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Transit-Oriented Development Can Help Close Last-Mile Gaps

Housing and other development built in concert with transit stops are solving the persistent last-mile gaps in U.S. transportation planning. In Miami, a new development could serve as a model for other cities.

Americans are not interested in walking more than about a half-mile.

It’s an interesting data point to consider when planning for those “last-mile” journey legs, or even real estate development. It’s that walk from the train station to a final destination, said Alex Esposito, CEO and co-founder of Circuit, a shared on-demand electric shuttle service.

If transportation planners can conveniently, efficiently and cheaply solve that final gap, travelers are more likely to use transit, rather than a personal car, for the whole rest of the journey, he added.

“It can really have this resonating effect that goes much further than that one half-mile that you solved for,” said Esposito, speaking on a panel devoted to transit-oriented development at the CoMotion Miami conference last month.

As the panel’s title suggested, many communities are working to eliminate the last-mile altogether by locating housing, shopping, work and more around transit nodes like a train station.

The Palmetto Station is the final stop of the Metrorail Green Line in Miami. It is also the location of a 1,000-unit housing complex, designed as “workforce housing” to make it more affordable for average residents. The project, which is nearing its planning and design phase and will soon begin construction, includes units set aside for bus drivers and train operators, as well as members serving in the military. A handful of units are also set aside for college students who have phased out of foster care. The students live rent-free. The project includes a public garage, shared among residents and transit users.

“We try to cover a big cross-section of our community. Because our community is that diverse,” said Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of the Florida East Coast Industries, the project’s developer.

Many cities welcome projects like these. They address a number of policy goals ranging from transportation to housing. But for them to even get considered, said Gonzalez, cities need to put in place land use and zoning policies to allow them to come forward.

“When you have good policy, from a land-use perspective, it attracts the private sector. Developers look at that. How easy is it going to be for me to implement this transit-oriented community?” said Gonzalez.

Florida East Coast Industries developed the Brightline high-speed rail project in Miami. Brightline is poised to expand into Orlando, and eventually, Tampa. The company is also developing high-speed rail service out west, building a line to connect Las Vegas with the Los Angeles Basin.

“When we started working on Brightline, we didn’t have a zoning that contemplated that scale of development and that type of use in downtown Miami,” Gonzalez recalled, calling attention to the need to have the proper land-use zoning in place as a first step.

“In order for these communities to have the real connectivity to transportation, and really be a transit-oriented community, you had to have the right rules along with it,” said Gonzalez.

The new housing development planned for the Palmetto Station is the kind of project the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTPW) would like to see along other parts of the transit system, said Josenrique Cueto, deputy director of Miami-Dade DTPW.

“We hope, at DTPW, to use this as a model going forward, and have more of these projects at our stations,” he noted. “And again, this is all because of the land-use policies, the rapid-transit zone, that make it all possible.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.