Centers" for the San Francisco Bay Area
Walking Transit Oriented Communities
The Bay Area is a thriving metropolitan region, the fourth largest in the United States--and growing. How will it handle its growth? Where will its next million people live?
New households now settle mainly on the region's outer rim in single-family houses and townhouses linked by freeways to the region's more central Bayside areas, where older settlement and jobs are concentrated. Land and houses are less expensive on the edge than closer to the center, but living at a distance means long commutes, usually by single-occupant car. Over months and years, such dispersion and commuting add up to great expense, not only in money from family budgets, but in many hours of time spent driving, and in gasoline, which becomes CO2 and other pollution. In the end, the "sprawl" style of life is extremely expensive -- AAA says owning a car costs very close to $10,000 a year, and in most of the Bay it Area is a requirement, not a choice. Month after month, long-distance commuters are spending money and energy, and especially time, in driving which most of them would rather use better, for example, for family life, education, sports, health or culture.
Escaping Sprawl, a New Pattern
This paper advocates a different pattern of development, based on living where we can walk to many of our destinations, and where we can use collective instead of individual transportation for most longer trips, especially the commuting trip. The solution is for the region's core cities to build their new housing for growth closer to public transportation--in transit oriented development (TOD). The Bay Area has a remarkable set of existing transit rail lines, and, after years of regional debate, is now embarked in this direction under efforts such as One Bay Area and the Bay Area Plan, whose Initial Vision Scenario has just come out.
But TOD comes in many varieties and intensities, with corresponding gradations and thresholds in the benefits that different levels of TOD bring. The full benefits of TOD come at its most intense level, when the concept of TOD is carried to its full extent. Such settlements are expressly designed and built to be economical and safe places to live for adults and children, framing and encouraging a full range of their personal and social activities. Internal destinations should be walkable, and green and open space for sports and recreation, and for being outdoors in California's great climate, should be abundant and very nearby for everyone. From its transit linkage and its density, such full walking TOD can offer metropolitan urban access and efficiency, and from its careful, thorough design come the open space and sense of community that people traditionally seek in the suburbs.
In "walking TOD," people live close enough to their transit connection and to most of their local activities that they walk or bike, rather than drive, to them. Everyday local foot movement is made easy, safe and attractive for children and adults by putting cars underground and creating a lively social environment of stores, civic buildings and abundant green open space as well as housing. Motherhood no longer means chauffeurdom. A transit station serving a walking TOD opens into an active public square surrounded by civic buildings, stores, cafes and homes, not parking structures and big parking lots. In such full TOD, or"walking transit oriented community," the long-term cost-benefit ratios become the most favorable--very favorable indeed.
Here we call a walking transit oriented community simply a Center. If many Centers were constructed, we could speak of a Centered Bay Area; a network of such Centers would strengthen the transit system and each other.
A Center will be of substantial size because it should be capacious to hold all sorts of people, many with their job sites, and to mix them as much as they wish to mix in community life. It is not a niche development for a subset of the population, such as just the rich, just the poor, or just the old. Rather it is the framework for complex lively community of, say, 10,000 people which will have a lot going on. Walking distance from the outer edge to the transit stop (either underground or elevated) in the middle of the Center's "downtown" will be about 10 minutes (2,000 feet, a little less than half a mile) with perhaps some biking.
A circle with a radius of 2,000 feet around a station gives an area of about 12 million square feet, or 288 acres. But, if we house that population in the one-and-two story dwellings that are traditional in American suburbs, we basically cover all the area, with little room for open space.
The best response is to move away from the middle-class cultural norm of a detached single family house for all households and look instead to spacious, well equipped, owned apartments (either condominiums or coops). The ground gained from placing residences one above another becomes green open space, and this is the main reason for using mid-rise and high-rise buildings. But it is also true that a smaller part of the population than in the past now lives in the nuclear-family-with-children group
for which the traditional single-family house developed. Most of the apartment dwellers in a Center will be drawn from the three quarters of households which are not nuclear families with kids. As in Vancouver, two-story townhouses will be available for families with children, although many urban middle class families in the U.S. and Europe know that kids grow up fine in apartments that have as much interior space as a traditional single family house and have good access to green space nearby.Early Garden City designer Ebenezer Howard showed how to put density and open space together, using the very traditional and social form of the "street" (which becomes a pedestrian/ bicycle path rather than carrying cars) arranged in a "fingers of the hand" pattern around a full circle. This creates pie wedges of open space, which add up to about half of the Center's total area. Toward the narrow point of each wedge, this land will host small-scale outdoor uses such as community gardens, neighborhood swimming pools, tot lots and basketball and tennis courts. It will serve larger uses, such as soccer fields, baseball diamonds and groves of trees in the wider outer portions. Although people live and move conveniently and sociably along the pedestrian "street" which leads to the transit hub, everyone is also a few steps from uncrowded open green space, which becomes the kids' expansive backyard.
Automobile roads and parking are put entirely underground, although not necessarily immediately, since excavation is expensive. This means that the Center's entire surface is free of the noise and danger of car and truck movement and also of the huge space encumbrance of parking. Emergency and service vehicles will use the surface pedestrian walkways, but rarely.
