Written by Peter Smith
Writing in the Pacific Standard, geographer Jim Russell made a claim that would have been unthinkable to most a year ago. “Portland is dying,” he wrote, and “Pittsburgh is thriving.” The economy of Portland, Oregon, the darling of the creative class-fueled urban renaissance, has stagnated from its inability to create jobs and tackle high unemployment. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, a poster case for Rust Belt decline, even as it hosted the 2009 G-20 Summit, has notched employment records month after month. The difference, Russell notes, essentially boils down to this: Carnegie Mellon University.
It’s a tale of talent attraction versus talent creation. Portland doesn’t create much of its own talent; it has to attract it from elsewhere, and in that regard, it must compete with San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and LA. It’s a losing battle. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, home of Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Duquesne, pumps out more talent than it can accommodate. Many may not remain in Pittsburgh – a few may even end up in Portland – but many will stay. Their ties to the area are too strong to break, and they’re the ones who are fueling the comeback. The tag line of Russell’s blog, Burgh Diaspora, poses the following challenge, “Since education makes a person more likely to leave your region, how do you justify your investment in human capital?” Asked another way, how do you get your best and brightest to stay? How do you prevent a brain drain? It’s a question Miami is familiar with. Miami is currently fighting a brain drain while simultaneously seeking to cultivate a start-up, entrepreneurial culture.
On the West Coast, San Diego offers an answer. In the 1990s, when city officials set out to expand the city’s light rail network, the Trolley, for the first time in nearly twenty years, they considered a novel approach. None of the city’s major universities were connected to the transit system, so planners sought to remedy that. The blue line, which opened in 2005, has stops at the University of San Diego and San Diego State University. The silver line, which is gearing up to break ground in a year, will link UCSD to the system. In total, nearly 60,000 students from top universities who had no transit access a decade ago will be connected to the Trolley.
One rationale for this approach is that it cultivates transit ridership. College students tend to be flexible and open to trying new things, and experience shows that if we can acclimate students to using transit during their college years, they’ll be much more likely to use transit at other times in their lives.
Perhaps more importantly, and more germane to our purpose here, transit builds and reinforces the bonds that individuals have with their cities. It also connects people and ideas with each other in ways that other forms of transportation struggle to do. The premise underlying San Diego’s planning decisions is that transit links its riders to the city’s residents, its cultural offerings, and its business communities. It creates bonds between individuals and their city, and builds the social capital that encourages students to put down roots and thrive. Pittsburgh is succeeding because life at Carnegie Mellon is so entwined with life at Pitt and Duquesne and the rest of downtown Pittsburgh and its business community that by the time students graduate they’re already so connected to business opportunities and to entrepreneurial peers and to the city itself that it becomes easy and natural to stay put. San Diego is on the way to accomplishing the same phenomenon by building social and professional connections through building physical transportation infrastructure.
Turning to Miami, our city deserves some credit for having the foresight to build Metrorail to UM. Much has changed since 1985, though, and UM is not the only major university in South Florida anymore. FIU is now the seventh largest university in the United States. It enrolls over 50,000 students and is approved to expand to 63,000 in the coming years. It is roughly five times larger than UM by enrollment. It has all the hallmarks of a world-class institute of higher education: a medical school, a law school, a top-ranked business school, and all the traditional liberal arts and sciences that standard fare at the best schools. There’s still one common feature that it does not share with other great universities in major metropolitan areas: a transit connection.
San Diego may have been the first city in recent years to map its transit system around universities, but it’s not alone. Nearly all mass transit system expansions in the United States over the past decade have included new stops serving universities. Here’s a sample:
Phoenix: In 2008, service began on Phoenix’s METRO light rail system. It connects downtown Phoenix with Arizona State University. ASU is the largest university in the United States at 63,000 students and is the model that newer large public research universities, like FIU, follow.
Denver: No city in the United States has expanded its transit system in recent years as much as Denver. Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has opened five new light rail lines since 2002, bringing the total number of lines in operation to six. Under RTD’s $6.5 billion FasTracks initiative, the system will add as many as six new light rail and commuter rail lines, in addition to extensions of existing lines, between 2013 and 2016. Every one of the system’s lines serves the city’s Auraria campus, a multi-school mega-campus that houses the University of Colorado-Denver, Metropolitan State University, and the Community College of Denver. Approximately 60,000 students, nearly one-fifth of all Colorado college students, attend classes on the Auraria campus. In 2006, RTD began service on the E, F, and H lines, which also connects with the University of Denver and its more than 11,000 students. FasTracks will ultimately include a commuter rail line, as well, connecting to the University of Colorado at Boulder and its nearly 30,000 students. Under FasTrack’s highly praised $1.67 billion predecessor, T-REX (Transportation Expansion), RTD succeeded in connecting downtown Denver and its Auraria campus with the Denver Tech Center, the region’s second largest employment center and home to many technology and finance firms.
