Living Urbanism

Codes Over Commissions: Why Architectural Codes, Rather Than Landmarks Commissions, Should Regulate Development in Historic Districts by russellpreston

By Ian Rasmussen

“[I]t is essential for the city to have confidence in new buildings as well and to know how to do it correctly in relation to the old.” — Vincent Scully, Jr.

Being designated a “historic district” is perhaps the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon a neighborhood. More often than not, what is being recognized is not the significance of historic events having occurred there, but that the neighborhood has a defined style and sense of place which contribute to our culture. This got me to thinking: Will Seaside—dubbed the most astounding design achievement of its era—ever be a historic district?

One place to look for an answer is at great planned neighborhoods from the past. Interestingly some, such as Boston’s Back Bay or Brooklyn’s Park Slope are historic districts; others such as Queens’ Forest Hills Gardens, or Kansas City’s Country Club district are not. The difference between them is that the latter are subject to architectural regulations and therefore do not rely upon historic preservation laws to protect them. Similarly, Seaside and most other new urbanist communities are subject to architectural regulations which served to define, and now maintain, their style. To be sure, the advancement of such codes is one of the most remarkable achievements of the new urbanism.

The fact that places like Seaside, or Forest Hills Gardens, can maintain a consistent and excellent architectural style without the aid of landmarks commissions, public hearings, and what is a whole other layer of regulation and administration, is not without significance. There are a number of values promoted by new urbanism that are furthered by the use of architectural codes, as opposed to preservation laws: for example, making the approval process swift, and its outcome more predictable.

From this writing, I have concluded that the question of how a City instills confidence in new buildings comes down to two central promises. First, that what we build will be better than what it replaces. There are really only two good reasons to knock anything down: it’s about to fall down, or you are going to replace it with something better. Whether old-growth trees or a grand building, so long as the replacement is more valuable, it is progress. Historically this is how we built. No sooner did we break this promise than did NIMBY-ism rise up and force us to spend our evenings being cross-examined at community meetings.

Second, that the more complex and imposing our regulations, the more swift and certain their administration. Tell people they can build whatever they like so long as the Town Board approves, and the process is at once flexible and indefinite. But, tell someone how tall, how wide, what color, and what type of windows their building must have, and they should be able to reasonably assume that if they meet your list of demands, they will be allowed to proceed.

Replacing the laws and approval processes of historic districts with architectural codes offers to fulfill both those promises, and improve the system along the way. Before explaining why, and to fully understand why the status quo isn’t the best solution, it’s useful to examine the problems historic preservation laws were invented to solve.


The half-century from 1920–1970 bore witness to a stunning degradation in the quality of American architecture. Though the profession’s work had arguably peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, it really declined during this period. The reasons for this fall from grace are many, too numerous and complex to fully discuss. But, at least a few help put the rise of historic preservation in context.

First, the era of modernism and the “International Style,” borne of European architects and theorists in the 1930’s, materialized and became fashionable in the wealthiest, most advanced nation in the world: post-WWII America. Second, the influx of high-skilled, cheap labor (almost constant from 1860–1910) that allowed complex buildings to be economical dried up as immigration policies changed leading into the Great Depression and WWII. Third, the advent of the automobile, and the massive government subsidization of our transition to a way of life that revolved around it, stacked the deck against buildings and developments that did not accommodate the car.

Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, was a cultural shift from focusing on the quality of buildings, to the quantity of buildings. The generation that experienced adolescence in the throes of the Great Depression, and early adulthood in the battles of WWII, inevitably had a different outlook on what mattered. They understood that everything could be taken from you in an instant. They saw that all the grandeur of Paris or London could be bombed out tomorrow. It’s only natural they rebuilt as quickly as possible, and without regard for the ornamentation of buildings.

It was the perfect storm for the destruction of America’s older buildings. By the end of the 1940’s they were out of style, too expensive to repair, didn’t have enough parking, and were generally uncared for. And so we started knocking them down—a lot of them.

All of the great destructive trends in American history had a straw that broke the camels back: water pollution had “Love Canal”; endangered species had the Bald Eagle. For Historic Preservation, that straw was Penn Station. You could hardly have picked a better poster child. Penn Station was one of, if not the single grandest buildings ever constructed in this country. But as the railroads were being abandoned and dismantled, their stations fell into disrepair. For the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was struggling to survive, Penn Station was little more than a drag on its balance sheet. At the same time, under the newly adopted zoning regulations in New York City the site could be developed with over a million square feet of office space. To be fair, from a purely financial perspective it would have been foolish not to knock it down and sell the development rights for a new building. And that’s exactly what was proposed.

