Transit and Density are (Gasp!) Related?

If you listen to the press, bikes are all the rage and new rail transit lines are still the darlings of politicians and transportation planners. Incredibly, what is still overlooked in the mainstream press is the intricate relationship between transportation and land use. Even when it is mentioned, it is often a one-size-fits all scenario. We need clarity and nuance on this issue, and that isn’t easy.

Take for example two disparate stories this week in the media. One was a New York Times blog discussing cycling improvements in Amsterdam. The other was entitled “Save the Earth, Drive Your Car” and aired on APM’s Marketplace’s Freakonomics Radio (follow the link to listen or read the transcript).

First off, cycling in Amsterdam. Get this – 58% of all Amsterdammers use their bicycle on a daily basis. 43% commute by bicycle. Those are staggering numbers. Most if not all American cities score in the single digits. In Amsterdam bicycles outnumber residents within the city limits. The reason for this is pretty simple. People cycle in Amsterdam because there are places to go, and those places to go are within cycling distance. I first visited Amsterdam in 2000 for an article I was writing, and I had to visit a shiny office park along the ring road in order to do so. I cycled to get there, and it was easier and closer than I expected. It was a weird realization. Just like at home, everyone wore a suit and worked in glassy modern suburban office towers. But what was eye-opening was seeing so many of them arrive by bicycle or the nearby tram station.

Just cycling around Amsterdam I observed that I could reach a great number of destinations without traveling too many miles. When someone complains that biking five miles in Phoenix in the summer they have a point – but it is two-fold. Yes, it is too hot to bike in the summer in Phoenix, but distances in Phoenix are monstrous – even if you are lucky enough to be within five miles of your destination in Phoenix, not everyone is. Amsterdam is far denser, as is Copenhagen, which was also featured in the article.

Then there is the Freakonomics Radio piece, where Eric Morris raised the hackles of urbanists everywhere by suggesting that in some cases mass transit is less efficient than driving a car. Sure, he says, transit systems like in New York City can be very efficient, but he points out the average bus carries just 10 people, so in some cases more fuel is actually used by bus systems.

I think there are many holes in this argument, but luckily the journalist salvages most of it by pointing out density. Buried in the article is the author’s take on Eric Morris’s point. “In terms of energy efficiency, mass transit is not the panacea that a lot of people would like to think. Yes, it works great in a dense urban area like New York, but Morris argues that we’ve already picked a lot of that low-hanging fruit, and that light-rail systems in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Memphis actually do worse than cars in terms of energy efficiency, simply because they’re underused.”

The problem is it is farmore important than to just mention density in passing. Transit and land use are intricately linked, but not one-size-fits-all. We shouldn’t automatically dissuade Pittsburgh, Memphis and Cleveland from developing transit systems (I wasn’t aware Memphis had light rail). I have no doubt that each of those cities, and other mid-size similar cities (I’m looking at you St. Louis), have areas that don’t support big ridership numbers. However, they all have good transit opportunties, some where density already exists and others where it should be planned.

As well, dismissing light rail universally is too simplistic. The nuance is that plunking down a 15-mile long light rail line with one mile station spacing and dense villages around each may work for one city, but perhaps a two- or three-mile long streetcar line with more frequent stops and more cohesive, linear density is more appropriate in another.

Any city considering transit should ensure meaningful transit-supportive density either exists or that plans are in place for it be developed. I’d go so far as to say the incremental increase in density and corresponding taxable real estate value should be used to pay for the transit improvement, as was done in the Pearl District in Portland and is being considered for the Cotton Belt in Dallas/Fort Worth.

Eric Morris’s point about density is important, but his solution is misleading. He is skeptical that new transit systems are more efficient, instead pointing out that perhaps we should start riding existing transit systems. This totally misses the point that ultimately what drives best efficiency of transit systems (new and old) is what land uses they serve and whether people will find it the best option to do so. Yes, many existing transit systems support efficient ridership and put a huge dent in per capita carbon emissions. Others could be bolstered by better land use planning, and still other opportunities certainly exist for new transit systems to be built.

Two more thoughts. One is we should not compare one passenger traveling one mile, but rather consider the number of housing units, employment and destinations within a well-planned and transit served mile and its walk-shed versus the inefficiency of the alternative sprawl. Furthermore, it seems as though Morris’s analysis is based purely on the fuel required to move a bus or car one mile. I doubt all the other costs of car ownership, transit service and real estate considerations are taken in to account.

All I can conclude is Amsterdammers are on to something. Cycling is essentially carbon-neutral, and encouraging more of it is a wonderful thing. But they also have an historically dense city and the Dutch continue to plan for transit and bike-supportive density with new development.

American cities may not ever catch up to Amsterdam’s 58% cycling rate or the sheer efficiency and low per-capita carbon emissions of Manhattan. But don’t despair – vast swaths of our cities (and even some suburbs) can support high rates of cycling and efficient transit usage, as long as we plan transportation and land use improvements together.

This was cross-posted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is