Planning and Zoning for Transit Hubs

July 26, 2019
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Recently, Clarion Director Don Elliott, FAICP, joined a panel discussion at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute about Transit Hubs and the Future of Mobility Choice.  Co-panelists included Ann Bowers (Principal at Fehr & Peers), Don Hunt (Managing Director of Denver Mobility Choice Options) and Art Pierce (Group Manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation).  Each participant focused on a different way in which technology will disrupt traditional mobility assumptions and the pressing need for improved coordination between transit agencies, transportation departments, public works departments, and micro- and shared-mobility providers.  Much of the discussion focused on two key questions: What kinds of transit hubs are needed to create synergies between all forms of mobility, and how should local governments plan and zone to accommodate those transit hubs? Don’s presentation listed six question that can help organize the discussion and minimize the chances that stakeholders are “talking past each other”:

  1. Public or Private Investment. Is the community looking to finance or build transit hubs itself, or does it want to allow private development to build and finance them?  Because public money is always in short supply, many communities choose to enable private development and then regulate it through traditional zoning, land use, and development quality controls.
  2. One or More than One. Often, discussions focus on the need for a single multi-modal facility (often downtown) that can be custom-designed for its site and the modes of mobility involved, so planning and zoning can be very detailed. If the city or county is instead hoping to allow multiple hubs in several locations, the regulations will need to be more flexible to accommodate varying site constraints and different zone districts.
  3. A Building or a Place. Is the community considering an enclosed building with amenities like waiting rooms, ticket sales, and convenience shopping (which are expensive), or is it planning to allow and regulate unenclosed places where different types of mobility transfers take place without amenities (which are less expensive)?
  4. Primary or Accessory Use. Is the city or county thinking of transit hubs as freestanding facilities that will be the primary use of a parcel of land, or is it thinking of hubs as accessory uses that might be constructed or operated on the same parcel as an office building, a shopping center, a school, or a government institution? Treating transit hubs as an accessory use will allow more flexibility for the market to respond to demand, but will require careful thinking about which zone districts and primary uses are appropriate “hosts” for the facility.
  5. Whose Property. Is the community thinking of transit hubs as uses to be incorporated in private developments (like parking garages or mixed-use buildings)?  Or will they be in the “public realm” – which is often a mix of public and private property — (like an extra wide sidewalk or bike/scooter staging area)?  Or will they be on public property? Regulations of private property are subject to constitutional and statutory limits on zoning powers, while activities on public property are often governed by police or traffic regulations outside zoning.
  6. How Prescriptive. Unfortunately, discussions of transit hubs often turn into very detailed design exercises and result in strict regulations to “do it this way”, and all too often the regulations remain unused because no private investor is willing to “do it that way.”  Because the types of transit hubs that we will need in the future are still largely unknown, because different modal mixes require different types of facilities, and because each site has different constraints, it is usually wise not embrace strict design standards, and to instead focus on those controls needed to ensure that the facility functions efficiently, protects the health and safety of those who use it, and allows significant flexibility for innovative designs.

Clarion Associates enjoys working with its partner clients to think through what kinds of transit hubs are needed in each community, and to craft regulations and incentives that meet those needs.