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Why Developing Around Transit in Connecticut Is So Challenging

Oct 7, 2015

Connecticut is built for single cars occupied by single riders that clog our aging highways.

Last March, Onyeka Obiocha of Happiness Lab at the Grove coffee shop in New Haven stepped outside to find his car had been towed.

When he finally got it back and was driving home to Hartford, the car blew a head gasket. The repair bill was prohibitive, so Obiocha said goodbye to owning a car.

Let’s be clear: Obiocha works in New Haven, and lives in Hartford. That’s 40-some miles, one way, much of it up I-91, where traffic jams and lane closures are common.

Accordingly, Obiocha has done some pretty heroic things to get back and forth: Peter Pan buses, Amtrak, and the occasional ride from a friend when things fall apart.

Upstairs from Obiocha’s coffee shop is Chris Stedman’s office. Stedman is the Yale Humanist Community executive director, coordinator of regular New Haven community gathering Humanist Haven, and a fellow at Davenport College at Yale.

Last year, Stedman bought his first car after years of relying on public transportation. He lives within walking distance of his work, but errands and work obligations take him off the beaten path of public transit. 

Stedman appreciates a car’s convenience, but: “There are times when I reflect back on my day-to-day life in cities that I’ve lived in in the past -- Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston -- all of which had really comprehensive public transit systems,” he said. New Haven is mostly walkable and bike-friendly, he said, but “there are places I can’t get to without a car.”

Chris Stedman bought his first car after years of relying on public transportation. He lives within walking distance of his work, but errands and work obligations take him off the beaten path of public transit.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

"When you don’t have to get in your car and drive somewhere... it makes you feel like you’re part of a community."
Chris Stedman

Connecticut is New Haven, writ large. The state is built for cars – single cars occupied by single riders that clog our aging highways. Just try getting to Mystic on a Friday afternoon in the summer, or to Stamford on any weekday morning.

As an antidote that goes deeper than eliminating gridlock, planners and others are slowly embracing transit-oriented development.

Known best by its initials, TOD, transit-oriented development incorporates housing and businesses in a reasonably dense design that takes encourages people to take advantage of public transportation. TOD seeks to reduce or eliminate the need for cars as it moves residents and business patrons onto sidewalks and bikeways. And it just may be an answer to some of Connecticut’s deeper woes.

Governor Dannel Malloy certainly thinks so. In his biennial budget address in February, he said congestion causes commuters to spend 40 wasted hours stuck in traffic each year. He talked about expanding bus services, fixing roadways, and building bikeways. He also said a renewed commitment to rail service would encourage TOD.

But the hardest part of TOD is building or expanding the “t” – the transit, said Tim Sullivan, deputy commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.

A governor-appointed interagency task force is charged with keeping the conversation about TOD going, Sullivan said, and making sure town planners and developers know the planning and funding resources available to them – including in towns not located on a rail line.

For example, CTfastrak supporters tout the bus line, which began service in March, for its ability to attract new housing and business developments. Other transit assets include but aren’t limited to town officials, such as those in Bridgeport and Fairfield, who acted proactively to enhance zoning regulations to take advantage when transit opportunities (like a new Metro station) came to their town.

The long-vacant Berkowitz Building in New Britain is soon to be developed into apartments and retail space, a transit-oriented development project motivated by the development of the CTfastrak busway.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
The goal of transit-oriented development is to get people out of their cars. But Connecticut is challenged by providing the transit.

In September, the state received a $700,000 federal grant to conduct a study of TOD opportunities along the Hartford Line, a rail corridor currently under construction that will offer more frequent service from New Haven to Springfield as soon as late 2016. 

In addition to encouraging development, embracing TOD cuts down on emissions – always a good thing in a heavily-populated, car-loving state.

As Karen Burnaska, of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment said, the goal is to get people out of their cars, which carries the added bonus of saving families money. According to Reconnecting America, a Washington-based non-profit, 19 percent of the average household budget is devoted to transportation costs. TOD can cut that figure to nine percent. TOD isn’t just sidewalks, though. It’s neighborhoods that are denser than suburbs, with a heavy reliance on public transportation.

Both Boomers and Millennials are asking for just this type of town. A recent American Planning Association study said members of both demographics want walkable cities with more transportation options. They want to live closer to their work. They want little or no dependence on a car.

“It’s absolutely true that a city where people have many different ways to get around and connect with each other, is a city that feels more like a community,” said Stedman.

For a taste of what TOD can be, look at Stamford – and, to some extent, New Haven. Better yet, look at Minneapolis, near where Stedman grew up. That city began creating denser development around its transit hubs years ago.

The term “transit-oriented development” first bubbled up in the late '80s. The idea has generally been attributed to Peter Calthorpe, a San Francisco-based architect, urban planner and designer, and an early advocate of so-called New Urbanism, with its similar-to-TOD emphasis on density and walkability. TOD also carries with it an indefinable push toward community, what Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam sought in his landmark book, Bowling Alone.

Said Stedman: “When you don’t have to get in your car and drive somewhere -- when you walk through your neighborhood, bike through your neighborhood, hop on a bus and see your neighbors or the person you saw at the grocery store last week -- this is the thing I’ve always loved about living in cities with robust public transit systems. It just makes you feel like you’re part of a community. I see some promising indications that more people want that. All the pieces are there. I definitely see that.”

Construction on the Hartford Line in August. The state received a federal grant to study TOD options along the rail corridor.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

But TOD doesn’t happen overnight. Connecticut is slow to change. Last year, legislators failed to pass a bill that would have created a transit corridor development authority, which surprised the bill’s supporters, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. Opposition seemed to center around a concern that the authority would negate local control. Even removing that controversial portion of the bill didn’t get it passed.

“We weren’t expecting a huge uproar,” said Wray, mostly because in other regions, relying on a transit development authority is “standard practice.” That’s true in Phoenix, in Cleveland, and in Minneapolis. Transit authorities smooth the way for TOD, and help educate town planners who may not understand the concept, Wray said.

And that’s a big part of successful TOD, helping people think about transit corridors such as heavily-traveled busways or busy highways as veins of gold, not as dumping grounds. Highways these days are treated nearly as afterthoughts, rather than vital connectors, said Wray. “In the same way,” Wray said, “rivers were considered sewers.”

Regions that commit to TOD are seeing the kind of revitalization to their urban areas most places only dream of.

“This is happening everywhere,” Wray said. “We’re just late to the party.” And once the pieces are in place – admittedly, a long process – things can move rather quickly.

Even in Amsterdam, considered one of Europe’s most bikable cities, transit-oriented development started relatively late, in the late '60s.

“In this era of microwave popcorn, where people’s attention span is short, this is a long pull,” Wray said. “You’re just seeing the results of work in Denver that started years ago. We’re just a few months into CTfastrak and people already want to know the impact. It’s not an instant thing.” Meanwhile, a September Courant story that parsed CTfastrak’s ridership numbers said the data “can alternately make the service look like a rousing triumph or a ho-hum achievement.”

While officials and planners and developers work out the details of TOD, more real-time information for public transit users – such the ability to sign up for email alerts -- would help, said Obiocha. With his Hartford bus leaving at 6:05 every morning, a change in the schedule can leave him stranded. That happened July 4.