But it wasn’t just the building that made it so surreal and troubling, it was the entire episode. There was almost no opposition to the station’s destruction in the first place— protesters ranked not in the hundreds, or thousands, but in the tens. And the new station and the glassy office tower above it (which remain to this day) were simply dreadful. In case you haven’t been to the new Penn Station, the main entrance’s stairs descend to a concourse with   nine-foot ceilings. As one critic famously said: “One used to enter the city as a king, now one scurries in like a rat.”

Though it is regrettable that such a tragedy had to occur, Penn Station’s greatest legacy will likely be as a catalyst for the historic preservation movement. In the years that followed, the loss of the station came to be nothing short of an embarrassment for New York; which soon after, in 1965, created a Landmarks Preservation Commission and began designating landmarks throughout the city. Realizing they had committed many heinous acts against their built heritage, other cities and towns across the nation followed suit.

The early success of the Historic Preservation movement, politically, culturally, and in the courts where its legality was confirmed, fueled its rampant spread. Not only among towns and cities, but within them, as diverse applications of “preservation” were experimented with. Obviously the first to be preserved were the landmarks, both historical and architectural—which more often than not do not overlap. Historical landmarks including buildings like the log cabin where Lincoln was born, and architectural landmarks including buildings like Grand Central Station.

Next came the advent of the “historic district.” Here things became slightly more complicated. Historic districts are composed of several buildings (typically several blocks, or even a whole neighborhood), most of which by themselves are not historically or architecturally significant, but which together form a place that is either historically important, or architecturally distinctive. You can imagine that if you weren’t able to protect any of Georgetown or Greenwich Village unless the buildings were independently or architecturally historic, those districts would be at risk.

The result is that now, the number of buildings that are protected elements of historic districts far outnumber the individual architectural and historic landmarks. To be clear, this essay doesn’t take issue with the system of landmarking individual buildings, but with historic districting.

The Existing Process of Historic Preservation

Now that historic preservation laws are virtually universal in this country, most of the important individual landmarks designated, and many of the important historic districts protected, allow us to focus on how (and if) the system works in practice. My involvement in, and perspective of, this process is as an attorney presenting applications to the Landmarks Commission; I mediate a debate about what should be built between the preservationists, the architects, and developers.

So you’ve purchased a vacant property in a historic district, or an old building you want to renovate or enlarge. How does the historic district constrain you? Generally, the answer is that in addition to presenting plans that conform to your local building and zoning codes (to get your permits), you need a separate approval from the landmarks commission (called a “certificate of appropriateness”). The only catch is that where the building and zoning codes are fairly clear in what is required, the idea of “appropriateness” is very vague. To be sure, there isn’t even a place where what it means to be appropriate in the historic district is defined. The solution is to visit the district, try to discern its common characteristics, and design something that emulates that style. Good architects, who understand urbanism, can design a contextually appropriate building on the first try. However, most architects learned to design without context in school, and design according to the bottom line in practice; the idea of context and precedent is foreign to them.

Here is how the rest of the story plays out: you present your plans to the landmarks commission; they say it’s not appropriate for this reason or that (all subjective opinions, mind you); the architect revises the plans; you present again; whereas last time the commission didn’t like the windows, now it’s the awning, or the entrance. This cycle repeats itself a few more times until the commission feels like they’ve gotten something out of the developer. The whole affair takes, and costs, about four times more than designing a building anywhere else in the city.

I love old buildings, and I don’t care for modern architecture, so I think I am as much a supporter of preservation as anyone; but there is something horribly wrong with this process. Though I’ve oversimplified it, and maybe even demonized the landmarks people in the process, that’s pretty much a fair telling of the system from my point of view. And, what’s really ironic is that most of the developers I work with are so eager to get the project done, they are willing to do almost anything the commission tells them to. Forget the archetype of the heartless developer; most just want to be told in clear terms, so they can tell their bank, exactly what they need to do for guaranteed approval.

The Approval Process with an Architectural Code

Now consider the experience of a person who has purchased a vacant lot at Seaside. Like anyone else, they want to know what they can build. The answer is found in the community’s urban code (which is like a zoning code), and architectural code. The entire document is a double-sided 11″ x 17″ sheet. What is appropriate in Seaside? A design that complies with its codes. Period.