Minneapolis: In late 2010, Minneapolis’s METRO began work on the system’s second light rail line, the Green Line. The Green Line will connect the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities with downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul. The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is the nation’s sixth-largest university with nearly 52,000 students. The Green Line is currently under construction and service is expected to begin in 2014. It will have two stations on the University of Minnesota campus.
Seattle: In 2009, Seattle opened the first leg of the Central Link light rail system. Before service even began, the city’s Sound Transit started construction on the University Link extension. The University Link will connect the University of Washington with downtown Seattle. The University of Washington is one of the largest universities in the nation with approximately 43,000 students. The University Link will open for service in 2016.
Houston: When Houston’s METRO opened its first light rail line in 2004, it placed the line’s northern terminus at University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) and sent the line straight through Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. UHD is the University of Houston system’s second largest campus with nearly 13,000 students. Rice University is home to over 6,000 students. Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, is home to academic branches, including three medical schools, from countless universities, including Baylor University, Rice University, the University of Texas, and the University of Houston, among others. In total, approximately 49,000 students study at the Texas Medical Center. METRO broke ground on a second light rail line, the Purple Line, in 2009. The Purple Line, which will begin service in 2014, will have three stations serving the University of Houston’s (UH) main campus and one station serving the campus of Texas Southern University (TSU). The University of Houston is home to over 40,000 students and Texas Southern University enrolls over 10,000 students. In addition to the Purple Line, METRO is also planning the University/Blue Line, which will connect UH and TSU with the southern end of downtown, near Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. The University/Blue Line will have two stations serving TSU and two stations serving UH. In total, in excess of 100,000 students in Houston who did not have transit access a decade ago, will have transit links to the rest of the city.
Charlotte: Construction on Charlotte Area Transit System’s LYNX light rail extension to the Blue Line will begin in January 2014. The extension will connect the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to the Blue Line through Uptown Charlotte. UNC Charlotte enrolls over 26,000 students. The Blue Line extension is expected to begin service in 2017.
These examples do not just show that cities are expanding their transit systems to reach their universities; they show that cities are making it a priority to do so. Nearly every transit expansion of the past decade in the United States has included a link to a college or university. The advantages are substantial. College students are among the most likely to use and benefit from mass transit. Transit also helps in answering the question, how can cities encourage their best and brightest to put down roots and keep their talents at home? It is difficult the overestimate the role that transit can play in cementing bonds between citizens and the places they call home. A survey by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, found that transit riders were as much as twice as likely as non-transit riders to say that they felt a “strong connection” with their city. Transit is the physical infrastructure that connects citizens with each other, with business opportunities, and with cultural amenities. These things make people more productive and happier, and therefore more likely to stick around.
Miami is part of a shrinking ring of cities with transit systems that do not connect with the region’s major universities. FIU is part of a shrinking ring of major urban universities lacking transit connections with their regions’ employment and cultural centers. The revived expansion plans from the early 2000s to extend Metrorail out to FIU once again seem to have fizzled out. As a city struggling to tackle a brain drain while working to build a sustainable economy, Miami must find better ways to leverage its anchor institutions to produce, retain, and cultivate human capital. Arguably, perhaps no institution is more prolific in these respects than FIU. FIU graduates over 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students every year and has over 200,000 alumni, over half of which live in South Florida. Yet FIU’s main campus is geographically isolated just a few miles from downtown. It sits trapped between three highways – 836, 826, and the Turnpike – that cut it off from every major employment and cultural center in South Florida. Students, as weak as the excuse may be, routinely miss class because of traffic and parking difficulties, and students often schedule classes to avoid 8th Street rush hour. We know that long commutes in traffic make us less productive, less creative, less healthy, and less happy. We know that highways have an historical legacy as insurmountable barriers that block the spread of ideas and prosperity. If we’re serious about developing Miami’s twenty-first century economy, we must better connect the city’s economic engines and human capital centers – FIU, UM, downtown, Brickell, Wynwood, etc. One component to this must include improving the physical infrastructure connections that link these sites, which means Metrorail expansion must be returned to the region’s agenda. Without the bonds between people and their city that transit ridership helps build, as it has in places like Pittsburg and San Diego, Miami’s highly skilled residents will continue to be likely to leave for greener pastures. And unless we are able to keep our best and brightest here and leverage their talents, Miami’s vision for a thriving twenty-first century economy will remain off in the distance just down the track.
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