated this point of view, voting 4-1 to sever the transit connection to the community.

Kaid Benfield at the NRDC’s Switchboard blog laments the fashion in which such a promising project went so wrong:

See, the thing is, we need the transit to make these big suburban developments work for the larger region’s traffic and for the environment. King Farm is not an inner suburb. It’s about 10 miles beyond the Capital Beltway and 21.6 miles from NRDC’s downtown DC office, according to Google Maps.  There’s a shuttle to the Metro station, another thing the developer did right, but that only helps if you’re going where the Red Line goes, basically only south from the station since it’s the end of the line.

For those who live, work or shop along its route, the Transitway will not only make it easier to reach the Metro (or to reach King Farm from the Metro) at more times during the day but also run along more of an east-west route, linking its customers to additional centers of employment and activity. A majority of King Farm residents and visitors will probably still drive. But that’s OK, because even small mode shifts make a difference for the environment and, over time, ridership grows as newcomers who are attracted by the transit move in to the development; that’s how it works.

But, as to King Farm, I think there’s a lesson here. “Transit-oriented” or “transit-ready” may not mean squat if the transit isn’t fully committed.  If the line isn’t built through the development, King Farm will still be a lot better than the sprawl that surrounds it, but it won’t be all that we said it would when we were passing out those awards.  And, next time we give out awards, we should be more careful with our praise.

Benfield writes that it’s now up to the governor of Maryland to make the final determination about the transit line.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Human Transit wonders if “durability” might have more mainstream appeal than the term “sustainability.” Bike Deleware deplores the sad conditions at the state’s sidewalks and bus stops, predicting that due to budget constraints, the situation won’t improve soon. And Sharable.net says the the Internet has helped free Americans from tying their identities to the automobile.