Seaside, of course, benefits greatly from having a town architect to work with the owner and project architect to develop a compliant design. But even that is much less expensive, not to mention less cumbersome, than having an entire landmarks commission. If a design that is presented to the town architect is fully compliant with Seaside’s codes, it will generally be approved. How long it takes to develop a compliant design is up to the architect and owner; not a product of the process.

Again, I’ve simplified the whole process for the sake of discussion. And, I should mention that the ultimate discretion over what gets built in such place still lies with the town architect, even if the design is fully compliant. For the most part, though, that’s it.

Replacing Historic Districts With Architectural Codes

Not only are architectural codes a better tool to regulate new construction, but also development in historic districts. The advantages, though more plain in the case of new construction, also apply to older buildings. Before delving into why architectural codes are a better way to regulate historic districts, it’s important to understand why this is true.

We need to stop thinking of old buildings in historic districts as “historic buildings.” Historic buildings are places that are important to history. Old buildings in historic districts are just a part of historic places. These places can, with a tight architectural code, survive without all their original parts.

Consider why preserving historic districts became so important in the first place: people were knocking down beautiful old buildings and replacing them with garbage. If what was being constructed in place of the old buildings were newer, better buildings—architecturally, structurally, functionally and technologically—would we have minded in the first place?

Will many people knock down a beautiful old building when the only thing they are allowed to put in its place is a comparably sized, similar looking, new building. In fact, a good architectural code favors renovating or enlarging older buildings over demolition and new construction.

With regard to vacant properties being developed, there is no reason to believe that a new building developed under an architectural code will be any worse than one developed under a landmarks commission. Given the inability of such commissions to effectively communicate to the architects and developers, the code may even provide for better results!

The Advantages of Architectural Codes

There are numerous reasons why architectural codes are a better way to handle development in historic districts than the approval process of historic preservation. Maybe you hate big government, and the idea of one more layer of bureaucracy keeps you up at night. Or maybe you’ve been through the interminable process and endured hours-long public meetings at which the angry neighbors actually get a say in what you can build on your property. Ideologies aside, there are four specific advantages to using architectural codes.

The first is efficiency. Whether or not you think government should play a smaller or larger role in our lives, and whether it should shrink or expand accordingly, it’s fair to say no one supports waste—and the approval process of preservation is full of it. Think back to the hypothetical in the preceding section. The architect had to spend four times as long producing his plans; four times the paper, four times the pens, and so on. The developer also had to spend four times as much money. Everyone had to attend several public hearings. The commission has to be there, the project team needs to be there, and even the concerned neighbors had to take the afternoon off to be there, on several occasions. This is a waste of everyone’s time and resources. Not just the developers, but the municipalities and the citizens as well.

If there were an architectural code in place, how many of the gaffs in the early design proposals, and how many of the back-and-forths over them would have been obviated? How much closer would the architect’s first try have been to the final design? And, equally important, would it have been as good as what came out of the landmarks commission process? With a well-written architectural code, the answer is as good or better.

The second is objectivity. The law should be applied objectively. After all, why does the law prescribe how much you have to steal before its “grand theft” or how much pollution you can put in the air before you need a certain permit. You would not want to live in a world where whether you went to jail for two years or five depended on whether a commission thought what you stole was “grand,” or where your permitting requirements were subject to what a commission thought of your pollution. In virtually every corner of regulation, the law strives to reject these subjective opinions in favor of objective requirements.

The laws of historic preservation are a notorious exception to this general rule, mostly because it’s tough to codify style. Of course, this is what makes the issue one for the new urbanists; the group that has not only reintroduced the idea of architectural coding, but made great strides in the field. The bottom line is that in the absence of knowing a better way to regulate, the laws of historic preservation rely almost entirely on the subjective opinions of a few people. By comparison, architectural codes are almost devoid of subjective opinions, and rely on objective requirements, agreed upon by everyone at the outset, to get the job done.

