More than development. Norwalk redevelopment.

Opinion: CT’s TOD Needs More T, O, & D

There was another story on the wires last week that WSHU and The Hour also picked up about that most peculiar of transit dilemmas in the State of Connecticut: parking.–Gold-Coast-Train-Parking .

Yes, you heard right.  If you thought that people were finally getting out of their cars and getting the hang of this riding-the-train-to-work thing, you’d only be half-right.  You see, in the bizarro world of suburban transportation, the way one accesses alternatives to driving is to, er.., drive somewhere so that one can switch modes.  Ergo, the continual acrimony described in the article around investing ever-more public monies in rail station parking facilities.  You know.  So that people don’t have to drive so much.

Psssst.  Hey Connecticut, here’s a thought: what if you provided station access for rail commuters (who, by definition, have opted for an alternative mode of transportation) via…other transit??  There are buses, streetcars, trolleys, and other shuttles.  If you want to get really crazy, there’s also this neat little two-wheeled contraption coming back into vogue called the “bicycle” which, with modest adjustments to on-street lane configurations, can usually convey a person to and away from train stations, requiring a tiny fraction of the parking space.  Oh, and finally, there’s this minor little trend in urban development known as “transit-oriented development” (TOD) which has demonstrated that, by building more residential and office development near train stations – and providing a safe and pleasant pedestrian environment between them – many rail passengers won’t need a conveyance at all.  (But please note: it’s kinda hard to do that if you’ve built a sea of surface parking around the station in stead.)

Certainly the car–>train modal combination is one of the modal combinations that station planners need to accommodate, and I don’t mean to suggest they don’t.  If, for example, you’re living here in Norwalk — say Cranbury — commuting to a job in NYC, and you don’t want to drive the whole way, leaving your car at the train station makes a lot of sense.  You’re not going to bike (or walk) to South Norwalk, and the bus (the 5/6) doesn’t operate during commuting hours.  Driving to the station, or driving to New York, are the choices you’re left with.

But which is the chicken and which the egg in this state of affairs?  Do people not walk, bike, or take transit from other Norwalk neighborhoods to the train because the facilities for those alternative modes are lacking?  Or do the facilities for those alternative modes lack because of a perceived lack of demand for them on the part of planners and elected officials?  (I often hear the question, posed rhetorically, “where are all these bicyclists and pedestrians you’re always so concerned about?”  In fact, research shows this is an if-you-build-it-they-will-come proposition.)

There’s something, at minimum, deeply ironic, if not pathological about Connecticut’s brand of transit-oriented development, i.e., build a lot of parking by train stations to promote alternatives to driving.  On the one hand, it reminds me of the cartoon of the teenager’s fight with her mother “I hate you.  Leave me alone!  But first, can you drive me to the mall so I can hang out with Cheryl?”  It also reminds me of the definition of Stockholme Syndrome, i.e., the pathology where victims develop a bond with their captor.  Connecticut’s chosen path for breaking out of the captivity of our auto-oriented lifestyles runs directly through the “captor” himself.  To get away from mom, we first need to get a ride…with mom.  Our escape route out of mono-modal transportation captivity is by climbing into the cell with the captor.  To not drive, we must drive.

Some day, Connecticut will offer real alternatives to driving in our communities; some day, alternatives to driving won’t require…driving.

What do others think?