An integrated approach to transit system evolution

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About the project

Recent transformational trends are changing the way we think about transportation and land use interaction in cities. On the one hand, technological innovations appear to be promoting rapid and potentially disruptive changes in transportation infrastructure and services. This includes the rise of new electric mobility modes and mobility service providers offering ride-hailing, carpooling, bike-sharing and other means of transportation. Looking ahead, connected and autonomous vehicles and highly integrated Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) platforms also stand to reshape how we travel. Other ongoing and emerging trends are also shaping the way we think about transportation and land use. Early evidence suggests the global COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered travel behaviour and settlement patterns in many communities.

This knowledge synthesis project provides an up-to-date perspective on the transportation-land use system and the role of public transit within it. To do so, we first revisit the core works that inform the ways in which we think about the transportation-land use connection in cities. Second, we review recent literature on new transportation technologies and trends associated with the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on how they have changed, and may potentially change, the transportation-land use connection. Third, we complete the synthesis of previous works through a reinterpretation of the transportation-land use connection through the lens of new technology to provide a conceptual basis for more integrated systems planning. In addition to the review activities, the project benefits from the co-creation of knowledge facilitated through three workshops with public, private and not-for-profit sector stakeholders.

Key findings

Compared to previous research into the transportation-land use connection, our reinterpreted system is rooted in an activity-based approach, generalizes the transportation system around mobility services and incorporates new thinking on the links between transportation accessibility, travel behaviour, activity potential and activity participation. We use the reinterpreted system to answer several thematic questions related to public transit’s role within it, considering the changes that have happened or are likely to occur over the next decade in Canadian communities.

First, can public transit alone affect land use change? Probably not. But the combination of transit service that offers accessibility benefits relative to other travel options, and supportive planning and policy can create a compelling development context for realizing land use change.

Second, is there a role for land value capture for financing transit? Probably. While transit can create land value uplift, there are challenges associated with implementing large-area value capture strategies related to the timing, spatial extent, sources, and amount of uplift that can be captured. Still, smaller-scale joint development projects have the potential to offset some project costs.

Third, can we balance the transport and land use benefits from transit with social outcomes? We should try. Land value uplift from transit can result in the least advantaged residents in society paying proportionately more of their income to live near transit or being displaced to areas where transit is less competitive. However, policy supports for affordable housing in new and established station areas, business stabilization plans, and community benefits agreements for transit projects can help in this regard.

Fourth, will new mobility technologies and trends lead to more suburbanization? Possibly. Autonomous vehicles may contribute to suburbanization by decreasing transportation costs associated with more regional travel patterns. On the other hand, micromobility modes and services might help to urbanize the suburbs by better connecting individuals and households to more local destinations and improving first- and last-mile connections to transit.

Fifth, do we need to rethink future planning for sustainability? Perhaps. Information communication technologies, work-from-home and social distancing policies, and new transportation technologies can lead to more decentralization and driving. Nevertheless, face-to-face communication will continue to be an important driver of agglomeration in many sectors and as traffic congestion returns, mass transit and active modes will maintain their competitive advantage for moving people. Cities are also about more than work, and greater emphasis can be placed on planning to improve local accessibility.

Policy implications

While the review showed that we know much about transportation-land use interaction—and the need for an integrated approach to achieve improved social, economic and environmental outcomes—several barriers prevent major changes from occurring. These include a largely private sector-driven land development process, a culture of automobility, fractured planning responsibilities, insufficient knowledge mobilization and a lack of visioning and political will.

On the other hand, we can use leverage points to intervene in the transportation-land use system and achieve meaningful improvements in system performance. This includes treating all new greenfield development sites as an opportunity for master-planned complete communities, identifying suburban contexts with strong opportunities for urbanization such as shopping centres and arterial commercial strips, intensifying underutilized lands associated with “tower-in-the-park” developments, using infrastructure interventions and computational approaches to improve transit performance and relative accessibility, and experimenting with mobility services and MaaS platforms to improve accessibility and transport equity in urban and suburban areas.

Such initiatives must be undertaken while recognizing feedbacks within the larger regional transport-land use system and pursued in partnership with developers and the public so that individual costs and benefits are balanced with a better understanding of improvements to society and the public good.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Christopher D. Higgins, assistant professor, Department of Human Geography, University of Toronto Scarborough:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Infrastructure Canada or the Government of Canada.

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