A related advantage is the third: a dependable outcome. Not only with preservation, but with the public process, which dominates the field of planning, we completely got it wrong. Anyone who has ever applied to build anything—whether it’s a 10,000-unit new town or a backyard swimming pool—wants to know is what they are allowed to do. And what they are really getting at is not only what is permitted, but that if they comply with those requirements, it will be promptly approved. What’s been getting built since 1945 is basically so horrible that in most cases, and certainly any that are larger than a few buildings, we have decided there is no set of requirements that guarantee approval; we want to be able to veto anything. Historic districts are the epitome of this idea.

The problem is that this way of doing things runs contrary to one of the basic tenets of regulations: that the more complex and imposing the regulations, the more dependable their outcome should be. In other words, if you’re going to tell me exactly what I can build not only in terms of height and form, as with zoning, but also in terms of materials, colors, and details right down to the shape of the windows and their ornamentation; then I should be able to expect that you will make those requirements clearly known to me, and if I meet them, then I can proceed. That is basically what an architectural code does; it clearly defines compliance.

The approval process of preservation has the equation backwards; they not only want an intrusive degree of power, but they aren’t going to nail down a set of criteria to review against. Imagine, a legal process—and that’s what preservation is—where those in charge control almost every aspect of a building, but don’t have to you their requirements. In those terms it almost sounds despotic. A good deal of the resistance to historic preservation arises out of precisely this frustration.

Finally, and this may be the most important thing architectural codes have to offer, you to not need to be an old neighborhood to deserve and take advantage of their benefits. Doesn’t it strike you as at least somewhat unfair that older neighborhoods have this entire field of law, and world of administrative processes, organized with the goal of protecting their best buildings (and the value of the surrounding real estate) while anything newer, no matter the quality, is left out to dry? Is it any wonder the overwhelming majority of new homes constructed in the past ten years have been located in gated communities with home owner’s associations and deed restrictions?

Americans are probably the last to admit that they would sacrifice the freedom to put plastic flamingoes in their front yard, but more than any other nation in the world we are building and electing to live in places where private governments control everything from lawn furniture to new siding. This trend is nothing less than a cry for architectural regulation, and it’s no coincidence it arose just as suburban sprawl and modern architecture began to consume the landscape. Where the environmentalists have spent all their energy making sure nothing happens to nature, while completely ignoring what gets built, so have the preservationists spent their time obsessing over existing places, and completely ignoring new ones. Both of these positions espouse a hopelessness that leads nowhere.

The truth is that most Americans who live in places that are at all dense—meaning they can see the next house—want some level of guarantee that their neighbor isn’t going to build a neon-colored curiosity that hurts their property values. It’s not unlike the circumstances surrounding the advent of zoning. Though most of the talk surrounding the famous Euclid decision is about the segregation of uses it condoned, the most telling words of the decisions speak of the apartment house in the single family neighborhood as a “pig in the parlor,” which are as applicable to an ugly building as they are to a functionally different one.

The response on the part of preservationists has been to over landmark. What happens is that well-formed neighborhood groups lobby to get their neighborhood designated a historic district. Whether or not it’s the most deserving of places, and whether or not more historic places have yet to be protected, the landmarks commission responds to political pressure. The result is the creation of historic districts all over the city, which have as much to do with out of control new development as they do history. Meanwhile, newer areas that are clearly not ripe for preservation call on the city to downzone their areas to  a density much lower than actually exists. The goal being to create an environment where, because of the abnormally low zoning potential, no one will knock an existing building, or build a new one either.


All any of us want, in old neighborhoods or new ones, whether you care about urbanism or not, is a reasonable expectation that what is going to be built will be as good as what it replaces, and some idea what that’s going to look like. Is that so much to ask? These simple objectives are more easily achieved with a code than with a commission; and in the process, we’d be making our approval process more swift, fair, and definite as well.

– – –

Ian Rasmussen is an attorney and urbanist living in New York City. His practice focuses on land use, zoning, and urban design.

[image by Rego-Forest Preservation Council]

The Transit Tipping Point by Ian Rasmussen by russellpreston
The Future is Transit

Image by Peter French


The Metro, in Washington D.C., is by all appearances a model urban transportation system. Its trains run smoothly, quietly, and quickly. Its stations are well designed, with excellent signage, a cool breeze, and even lights at the edge of the platform that blink when a train arrives. The metro has further appeal in its regional scale, converting from central business district circulator, to commuter rail system as it travels further from the urban core.

