The National Times

By Edward Blakely

In the midst of a job meltdown and faltering economy, one might think the lives of low-income African-Americans and Latinos would be bad everywhere in the US. But during a recent trip to the US, we saw hope springing from an unlikely source — a transit hub.

This idea is gaining traction in Australia (despite protests from established residents), conjuring, as it does, images of a beautiful enclosed tram/train stop surrounded by coffee shops, boutique stores and sidewalk cafes with up-market, low-rise apartments in the background. But we found that new and startling things regarding transit, development and density are going on in the US.

The Obama Administration is putting more than $US10 billion a year into urban light rail and related projects to include bus and bicycle connections to urban cores and suburban areas across the nation. Almost $US200 million is devoted to funding mixed use (retail/residential), high density projects along these transit corridors. All of these projects must be matched dollar-for-dollar by the states and localities. Almost every state and many municipalities that, at one time, fought against these developments, are now vying with local governments to get federal funds for these projects. Real estate developers across the nation are refusing to develop anywhere that does not have fixed rail connections close by. It is clear that light rail has found favour by surviving housing downturns because it provides alternative transport for working people as petrol costs rise.

Moreover, mixed income and mixed use developments also are keeping schoolteachers, fire and police officers and other moderate-income essential workers closer to their jobs.

In all of these cities, citizens are raising taxes or forming tax improvement districts to provide long-term revenues to support these systems beyond funds from fares. These measures will mean that only 30-40 per cent of funding will come from transport patrons. In California, the voters have agreed to a state bond measure of $US4 billion for affordable mixed income housing primarily on transit corridors.

While Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane are embarking on extensions and improvements to existing rail systems, none of these cities is making as large a commitment to the combination of density increases along an entire transport route. Nor are they encouraging the kind of businesses or tax raises that will provide funding when the federal money goes away.

This is not to say that Americans are abandoning their cars, but the number of cars per household and commutes to work by car are declining. America's car fleet dropped by a 4 million vehicles in 2009, the only large decline since the Department of Transportation began keeping records in 1960. One of the most interesting new thrusts is the use of transit to deal with social problems in the US.

Oakland, California is an interesting illustration in how using transit can help alleviate problems of poverty, joblessness and social dysfunctionality. The notion that transit-oriented development can do more than move low income people to distant city jobs has scarcely been considered, until now.

The Obama Administration is committing $US175 million a year for projects such as Fruitvale in the middle of one of Oakland's more troubled neighbourhoods. This development has proven to be a success at making the community safer, cleaner, socially more viable and an attractive place for people of all incomes and races to live.

The formula in Fruitvale is one Australia's inner city planners should examine. In Fruitvale, the transit stop is connected to the needs of the community and not merely used for transportation access. As chief operating officer Jeff Pace says, it is a "womb to tomb service centre" connected with the region and the world.

The community was encouraged to define its needs within the transit-oriented approach and now the transit stop meets the communities daily social needs from child care to education. It's the place you go to start up a new business, buy groceries, drop off your elderly relatives for care, go to the library, the doctor or see a social worker. In essence, the transit hub is a one-stop shop for all community needs while at the same time offering a neat, clean, affordable living environment with coffee shops and other amenities.

Of course, Fruitvale does act as a job transport hub too, for those travelling to work in San Francisco. But Fruitvale also has a small business incubator that has spawned several dozen new enterprises that have created local jobs and provide rents and rates to support local services. These new business are revitalising the neighbourhood near the transit stop with diverse shops and restaurants. The community has invested in its own community security and street maintenance programs to make it an attractive place to live, work and visit.

It may be hard for us to replicate Fruitvale in every city that has a rail or bus node. But the ingredients to this success are easy to understand. By co-locating social, child and community services, the low-income parent has more time to do job searches or simply be involved with their child and other family and community members. They do not have to invest in a car or if they need a car, it's just one and it's not needed as often.

Fruitvale's high school is evidence of its success. All of its graduates are going on to universities, while nearby schools struggle to get 50 per cent of the students to complete to year 12. Jobs are up, crime is down and the community is proud. There is no graffiti in Fruitvale.

Edward J. Blakely is an Australian-American and an Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is visiting the US to see what lessons we can gain in Australia from the Obama emphasis on transit as the key to urban revitalisation.