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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 14, 2006

Transit planning can ease growing pains

By Donovan Dela Cruz

An effective mass transit system should not only get people from one destination to another, it should also be an effective tool in a city's development where growth is not only projected, but desired or directed by a community. A well-planned and conceived mass transit system can also revitalize a community. To achieve these objectives, it is imperative that transit-oriented development planning be an integral part of any mass transit proposal. I believe transit-oriented development is the most effective method of integrating the development of a new transportation system into people's daily lives.

When the city moves forward with mass transit, let's make sure we get it right the first time. Let's use the lessons learned from other cities and counties and plan for transit-oriented development before we finalize the alignment (routes and stations). The City of Vancouver's planning and construction of its new Canada Line is an excellent example of a city using lessons learned from previous light rail projects. City officials made a conscious decision to focus transit-oriented development along transit lines. As a result, areas around existing shopping centers are being redeveloped, density is increasing, and walkable communities are being created around these centers.

As we discussed with various government and agency officials in Vancouver, Portland and Denver, successful transit-oriented development planning will create opportunities for more pedestrian-friendly and livable communities around transit systems. Several key points stood out. Transit-oriented development:

  • Creates walkable and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods, thus cutting dependence on automobiles and reducing congestion and air pollution.

  • Promotes the development of affordable housing.

  • Provides an opportunity for senior citizens to continue living actively in their communities.

  • Supports mixed use of commercial and residential activity in buildings within a specific radius of the transit center.

  • Revitalizes older neighborhoods.

  • Focuses development in the urban core that relieves pressure to develop rural areas, as well as reduces the cost to taxpayers for constructing and maintaining new infrastructure, i.e. roads and sewer lines.

    There is no one-size-fits-all transit-oriented development project, which is why community participation is important. People must provide their input on the type of development that should occur in their neighborhoods; this is why planning is essential to making transit-oriented development work for Honolulu. The city will look closely at both regional and community development plans to see how transit can be incorporated and support growth identified by each community. Suburbs of Denver have paid millions of dollars to have mass transit lines realigned to ensure development occurred in their areas.

    To best summarize the common elements of successful transportation programs, we visited Jillian Detweiler, land development planner with the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, who emphasized that "communities must accept an overall growth plan before transit can be successful. Transit is a tool for growth, not the other way around."

    To ensure that transit is used as tool for growth in Honolulu, the City Council supported legislation that proposed amendments to the Land Use Ordinance relating to transit-oriented development, which is currently under review by the Department of Planning and Permitting.

  • Resolution 05-006 establishes guidelines for transit-orient development for apartment and business-mixed use zone areas. Resolution 05-032 reduces the off-street parking requirements for development within a quarter-mile of a transit center.

    The City Council is also considering two additional pieces of legislation that would support transit as a tool for growth in Honolulu: Resolution 06-369 urges the Department of Planning and Permitting to increase density in the primary urban center by increasing height limits for all future zone changes and create a zoning-district classification with flexible height-limit development standards; and Bill 86 temporarily prohibits development along the transit alignment selected as the Locally Preferred Alternative on O'ahu until permanent transit-oriented development controls can be adopted.

    All pieces of legislation must be in place prior to the selection of alignment to ensure that housing choices will be more affordable, encourage utilization of the city's mass transportation system, and protect open space.

    The city must ensure that guidelines for transit-oriented development complement the goals and objectives of community development plans. Accomplishing this will require further changes to existing zoning and building codes, and, more specifically, include: re-evaluating park dedication and easement requirements; integration of stations in development, retail and community centers; green roof requirements such as those in Chicago and Portland; and family housing requirements.

    There is no single solution to our traffic problems. To be successful, however, a mass transit system must be an integral part of land use planning. This is where transit-oriented development can make a difference. This will ensure a mass transit system that is attractive to riders for its convenience, user friendliness, and efficiency. I am firmly committed to mass transit on O'ahu, and part of that commitment is making sure that the communities and businesses that follow in its tracks are planned for from the start.

    Donovan M. Dela Cruz is the current chairman of the Honolulu City Council. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.