By comparison the New York City subway is awful. Its trains jerk passengers about at starts and stops. Loud screeching echoes through stations as trains turn a curve or come to a stop. The stations are fluorescently lit and tiled, making their overall appearance like that of a public bathroom (a function which they have also been known to take). Worse yet, in is the summertime heat of the asphalt above seeps into the crowded stations. Also, unlike the Washington Metro, New York’s subway never takes on the speed, the comfort, or the role of a regional commuter rail system.

According to the three central factors that should influence travel decisions, time, cost and comfort, Washington should have New York beat hands down. Its trains are fast, its rides generally cheaper (you can’t go one stop on the New York subway for less than $2.25), and its trains much more comfortable. Why is it, then, that just about everyone in New York takes the subway, yet the Metro captures only a fraction of Washington’s commuters?

According to planners, it’s all about density; and New York’ got it in spades. There is much truth to this point, and the transportation-land use connection (which basically says that people use transit where dense nodes of development surround transit stations) is now a nearly universally accepted concept. But doesn’t the Washington Metro have a reputation for encouraging dense mixed use development around its stations (i.e. the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor)? And while New York is certainly dense, its policies don’t directly encourage Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

According to friends in Washington who are otherwise not inclined to own a car, the problem is “the Metro doesn’t go anywhere.” It’s true that there are large parts of Washington that are not well served by the Metro. But certainly the same can be said for New York, where the subway does not come close to extending to the city line, and avoids certain areas all together. As for the central business district, which is where it really counts, both cities’ cores are well served.

There has to be something more to it; how is this contradiction explained? The answer came to me on a random day, running out for a meeting about a mile uptown. It was 9:45 am, the meeting was at 10, and I was very late. I left my building at 9:46, 30 seconds away from a subway stop. I descended a single flight of stairs, swiped my card, and just when I hit the platform a train was arriving. Three stops later I exited, up just one more flight, and arrived at my destination a few minutes after that. Arrival time: 9:53 – 8 minutes after I left my desk in a panic.

That’s the kind of transit experience that makes you sell your car, or never hail a cab again—the kind of trip that the most successful transit systems are based on— because they show you any other way of getting there is plainly inferior. Then it occurred to me that a trip like that isn’t possible on the Washington Metro. To be sure, I don’t think there is an 8 minute door-to-door trip in the history of that system, or many others. While the metro shines over longer distances, and attracts a great deal of commuters as a result of it, despite having well-placed stations in its CBD, it simply can’t do 8 minute trips.

The Transit Tipping Point

Transit ridership is good for itself. Of course ridership is good and necessary for a system to exist at all. But, it’s not just that people using transit is good for the system, but that a sweet spot can be achieved where ridership begets more ridership. I call this the “transit tipping point.” It is the combination of factors which result in a pattern of increased transit ridership.

The transit tipping point occurs when a system is so attractive by comparison to its alternatives that it gains widespread use and thereafter gains the momentum to improve itself. More people are riding, therefore more service is provided, therefore more stations attract diverse uses, and – in turn – more people are riding, and so on. The best transit systems in the world share in this great success, where everyone who lives anywhere near the train is taking it or buses run every few minutes and stations or stops are surrounded by dense, mixed-use centers. Moreover, if you think about the small handful of places in this country where living car-free is a realistic option, their transit systems enjoy this type of success, too.

Originally, my purpose in exploring this subject was only to identify the factors that explain why some transit systems have failed to meet expectations, and others continue to succeed despite a lackluster experience. Only later, in further discussions of what “living urbanism” means, did the true motivation occur to me. Those who are fortunate enough to choose whether to own, or drive a car, enjoy a profound freedom that is as enjoyable as the best of public spaces, living in diverse communities, or any one of the goals to which new urbanists have dedicated themselves. Too often, though, transit has fallen short on its potential to improve our quality of life because it never reaches its tipping point – instead sliding in the opposite direction, disappointing its advocates, and fueling criticism. The point of this essay is to identify some ways in which that trend may be reversed.

The Well Known Factors Behind Transit Success

There are several well known factors that consistently lead to successful transit. Thus, before moving on to the subtleties that define the best systems, it is worthwhile to go through them. To be sure, all successful transit systems need to have these essentials in place.


The most critical component in successful transit systems is density. (Otherwise known as the “Transportation – Land Use connection”). It’s the great built in advantage of the world’s best systems, and has even been given a fashionable name: “transit-oriented development.” (Which many of us in older cities think is a fancy description for an obvious idea). But it is not the density alone that is so powerful, it is the effect of the density on the transportation economics equation.

