Melbourne’s new proposed buried railway, Stage 1 and the proposed Stage 2 of Gold Coast’s Light Rail, Capital Metro, and the Sunshine Coast Transit Corridor are all in various stages of debate or construction.

The business cases for all of these projects, along with the multitude of similar heavy rail and urban transit systems existing or proposed in Australia will be premised on the social, economic and environmental objectives of compact urban forms (the land use effect).

Recent experience in Australia with toll roads and particularly tunnel associated toll roads have called into question the validity of patronage projections, with some operators going into administration.

Are the meritorious objectives of these new transit projects a reality? Have the desired land use effects presented with the business cases eventuated and been measured?

Land use planning and master planning of communities immediately adjacent to the transit stations and the transit corridors has the capacity to improve the ability of these transit systems reach or even exceed their passenger numbers. Have we succeeded?

New research from the United States enterprise Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) has focussed on the extent to which public transportation systems precipitate land use changes in the form of more compact development in an attempt to confirm the validity of the theory that public transportation investments can, under the right circumstances, promote more compact development.

Typically, compact urban form development characteristics of higher densities, more land use mixing, better access to transit, a more pedestrian-friendly environment, and closer access to regional destinations (especially jobs) are promoted as the desired outcomes for new and/or updated transit systems. Increased patronage of the public transit systems as a consequence of the compact urban form is a desired outcome of this form of development.

The quality of the transit system in terms of comfort, safety, accessibility and so on will also determine success of new and/or updated transit systems. Improvements include adding new bus routes or rail lines, increasing service on existing routes, and improving the overall level of access to regional employment via transit. Key findings of the research by TCRP include the following:

  • US cities would consume 37 per cent more land area in order to house their current populations without transit systems. The land use effect of existing transit makes US cities more compact.
  • Currently only four percent of passenger trips are currently made by transit in US metropolitan areas.
  • By providing more walking and biking opportunities and making some journeys by car shorter, the land use effect of transit produces land use benefits including an aggregate eight per cent decrease in VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled), decrease in transportation fuel use, and a two per cent decrease in transportation GHG emissions in US cities.
  • The higher density and related outcomes of the built form immediately adjacent to the transit system has a more positive effect on GHG emissions than the increased use of public transport by the general public.
  • While land use benefits are typically higher than ridership benefits, there is no consistent relationship between the land use benefit and the ridership benefit across urbanised areas. The average ratio of land use benefits to ridership benefits across all US cities is four to one, but the ratio varies substantially across different urban areas.
  • Adding a rail station to a neighbourhood that did not previously have rail access is associated with a nine per cent increase in activity density (combined population and employment density) within a 1.6-kilometre radius of the rail station.
  • Improving employment accessibility by clustering new jobs around transit nodes or improving the bus and rail network in individual neighbourhoods can also have potent land use effects.

The report has also found that there is some disagreement in the literature over how strongly and how consistently transit investments attract new development. A significant number of studies have found that transit alone does not spur new development and that other built environment features are equally if not more important in influencing development growth patterns. Public support for making necessary land use changes and market potential for development are the primary determinants of development in individual station areas and transit corridors.

Other studies cited in the TCRP report found that:

  • The strength of the local land market around the transit line is very influential in determining success in attracting new development, through ownership and land tenure, adjacent uses, topography, and availability for redevelopment.
  • There is a substantial correlation between the level of investment and the strength of government and public support – the level of activity in rezoning and land use planning, investment in related infrastructure, the provision of financial incentives and policy implementation that discourages the use of private vehicles.
  • The actual level of transit service along transit  corridors was the least influential  indicator of development, although it was not inconsequential.

The usefulness of the TCRP report could be enhanced if it had considered two critical matters. Firstly, it could have looked at whether land use planning (planning schemes, provisions, codes of development and other such factors) are prepared prior, concurrently or post construction and operation that encourage the high-density,  mixed-use, compact urban form desired around the station locations. This leads us to ask the classic question – if you built it, will they come?

