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Rail-Volution: A Conference For Mass-Transit Wonks

Will our mass-transit future include room for neighborhoods of single-family homes?

Posted on Nov 1 2011 by Amy Hook

“Rail-Volution.” The first time I heard the made-up word, I giggled and immediately had to know what it meant.

Well, I quickly found out: it is an annual conference focusing on building livable transit communities. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not attend this year’s conference, nor have I ever been. And, I admit that I fell in love with Portland before I had ever been there because I had studied its transit system in grad school and am outright obsessed with Portland now that I have actually experienced their transit.

I also think Boston’s bus system is “wicked-smaht!” So, I like transit. It makes me smile. For some reason it takes me back to learning how to ride my bike — and even before that singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round” in preschool. It just makes me smile.

The nuts and bolts of transit planning

There were some fantastic presentations and discussions at this year’s conference. There was discussion on policy, research, community outreach, and education.

For those of you who love planning, there was discussion on the intricate nature of planning decisions around transit: for example, how to mix transit types most effectively. There were even discussions around transit finance.

Can you tell I feel like I missed out? I did see one thing missing in the listing of sessions: mixed property types and transit. Where do single-family homes fit in the equation?

Don't sacrifice single-family neighborhoods

With the close of this year’s Rail-Volution conference, I would like to start a discussion around single-family homes and mass transit. As a proponent of mixed housing-type development and a believer in the importance of diversity, I often wonder if anyone out there is arguing for the historic single-family homes located near transit lines.

I have seen entire neighborhoods of important historic structures demolished for the good of transit – we have all seen it in the past. While I believe in smart growth and creating higher-density communities, I also believe in the single-family property type.

This issue mainly comes up in Southern cities, but can also be seen in places like Cleveland or Los Angeles where the primary housing type is single-family. While these two cities aren’t struggling with this issue now, it will come up in the future as oil prices continue to rise and mass transit gets more attention nationally.

Tell me your thoughts about the single-family property type and its relationship to mass transit. What is your vision?

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  1. Enterprise Green Communities

Nov 2, 2011 9:38 AM ET

The "Single Family" Form vs. Transit
by Kevin Dickson, MSME

Denver is another city to embrace carriage houses and granny flats as a compromise under their new zoning code.

New duplexes were quickly replacing historic single family bungalows in many neighborhoods. This was one of the biggest issues prompting the 2010 zoning code rewrite. In most of those neighborhoods, duplexes are now illegal since the majority of people were against the changes they were seeing.

Some of these neighborhoods now allow new carriage houses, which were outlawed in 1956. It took a grass roots effort to even get the zoning department to put them on the table:

In a very small number of neighborhoods, especially near transit, the new zoning code still allows duplexes and a new form, the tandem house. The tandem house is a carriage house on steroids, and could prevent the scraping of historic bungalows in good condition:

Nov 2, 2011 9:45 AM ET

Response to The "Single Family" Form vs. Trainsit
by Amy Hook

Thanks for the info and the links, Kevin! Can't wait to take a look at the experience those of you in Denver have had. This is the perfect example of why I love this industry so much - our country is so different, but we can use techniques and processes used in other places to customize our own approach to our unique urban dilemmas!

Nov 2, 2011 10:37 AM ET

Close to Home
by John Brooks

I don't have any suggestions...but this subject hits close to home for me.
I live in A historic neighborhood and my house is 1,000 feet from the light rail station.
Fortunately my neighborhood has a strong Preservation Plan....and there is other land available for high density nearby with not-so-historic homes.

Nov 2, 2011 10:43 AM ET

Reply to Close to Home
by Amy Hook

Thanks, John. What city are you in?

As I read through Kevin's links he posted earlier about the experience in Denver, I noticed the overarching heartache... how do we encourage density without encouraging mass demo of single family homes?

Nov 2, 2011 12:28 PM ET

Edited Nov 2, 2011 12:28 PM ET.

My City
by John Brooks

Amy, I live in Plano...just North of Dallas, Texas
The light rail is doing very well here and has helped to revitalize our Old Downtown...
We now have several "Urban Villages" very near the Station.

Richardson, TX is just between Plano and Dallas....
they have just recently started to build their "Urban Villages"
...unfortunately they wiped out a bunch of Historic Homes....
And Richardson only had a few left anyway.

Nov 2, 2011 12:36 PM ET

Response to My City
by Amy Hook

Thanks, John. I have been to Dallas a few times, but never out to Plano. I didn't know you had light rail there - maybe a good field trip at some point!

You highlight a great point and give us an example to look at- transit can revitalize a troubled downtown.

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