Generally, people are willing to walk to and take transit within a pedestrian shed (5-minute walk) of where they reside. More detailed research indicates that (quite sensibly) the propensity to walk (and walk further) increases with the utility of the trip to be taken – i.e. you might walk 10 minutes to a commuter rail station, but only 5 minutes to a light-rail.

The problem with these figures, is that they are using a single metric to correlate the results of the complex equation that is occurring. What other transportation options are available? Is there parking at the station? How much faster is the train than driving? How much more expensive? Every one of these variables is placed in the melting pot of transportation decisions.

Density around stations should be a central goal in the planning of transit systems. To be sure, it is present in every successful one. But, do not believe that you can’t make transit something that people in detached single-family houses aren’t going to walk 15 minutes to. In wealthy suburbs, from Winnetka to White Plains, people leave BMW’s in the driveway every morning to walk 15 minutes to a train. The question is why?

The Difficulty of Driving

Planners have offered up density as their big answer to transit success – and I largely agree. But my choice for the number two spot, even more rarely implemented than density and TOD’s, is policies that make it more difficult (i.e. expensive) to drive.

Said plainly, people who take transit every day do so because it’s cheaper than driving (in the sense of time, comfort, and/or direct costs). It follows that to discourage driving,  by making it more expensive, would correspond with encouraging transit use. Every time gas or tolls become more expensive, someone takes the bus. If the bus route is changed to take five minutes longer, someone will opt to drive. These are the margins of transportation economics, and they are where the slightest changes have effect.

It’s an especially important point in light of the number of transit systems that flounder in spite of massive subsidies. After all, they have new trains, new stations; why aren’t people riding? The answer is likely that no policies to discourage driving were adopted when transit was introduced.

Note, I am not referring to policies that attract people to transit, such as tax-free fares or advertising. I am talking about making driving more expensive directly: tolls, congestion pricing, parking taxes, gas taxes, etc. Without these policies, it is nearly impossible to turn the auto-oriented masses into transit riders. The car is simply too good a deal as is.

In case you doubt the positive impact expensive driving could have on transit, just take a look at the few thriving commuter rail systems left in this country. Generally, they serve affluent communities where everyone own cars and shun public transportation. But how else can we explain that people in these communities are not only walking to the train, but they are walking further than we would ever expect. What really got them out of their cars? Traffic. Tolls. Parking. Gas. It has everything to do with driving being unattractive.

The Opposite – Transit is Simply Too Expensive Most of the Time

Using transit may prove faster a lot of the time and therefore be considered less costly than driving. In general, however, driving is almost always less expensive – in dollars and cents.

There are two points to be made here: First, transit is far too expensive (by comparison to driving) most of the time.[1]. This has a great deal to do with making driving comparatively more expensive of course, as discussed in the earlier section.

The second problem related to the cost of transit is the related cost of auto ownership. Unlike transit, where most of the travel costs are paid on a per trip basis, the automobile has the great advantage of sticking you with the costs up front, and making it a better deal to drive your car later. Given the large investment that is buying a car, in addition to mandated insurance and necessary repairs, it is estimated that car ownership costs Americans about $8,000 a year. So, when the cost of driving is being compared to using transit; well, you’ve already paid for most of the drive, so you’d better get your money’s worth.

The point is that the deck is stacked in favor of cars, before even discussing things like highway spending and subsidies for auto-makers. At the most basic level driving is, at present, a much less costly way to get around. Unless that equation can be altered, transit will not succeed.

The Hidden Factors Behind Transit Success

Now on to the hidden factors which allow a system to achieve the transit tipping point.

On review you will find that the consistent theme in all of these factors is that they capture short, spur of the moment trips. This is because in the same way some transit systems are successful in replacing the drive to work, they need to replace taking the kids to school, running to the store, etc. This strategy is contrary to much of transportation planning, which aims to get people to commute long-haul distances using transit. Not to downplay the importance of the commuter trips, but they only make up a fraction of the total. And, more importantly, it is the shorter unplanned transit rides that are at the heart of the transit tipping point – which will eventually lead to increased transit use by everyone from commuters to tourists. Plus, if the challenge is convincing new riders to try transit, it’s a lot easier to convince someone to take the train or bus for a one time trip than to alter their entire live-work arrangement.


