Nobody Will Take Mass Transit To Work Unless You Build Tall Buildings Near The Stations

I read on Twitter today that only about 5 percent of American workers commute to work via mass transit. And as a great example of why that’s the case, reader SD forwarded me an email that Seattle City Council member Nick Licata sent to constituents explaining why he thinks new buildings in the Pioneer Square neighborhood should be limited to 120 feet instead of 140 feet.

The message offers a variety of basically aesthetic reasons in defense of this position, but it doesn’t confront the basic fact that transit-accessible urban space in economically dynamic cities is scarce. When you restrict the quantity of built space that can fit in that scarce space, the activity (houses, offices) that might otherwise locate there don’t just vanish. Instead, they locate to some other other place that almost certainly isn’t dense transit-accessible urban space. Meanwhile, building mass transit is expensive. And while I’m all for building more, there are limits to how much new building is realistic. Far and away the most cost-effective way to increase transit utilization is to relax restrictions on dense construction near existing nodes. And the most realistic way to make the case for additional construction is, again, to maximize the use of station-adjacent land.