Using Placemaking to Generate Resiliency in Our Transit Systems

Using Placemaking to Generate Resiliency in Our Transit Systems
By Slow Streets

Great transit systems serve as the backbones and engines of many great cities around the world. Places like Tokyo, New York or London grind to a halt if their public transit system shuts down, imposing significant economic costs on the local economy.

Transit systems not only provide a cost effective way to move many people quickly but they also create value. They generate social, economic and environmental outcomes that extend far beyond the simple ideas that transit is only a service to move people from point A to B.

Many North American cities like Vancouver and Edmonton were built around the trams to first ensure the necessary demand for their services and to make a profit for the private companies building them. They practically functioned as neighbourhood developers with Canada Pacific Rail developing many neighbourhoods in Vancouver.  From the very beginning fine grain retail and transit have always been complementary.  Walkable, compact neighbourhoods with fine grain retail were necessary to create demand for the new tram lines, while on the other hand the tram lines also expanded  access to new businesses, partnerships or resources for inhabitants across the city. This development model was highly successful at facilitating and developing resilient neighbourhoods. From this historic anecdote, we can see that transit was a tool for generating real estate development and for opening up access to new businesses. As a public asset, transit is often looked at in utilitarian terms, regarded as a tool for moving people from Point A to Point B.

Today, transit systems are still value generators, with the land value around transit stations often being the highest per square foot due to the ubiquitous access to the city they provide and the ability to ditch many high cost burdens such as owning a car. In Vancouver, for example, land values near walkable, transit oriented corridors with fine grain retail are skyrocketing, implying that there is latent demand for walkable, transit oriented retail communities. As public investments, transit agencies should be maximizing the return on investment and generate more value for our cities. According to a recent study conducted by Smart Growth America in Metro Boston, value generation is “materializing on less than six percent of the  metropolitan area’s land —the same six percent that houses 37 percent of the region’s real estate square footage,  40 percent of its population, and 42 percent of employment.” “In many of these places, proximity to transit is a major requirement for households and employers.” Public transit, especially rail transit, activates walkable urbanism’s potential for adding real estate value, and as this report demonstrates, that potential is ample.” Often, this potential is overlooked because of simplistic ideas about what transit should do for our cities.

bridgeport richmond
Bridgeport Station in Richmond, BC, Canada. Untapped revenue potential. A skytrain rapid transit station which features almost no adjacent uses.

Transit agencies are often landowners but often do little to maximize the value generated. Transit agencies often approach the land they own from a very utilitarian, transport engineering perspective. In many cases this may be mandated by law where public organizations cannot recover more revenue than the cost of the services they provide. When transit agencies are struggling with limited budgets should they be given new tools for generating more income? Should the role of our transit agencies be expanded? Should they be mandated to maximize the return on investments from public lands? Many municipalities (Surrey) have established arm’s-reach development corporations tasked with developing city owned land. It makes sense that this could also be done for transit agencies.

In North America, cities often have to play catch up to build new rail or bus rapid transit systems in built out cities resulting in a situation where the transit agency or government has sunk costs to expropriate expensive land with limited tools for recovering the costs. Most often this is achieved through either transit fares or more public funding. The tools available to ensure the success of our transit systems that take millions or billions of dollars to build are extremely limited or ineffective.

Transit agencies should be given the tools to do what any good landowner already does – maximize the value generated and consequently the return on public investments and assets. Transit agencies need the tools to make the land they own more productive and in turn introduce new revenue tools and reduce the need to rely on more tax dollars. Since the land values around transit stations are often some of the highest in our cities, transit agencies need stronger tools to lease land to developers with the task of creating great places. This can be done with fine grain retail spots that can be leased at market rates to private businesses. More mixed use fine grain retail at transit stations can also consequently result in increased demand for the transit system it is serving.

It also helps dignify the experience of taking transit. Many transit stops are uninteresting and uninviting places that make transit riders feel like second class citizens. There are little or no opportunities for engaging with your surroundings and these places are completely absent of any social function. Moreover, what is most problematic is that many of these places are just plain and simply uncomfortable places to spend time.

edmonton bus stop
A bus stop in Edmonton (Source: Google Maps)

This is one of the keys to building resilient transit systems that integrate more comprehensively with their surrounding communities. We can leverage our investments in transit by providing retail, amenities and through the cultivation of better public spaces. This will spur off greater benefits and create more value for everyone.

Waterfront Station Vancouver: A Local Example

waterfront station
Waterfront Station in Vancouver, BC, Canada

While technically owned by the CPR, the Waterfront station in downtown Vancouver is a good example of this. Waterfront station goes beyond simply moving people through on their way to and from the Seabus, three SkyTrain lines and the West Coast Express. The station itself includes leasable spaces for many small retail businesses, offices, restaurants, cafes, and even a bar.