Headways – how frequently transit runs – are an under-appreciated part of the transit experience. Imagine you arrive at a friend’s house to find they live right across from a train station. Trains run every 20 minutes, home run. Trains run twice a day, worthless. Granted those are the extremes; if you insert headways into the transportation economics equation, they have a serious effect. When you consider them in terms of the goal of hitting the transit tipping point, they make a world of difference.

Transit options tend to fall within one of two categories: systems where you look at a schedule, and systems where you don’t (i.e. subway, vs. commuter rail). My general rule is that if service runs less than once every 15 minutes, I check a schedule. . The critical difference between these two types of systems is the extent to which they can influence spur of the moment travel decisions – that is, those that are happening at the margins.

There is a minimal cost involved in checking a schedule, but it is something you must do before you leave.  For instance, if you are scrambling to get to a meeting you need to have checked the schedule before declining a taxi in favor of the train.  There are likely many such spur of the moment trips that might go to transit, but instead end up in the automobile. For this reason the transportation systems at the heart of a transit tipping point are more likely to be non-scheduled systems, for the simple reason that they capture spontaneous trips.

But, that’s not the end of the story. The problem in this case is that because users aren’t checking a schedule, the duration of their trip is inextricably linked to the average wait time for service. Said otherwise, if the train runs every 14 minutes you probably won’t check a schedule, and you will also probably wait 7 minutes for a train.

The effect of this average wait time cannot be overstated. It is a deal breaker for certain systems, and what makes others work. To compare, take the train running every 14 minutes versus that running every 4 minutes. The average wait times of the systems will be 7 and 2 minutes respectively. In the case of rides lasting 30 or 40 minutes (which the planners are typically keyed in on), it has a minimal impact. But in the case of shorter rides, it has a much greater proportional effect which makes them worth taking or not.

Furthermore, there is a psychological effect at play; it feels good to get going, even sometimes when it will take longer to get there. There is hardly anything as sweet as when the train arrives just when you get to the station, and almost nothing worse than just missing one. Shorter headways trend towards more transit use, on every level.

Access Time

You’ll almost never hear about how long it takes to get from the street to the platform when people are telling you how long a transit trip is going to take. But given the difference between systems, it’s very significant. For example, catching a bus at the curb takes (in theory) no time at all, while arriving at a central urban rail terminal, on the other hand, generally takes several minutes to descend to track level. (The disparity is also clear in the comparison offered in the introduction [between the NYC subway and DC Metro] where the difference in travel time to the street varies from 30 second to 4 minutes). Making matters worse, this secondary trip occurs at either end of a trip, doubling its effect.

Again, in the context of systems designed to attract longer trips (30, 40 minutes), it hardly matters. But in the case of shorter trips, such as those in the urban core where the system is intended to act as a circulator, the issue cripples the system – such as with the DC metro.

As in the prior discussion about headways, the pure economics of the situation greatly favor easily accessible transit. And the shorter the trip, the more magnified the effect. Here, though, psychology plays a role because time spent seemingly at your destination, but minutes from the street, can drive you mad. For example, if you know your train is leaving the station, but you can’t navigate your way to the platform in time, you are left with stinging disappointment. The opposite is true at your destination – just think of how you feel waiting to get off an airplane when you are about to miss your connecting flight.

Therefore, it is critical that transit systems incorporate into their design the ease with which users can reach the system from the street; or where different modes of transit come together, that transfers be made seamless by design.

The Flat Fare

One the of the unique features of the New York City Subway, to which a great deal of its early success is attributed, is its flat fare (which was originally ten cents). This feature, which remains in place to this day (now two dollars and twenty-five cents), puts the system in the minority. Most transit systems today charge a variable fare based upon how far you are traveling.

There is a sense of fairness in asking those traveling further to pay a higher fare, and in the case of long distance travel options like heavy rail or air travel, it’s a necessity. But in the case of transit, the flat fare holds a great deal of allure in its many benefits: 1) to simplify the experience of travel; 2) to use shorter trips within the central business district to subsidize longer trip to and from; 3) to favor less desirable places, in effect creating a progressive tax on travel.

While the flat fare may actually make shorter trips disproportionately expensive, it eliminates any confusion as to fares because it is always the same. The weighing of costs can be done instantly, rather than having to look up how much it costs for a ticket from A to B. Moreover it completely simplifies the system of purchasing and collecting fares. These benefits, though marginalized by the introduction of electronic metrocards and the like, are significant.

