Opinion: The Mystery of the Missing Transit

The Mystery Of The Missing Transit

On either side of Irvine Blvd, east of the 133, is a transit-oriented development. Or that’s what the zoning map says, anyway:

From the Irvine Zoning Map, a "Transit Oriented Development"
Figure 1: From the Irvine Zoning Map, a “Transit Oriented Development”

It is part of a larger area composed of parts of the Great Park neighborhoods and Portola Springs. At the time of the last census, 17,314 people live in these 2.4 square miles, making for a population density of 7,214 people per square mile. And more housing is still being built.

(Left) The population of the area in question taken from davesredistricting.org and (right) the square mileage as determined using Google Earth
Figure 2: (Left) The population of the area in question taken from davesredistricting.org and (right) the square mileage as determined using Google Earth

Density is a boon for any transit-oriented development. As Jason Slaughter, creator of the popular urban-planning YouTube channel Not Just Bikes, says, “in order for transit to be successful, it needs people to ride it, and destinations people want to go to”— a remedial observation that he feels compelled to make given how often city planners seem to ignore it. Density drives ridership. Density coupled with mixed-use development drives it better, providing for both an origin and a destination in a single stop.

But, decent density aside, an attempt to plot a public-transit route on Google maps into or out of this area reveals one critical piece missing from this so-called transit-oriented development:

They forgot to add the transit. No OCTA lines run through here:

From the OCTA System Map for South County
Figure 3: From the OCTA System Map for South County

And it is not a walkable distance to Irvine Station:

The quickest walking route from the area in question to Irvine Station as determined by Google Maps
Figure 4: The quickest walking route from the area in question to Irvine Station as determined by Google Maps

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call it a transit desert. Clearly the term has either been misappropriated or misunderstood.

Properly, a transit-oriented development should be focused on what’s called the walkshed of a transit node. A walkshed is the area within a ten-to-fifteen-minute walk of a transit stop. It should be densely populated, mixed-use, and – above all ­– walkable. And it needs… you know… public transit.

The stated intent for the zoning type that misappropriates the term transit-oriented for this transit desert explains that it is meant to provide “for a mix of residential, commercial, recreational and education uses that support a multi-use environment, and which are complementary to the Irvine Station and to the Orange County Great Park.” Meanwhile, the actual walkshed of Irvine Station is surrounded by asphalt and low-rise industrial buildings:
The area surrounding Irvine Station as seen on Google Maps, and (right) the zoning in that area from the Irvine Zoning Map
Figure 5: (Left) The area surrounding Irvine Station as seen on Google Maps, and (right) the zoning in that area from the Irvine Zoning Map

Irvine has transit – not particularly good transit, but honest-to-goodness transit. And it has developments. They’re all over the place, really. It’s the orientation part that it seems to be struggling with. And that’s the part that has the power to change Irvine for the better.

The Jamboree Corridor

So, we have built a “transit-oriented development” that has no transit, and we have an important transit stop that we have failed to couple to transit-oriented development. But perhaps the real mystery of missing transit lies in our failure to create transit for those locations in Irvine that are already densely populated and growing denser still.

Irvine has added more than 100,000 people to its population in a period of just ten years. And we have situated a great many of them in relatively dense and compactly placed developments. We just forgot to orient transit toward them. To quote Jason Slaughter again, “a transit plan without a land-use plan is a waste of time and resources. But a land-use plan without a transit plan is a missed opportunity.”

Condo and apartment towers line Jamboree in the Irvine Business Complex, and more are being built. They are not exactly walkable locations, though – what amenities they have require unappealing walks along and across large, busy arterial roads – and they have no viable public transit options. The residents of these developments have few other options but to drive. But part of the whole point of increased density is that its more efficient land use should lend itself to more efficient transportation options. It allows us to add more people without taxing the road network as much as you otherwise would (or taxing any other infrastructure, for that matter). Instead, we added density while neglecting to capitalize on any of the benefits of density.

But it’s not too late. Some segments of Jamboree get as high as 70,000 vehicles/day, and between the I5 and Michelson there is no segment with less than 51,000 vehicles/day. Our goal should be to enable the residents along Jamboree to take some of those vehicles off the road.