Secondly, how do the patrons who live beyond the 1.6-kilometre radius of the transit stations access the transit system, particularly the heavy rail systems? What percentage of passengers are walking and cycling to stations from beyond the 1.6-kilometre radius? Are there adequate end-of-trip resources for showering or locking up bicycles at stations to encourage these modes of access to transit? I raise this question as there are streets located immediately adjacent to specific stations within the Gold Coast Light Rail system that are overwhelmed with private cars owned by people who are accessing the system, where there are no off-street parking facilities available. Is this the experience of other cities?

Being able to situate people’s homes near to their jobs and the things they need helps to keep it local and reduce congestion and carbon emissions. Compact urban form helps to achieve these outcomes. Planning around transit systems needs to include the opportunity for affordable housing/mixed-housing developments which will help create dynamic cities while reducing energy related emissions, morbidity and mortality rates related to traffic accidents, and improving community health through encouraging walking and cycling to stations, amongst other benefits. Relevant land-use planning provisions and policy need to support these goals.

An additional economic development perspective for businesses and city planners is the cost savings to be found by clustering businesses into space with direct access to public transport. Economics Scholars at Ball State University have found that:

  • Business can be more selective about its workforce when its employees can easily reach an office site.
  • Employee turnover due to poor accessibility to business is reduced and there is therefore a lower cost burden to business in terms of finding, hiring, and training replacements.

Through placing manufacturing and/or retailing precincts at key locations along these transit system corridors, more enterprises and therefore more jobs, higher wages and increased economic productivity occurs over time. While the data does not directly consider Australian transit systems, these findings do highlight the need to consider the following actions during the planning and post-final investment decision stages of transit projects:

  • Fully consider the existing land uses and  land use planning provisions, their ability to actively encourage high-density development and what gaps need to be filled in the land-use planning system to support appropriate development adjacent to transit stations and along corridors.
  • Transit system responsive planning instruments, land-use planning provisions and policies must be applied consistently where special zones/precincts/overlays are created in support of the transit system, thus allowing planning practice to occur at all points along the corridor.
  • Facilitate the construction of pedestrian/cycling/road-based public transport opportunities that allow those living beyond an agreed radius from a station to safely and affordably access the transit system.

For example, the draft Planning Scheme of the City of Gold Coast includes an overlay code and map that corresponds to the alignment of stage one of the Gold Coast Light Rail corridor. The draft Light Rail overlay code presents graphics and desired outcomes for various forms of development along the corridor. The code defers to the planning provisions for the underlying land use domains for the purpose of making development applications. In some circumstances, residential development codes conflict with the desired outcomes for the mixed-use development along the corridor.  This situation has the potential to:

  • Increase costs for development
  • Possibly create conflict with neighbouring land users to development sites that do not desire more intensive forms of development that can be actioned through various mechanisms within Queensland
  • Limit the effectiveness of the transit corridor to establish a more compact urban form

The draft Planning Scheme is currently with the Queensland State Government for final State Interest checks. Hopefully these inconsistencies have been identified and corrected in the final plan. The 2018 Commonwealth Games is, in part, driving consideration by stakeholders to commence Stage 2 of the Gold Coast Light Rail system to Helensvale (Heavy Rail) Station. Now is the time to consider the issues noted above and ensure that there is a Light Rail Corridor plan developed and implemented (even as a temporary local planning instrument) that drives the population density and intense mix-use development required to make the system a success.

Translating transport and land use strategic plans into realities that are functional, easy to implement and meet the real needs of community, city administrations, amenity and safety, economic development and environmental protection is the overarching challenge.

Light rail and similar transit systems are currently being designed, planned, and constructed in different cities in Australia. Our population densities need to be increased substantially over the next decades (similar to those found in Asian and some European cities) for these transit systems to fully fulfil their potential and deliver a strong return on investment.