While there is room for improvement, the result is a great place on government land where people can do more than move through quickly. As a result, Waterfront Station is an animated and vibrant place. It is busy nearly all hours of the day and serves as one of Vancouver’s central locus for people.

Since there are many activities and attractions for people at Waterfront Station, there is no apprehension for people to wait or linger. It is a natural meeting place that invites people to linger. The restaurant and retail tenants also generate extra revenue for a public entity, when there would otherwise be none. The building is also well integrated into the surrounding urban fabric and doesn’t create a transit infrastructure ghetto.

waterfront station retail 2
Waterfront Station is a great place to wait for people.

As always with a great place, high quality design is important for attracting people to stay and serves as a great meeting place for all types of people. This not only creates value for all taxpayers, but also social value by providing a quality place for people to meet, even if they aren’t accessing the station strictly for transit purposes. As a transit hub, Waterfront Station is a multipurpose space that serves many functions beyond simply moving people. This builds resiliency into our transit system.

New Westminster Station

The New Westminster station is also a good example of a transit agency being more productive with public lands. The New Westminster station is a multi floor building that includes 34 businesses including a grocery store, pharmacy, offices, dentists, many retail stores, cafes, restaurants and bars. While the businesses and building facade could have been designed to be people friendly by facing outward, every square inch of this station is producing exponentially more value than the neighbouring two stations that simply focus on the utilitarian task of people moving.

The first thing you see out of a transit station should not be 250 meters of bus bays and parking lots. (Clareview Station, Edmonton)

The immediate surroundings at many transit stations are often an unpleasant experience for many people. In many cases, the surrounding areas are barren and empty with no consideration for placemaking or people friendly designs that act as good urban anchors. This can create a sense of insecurity for people since no one wants to spend time here, therefore, a person’s safety is reduced since there are ‘no eyes on the street’. If we want people to use transit, they must feel safe and secure.

Bus Bays and Bus Exchanges

Kootenay Bus Loop
Kootenay Bus Bay Loop in Vancouver, Canada.

Bus bays are designed for the arrival of multiple buses in pulse-timing based transit systems where the bus wait to coordinate with other routes for easy transfers. Often you have to navigate chain link fences and barren concrete landscapes for the last few meters of your transit trip. This design clearly indicates that the movement of buses is prioritized over the enjoyment of the customers using the bus.  Again, this is putting engineering ahead of the experience of the customers using them, which will serve to deter more people from using transit. The bus bay method is quite a space hog. A more strategic solution could feature a design layout that uses the readily available and often underutilized street networks. This would further integrate the transit station into the neighbourhood.


Transit agencies often have trouble with what is often perceived as loitering. While this can be the case (or people simply waiting for the bus), this can conjure up negative perceptions of transit and transit use. Often, the response is to ignore human psychology and to try to ban “loitering” with signs and policing. Crime and “loitering” are a symptom of the environment, often sprouting up in places where there is no one to watch what people are doing. Therefore a better approach would be to create a great place where people want to hang out. In this approach, crowds of people would add “eyes on the streets” and the place becomes self-policing simply by having people present. This is to say that by inviting more people to stay in the space for longer and for more reasons this adds eyes and ears that deter unwanted behaviours. Places where people naturally want to linger are self-regulating, behaviors are naturally kept in check by the many people using the spaces. Therefore, if transit agencies want to deter “loitering” they should in fact invite as many people as possible by creating great places that attract as many activities as possible including shopping and eating.

Maximize Returns on Investment and Build Resiliency

In an era where car-use is declining and cities are confronted with diminishing budgets, it is critical to provide our transit agencies with more tools for capturing the value created from what is ultimately a public investment. Too often debates about transit focus on transit as simple a tool for mobility between point A and B. While this is certainly true, transit is also an asset that can generate social, economic and environmental value. Transit has a spatial and land use component. Stations occupy a parcel of land in our cities and certainly station design and choices about the types of uses that the station provides has significant implications for ridership and system resiliency. Neglecting this spatial component is to overlook a significant opportunity to enhance the affordability and livability of our cities.

Focusing on the ‘sense of place’ surrounding our transit stations can help generate more significant returns on these investments and induce greater ridership. Not only can we design our transit stations to improve the safety of transit customers but we can also make them more enjoyable places for the people that use them and ultimately generate a greater return on transit investments. This helps build resiliency into our transit systems by simply acknowledging that transit systems are a public asset that contribute to the practice of city building and cultivating a sense of place in our cities.

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