Average Daily Traffic Flow study by the City of Irvine, 2015-2017

Figure 6: Average Daily Traffic Flow study by the City of Irvine, 2015-2017

Imagine a route with dedicated-right-of-way transit (transit that doesn’t become stuck in traffic) along the Jamboree Corridor. The appropriate mode is a matter of debate. Perhaps it would be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or perhaps some form of rail service. But the route would connect the Marketplace (with its newly planned-for increased density), Tustin Station, the District, and the two rapidly densifying residential/commercial areas of Diamond Jamboree and Park Place. Turn down Campus and you connect it to the 30,000-strong population of UCI and University Town Center. Add a connection to Santa Ana Airport, and you have a truly dynamic and useful network.

Here are stops:

UCI / University Town Center: A population of 31,265 people in an area of 2.6 square miles. Not everyone will be within a 15-minute — or even a 20-minute — walkshed. But it is a very walkable, bike-able place, with a population that is highly motivated to do their part to take polluting automobiles off the road. This route would provide them additional access to jobs, retail, entertainment, and regional transit.

Park Place / San Joaquin Marsh: A population of 11,313 within a 20-minute walkshed, with more housing being built. Lots of shopping, commercial space, and hotels. It only needs to be made much friendlier to pedestrian and bike traffic.

Park Place / San Joaquin Marsh

Diamond Jamboree: Population of 6,823 in a 15-minute walkshed. Some new housing being built. There are a lot of low-rise commercial buildings that could potentially be replaced with higher-density mixed use. It is a popular retail and dining destination. Somewhere between here and Park Place you’d build your extension to SNA.

Diamond Jamboree

The District: Another popular draw for entertainment and dining, and the center of gravity for the Tustin Legacy development.

Tustin Station: The other endcap of Tustin Legacy, and an important regional connection for our route. And, finally…

Market Place: Probably 6,000 Irvinites, and a significant Tustin population, within a 20-minute walkshed. It’s yet another big draw for dining, entertainment, and retail. But it’s the impending development of the new Marketplace apartments that makes this really interesting.

With brick-and-mortar retail suffering a long decline and unprecedented demand for housing, suburban retrofits (2:38) that repurpose vacant retail and commercial space into campus-like developments that offer housing, dining, and entertainment will likely start to catch on. The current density of the Marketplace area might be a little light, but it has the potential to become an important node on the route that brings an exciting new option for what life can look like in Irvine.

As a transit line serving vital areas of both Irvine and Tustin, the Jamboree Corridor Transit Route would be a prime opportunity for OCTA. And as a project with a dedicated right of way, it would upstage OC Streetcar as the flagship project for the agency.

Richer Lives Beyond the Reach of any Automobile Trip

For each of these stops, the key would be to retrofit the land use into walkable, mixed-use environments. The segment of Jamboree in IBC should give up some of its lanes and lane width to protected bicycle lanes, the transit right of way, and to the sheer need to be more hospitable. That will undoubtedly make some motorists nervous about the possibility of increased congestion along that route. But wide and widening streets do not ease traffic congestion.

A well-understood reality of traffic engineering is the Downs–Thomson paradox, which states that “the equilibrium speed of car traffic on a road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys taken by public transport.” In other words, if you want less congestion and faster travel times, you need to give people reason to take cars off the roadWide and widening streets do just the opposite. Through the phenomenon of induced demand, more lanes usually equate to an increase in traffic volume, because congestion had been constraining existing demand.

Over time, people and businesses will seek to be located along this transit corridor so as to minimize the need for car travel and gain maximal advantage from the network of jobs, retail, and housing that it serves. This will have the effect of encouraging even more density along the route and yielding even greater reductions in car use per household.

Transit-oriented development in Irvine could empower people to lead richer lives that lie well outside the reach of any automobile trip. If properly designed, it gets cars off the road: easing congestion and reducing vehicle-miles-travelled – a critical goal for combatting climate change. It also situates people within environments scaled to human life: streets that are destinations in and of themselves rather than just conduits for a given volume of cars. This reintroduces the useful walk – the absence of which has contributed greatly to our obesity, diabetes, and early death – and provides for a stimulating setting for culture and community. And it adds critically needed housing supply in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis that is gripping the nation. All we need to do is choose to build the transit, and then put it in service of the developments that are already ripe for it.

With Irvine’s first-ever Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) being formulated, Mayor Khan’s proposal for a Sustainable Mobility Plan, and talk of Irvine creating its own Transportation Authority, now is the time to call upon the city to be strategic about a transit system that will serve Irvine’s needs now and for decades to come. You can register your opinions about CAAP proposals here, find instructions on how to make public comments at City Council meetings here, and find contact info for members of the City Council here.