Governing magazine has an interesting article on changes to suburban development patters that are causing traditional sprawling suburbs to look more like traditional urban development. A key player in this revitalization is transit.
For folks promoting the benefits of alternative transportation, traditional suburbs have often been a sore spot: sprawling, low-density residential development with car-centric infrastructure, people-hostile features like cul-de-sacs, and no services to speak of withing walking or biking distance, suburbs have generally offered a high quality of life on cheaply-developed land at the expense of traffic congestion, long travel times, and related transportation ills.
However, this is increasingly no longer the case:
All over the country, suburbs are rushing to develop new mixed-use corridors, complete with dense, walkable shopping areas, often attached to a town hall or performing arts complex…and usually surrounded by mid-rise apartment or condo buildings.
Communities are taking the lessons learned with the recent rediscovery and revitalization of downtowns and applying them to the suburbs, in some cases creating village centers from scratch. Such is the case with Botetourt County’s Daleville Town Center, an ongoing project creating mixed-use properties, commercial density, and even entertainment venues all within walking distance of each other and straddling the otherwise traffic-heavy Route 220.
In addition to the changing of zoning laws and new community vision for these spaces, another feature has become important to their success: public transportation:
That may be the most radical change in suburban planning: the growing consensus that transit matters. The most in-demand suburban developments are being built around transit, and this is true even where the share of commuters using transit is still low. Shops and apartments are springing up alongside fixed-rail stations all over the country. New developments are capitalizing on proximity to bus rapid transit lines, or sometimes just plain buses, as has happened with some projects that have taken over former malls. In Carmel, Ind., new housing is built near biking trails that can get residents directly from their doors to downtown Indianapolis.
Public transportation has always been important for moving efficiently throughout dense urban communities. In our area, its importance as a connector between communities is also well established – the Smart Way commuter bus between Roanoke and Blacksburg is a popular service, and the Smart Way Connector that had run between Roanoke and Lynchburg was a key proof-of-concept for the success of passenger rail, which arrive in downtown Roanoke this past October and has seen fantastic ridership.
While we have yet to see suburban villages develop in conjunction with public transportation in our area – the Daleville Town Center is still primarily accessible by automobile, though planning is underway for a Greenway connection that could, ultimately, connect into the wider Roanoke Valley Greenway network – it is heartening to see attitudes change concerning transit’s role in suburban development.
The suburbs are here: even if traditional suburban sprawl development is slowing, existing suburban communities can take advantage of a focus on replicating the success of village centers and bringing new life to these areas. After all, sprawl is expensive, and if the quality of life that made these attractive places to live is going to be maintained, innovative techniques are going to be needed to bring much needed tax receipts into these localities. Smart use of transit may be just the thing to help spur the focused growth that can make that happen.