Housing in a Center is generous, sustainable, and of high quality, but it is a serious goal to keep its cost down. Although town-houses will be mixed in along the pedestrian "spokes of the wheel", a key building block of the Center is the mid-rise or high-rise structure. It is mainly residential, but often also has a couple of floors of "mixed use" (stores and offices) at its base. This building is a major challenge for
the architects. It is seen in this paper as a "slender tower," as pioneered by Hong Kong and Vancouver, which eliminates two drawbacks of most urban multi-story buildings: daylight that comes only from one side of an apartment, and a dismal double-loaded corridor on each floor. With a floor plate of 80' by 80', and envisaged here in two versions, of 13 and 26 residential stories respectively, the building aspires to be both "solid" in its feel, and light in its construction, using the newest materials and construction technologies available -- or now in development.Apartment ceilings should be high, floor space generous, and living areas full of daylight. Careful attention will be given to acoustic protection of dwelling space. It could be possible to pre-fabricate, on-site or off-site, intensely designed floor panels of lightweight concrete or other new material. These plates, fitting into a steel or reinforced concrete frame, would form the floors of the apartments above them and the ceilings of those below, while carrying water, radiant heating/ cooling, and electricity conduits, serving both upwards and downwards. Every possible energy efficiency (especially for fossil energy) should be exploited--for example, HVAC based on heat pumps, ending the need for fossil natural gas supply. A further example: in the mild climate of California: piping for radiant heating/cooling need not extend to the edges of the floor plate but could serve only an inner core for our infrequent cold evenings and very hot days. The goal is to offer spacious apartment homes for a construction cost as close to $250 per square foot as possible. To keep down initial capital costs, apartments could be sold in a loft-like unfinished state, for residents to create their interiors over time at their convenience.
Costs and financing
Purposeful cost minimization includes the substantial "soft costs" of such a project. Common goals and cooperation between the developer and the local municipality is essential. Thereafter, there are efficiencies in end-user financing methods, such as an initial rental period of hire-purchase when a household first moved in. A regular extra payment above the normal rent, which a family could consider to be its savings program, could accumulate into an equity stake in their dwelling unit, enabling the household after a little time to be considered owners, not renters, and a regular mortgage to come into force.
Savings and Sustainability
The Center's walking proximity to schools and stores, and to transit to the wider region, should allow a household to own only one car, or even none, in place of the typical two or more cars when living in sprawl. The saved expense of not running a car over a generation would come close to paying off the condominium' s mortgage. The family's residence would then be owned free and clear, becoming capital accumulated for the next generation of the family, and a major step into the middle class. This transformative gain is far more than what is left after owning a series of rapidly depreciating second family vehicles over thirty years. It offers an insight into the costs of sprawl, and the social and economic gains for a household that avoids them.
The Center's garage is ideal for a car share program, serving enough people that the service could be of high reliability and offer a variety of cars. In particular, availability in the Center of long-range hybrids through the car share pool would let Center residents own pure electric vehicles for their local auto trips, reducing both fuel costs and emissions.
The public interest, and an analogous example
The good walking access to high-intensity transit and to local services is basic, but the various features of a Center interlock, and ideally one should be built as a whole. It is a very large whole -- a multi-million dollar investment that the traditional housing sector, with its municipal planning and zoning side, as well as its finance-dominated market side, would not easily underwrite in the near future.
A Center will bring major long-term savings in money (as well as time and energy) for its residents through its greatly reduced car use and its compactness. However, some of its important elements, such as the multi-story form of construction and underground parking and vehicle circulation, are indubitably expensive in initial capital. If the hard and soft costs of housing in a Center can be kept to a total of $400 per square foot, a 1,200 sq ft apartment will cost about $500,000. This is a reasonably affordable family dwelling in relation to the Bay Area housing market, especially in view of the transportation savings it permits. But it does not count the undergrounding of parking and roadways, which is capital-intensive. The excavation required to handle Car Share and private vehicles for residents, and trucks supplying Center stores, and also the cars of outside users of the BART station, will be extensive, but the normal BART insistence on above-ground parking structures near its stations ruins TOD sites. Costly undergrounding of these common facilities is essential for a full walking TOD, but may necessitate some form of public subsidy or loan guarantee.
As part of California's AB 32 drive against climate change and carbon emissions, the Bay Area's regional agencies have made commitments to the State of California under SB 375 to plan to reduce CO2 emissions from cars and light duty trucks by 7% per capita by 2020, and 15% per capita by 2035. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) also now officially aims to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita in the same period, in place of the normal rise in VMT. Both these interrelated goals require more use of public electric transportation, such as BART, and soon Caltrain, and reductions in the overwhelming present use of cars and light trucks. But the MTC has learned that by far the most important and effective way to increase transit's mode share is to increase housing and jobsites near transit services. For this reason, the MTC's mission shifts away from transportation investments, toward also influencing land use policies and decisions within the region.
Land use policy-making is traditionally under the control of local cities rather than regional bodies. Bay Area-wide organizations, such as the MTC, have only recently begun to try to influence local land use decisions toward the density that supports public transportation. Leapfrogging the present gradualism and building one or more full walking transit oriented communities, or Centers, as demonstration prototypes, would be directly effective for the region in meeting its climate protection and sustainability targets under SB 375, and is therefore a proper candidate for regional public investment.
In the early 1960's, the Federal Aviation Administration attacked the problem of long walking distances inside airports by commissioning renowned architect Eero Saarinen to develop an alternative prototype at Dulles Airport near Washington D.C. Saarinen's compact but strikingly beautiful structure in glass and concrete used special buses, known as "mobile lounges," to move passengers out to their planes. It did cut internal distances, and was efficient for the passengers. Although eventually not followed by other airports, the project was a perceptive and constructive public investment in innovation.
Thinking about these administrative and legal considerations, but, more importantly, thinking about the great daily expense, unsustainability and climate damage of America's sprawling metropolitan cities, it is clear that support for a prototype Center in the Bay Area would be a merited intervention by a higher level of administration, such as the full metropolitan region, the State of California, or the Federal government.