The greatest benefit of the flat fare system is that it uses the proceeds of shorter trips within the CBD to subsidize trips to and from it. For example, in New York thousands of tourists each year use the subway to go from Central Park to Times Square. They pay the same price, per ride, as people commuting to and from the outer neighborhoods.

Finally, a flat fare serves as a progressive tax on locating near the CBD. Under a typical fare system, where further means more expensive, the cost of living far from the city center is twofold; not only is the ticket more expensive, but it costs more in travel time. Given that places with higher transit accessibility are (at least in theory) more desirable places to live, those less fortunate frequently live at the final stop or beyond. Though the flat fare can’t make their commute any shorter, it can certainly level the playing field in direct cost. In fact, the history of New York’s subway proves that the flat fare served as a catalyst for transit oriented development at new further-out stops as the system developed. This is because just as one more exit on the freeway is the mental justification for the sprawling exurb, just one more stop on the subway (no additional cost) was the justification for continuous corridors of TOD.

Therefore, the flat fare is capable of simplifying transit, uses shorter trips to subsidize longer ones, and is essentially the opposite of the so-called “Lexus Lane.”

A Case Study in the Hidden Factors: Denver’s 16th Street Mall Buses

I struggled to find a case study appropriate for this essay because most systems thrive or fail based largely on the well-known factors — namely density. That is until the recent CNU Congress in Denver, where the free buses running along the 16th Street Mall were not only the talk of the event, but the primary mode of travel for most attendees. To be sure, judging by the seemingly universal ridership, and their omniscient presence downtown, the buses are nothing short of a success story. What is more, they possess all of the “hidden factors” to achieving the transit tipping point; which, judging by the effect on their City’s CBD they have achieved (and then some).

To dismiss the well-known factors quickly: Denver’s CBD is relatively dense, but it’s no Manhattan. Buildings along the 16th Street Mall are generally 5-10 stories in height. Though the skyline does have some taller buildings, there are many denser city centers in America. As for the relative costs of driving and transit, my informal observations were these: Driving looked to be exceedingly inexpensive in downtown Denver as there was little traffic, but parking costs were high. With respect to transit costs, the 16th Street buses are free – you can’t beat that.

The hidden factors area really where the 16th Street Mall buses shine, though. Not only does this systems possess these characteristics, but to the fullest extent.

Time – The buses run on a headway of somewhere between 90 and 120 seconds. This means that schedules are unnecessary, and the average wait time attached to any spur of the moment trip is negligible. More importantly, though, is the psychological sense that you never wait. Standing on 16th Street, the next bus is always in view. In fact, the buses run so frequently that you can’t even really feel as though you’ve missed one.

Access – Of course with a bus system, there is great advantage with respect to accessibility; it leaves you right at the curb. But the reality of this system is more telling. First, it is important to note that while many systems are very accessible, but far from the action (i.e. the Las Vegas Monorail), the 16th Street Mall is the central spine of activity in downtown Denver. Therefore, this transit system really does drop you “right there,” so to speak. This couldn’t have been more obvious than when I hopped off to get off the bus to buy a drink from a sidewalk vendor, and by the time I had paid him, just got back on the next bus.

Flat Fare – Ok, the 16th Street Mall are free. But there’s more to say. No ticket machines, ticket booths, stopping the bus so the driver can inspect tickets and collect fares. The fact that the buses are free leads to increased ridership not only because it’s cheap, but also because you just don’t have to think about it. It’s painfully obvious that they capture every spur of the moment trip.


While our pursuit of a transit-friendly future has been focused on broader well-known issues in transportation planning, whether or not you drive or take transit is fundamentally a basic decision. With this insight, it is possible to create circumstances where transit ridership is engendered, and will create more of the same – the transit tipping point. While the ongoing debate is focused on TOD and modern streetcars, don’t forget the devil is in the details. And most people don’t “prefer” anything other than getting there faster, cheaper and more comfortably. If you can make those goals a reality, ridership will follow.

[1] I recently compared the two options, and for a basic 30 mile trip, the difference was roughly 4:1 in driving’s favor; that’s two roundtrip commuter rail tickets at $29, versus a little less than two gallons of gas at about $5.


Ian Rasmussen is an attorney living in Forest Hills Gardens, New York. His practice focuses on land use, zoning and the legalization of good urbanism.

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