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The University of Arkansas Community Design Center Makes the Case for Light Rail

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center Makes the Case for Light Rail

Frank, a senior analyst for Procter and Gamble, is late for the second time this week thanks to a fender bender that brought morning rush hour traffic to a crawl on Interstate 540. He’ll have to work late again to get his report ready for the meeting tomorrow. With light rail transit in place, Frank could use his 27-mile commute from Fayetteville to Bentonville to work on his report, catch up on his e-mail or read the newspaper. One less car payment would free up some extra dollars for groceries, gas and a summer trip to Disney World that the kids are counting on …

“More than two-thirds of the region’s population lives within one mile of the rail right-of-way, and five of the region’s top six employers are located along the rail corridor.”

Sure, rail transit gives people options, but that’s not what fuels the light rail initiative led by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center. According to Stephen Luoni, director of the Community Design Center, which is part of the Fay Jones School of Architecture, the most compelling argument for light rail is the urban revitalization that can come with it: “We can use transportation planning to reinvent places that are just languishing,” he said. Sitting in the design center’s work room, surrounded by bass wood models and scribbled plans on a chalkboard wall, Luoni flips open his latest salvo in the campaign for light rail, a glossy new book titled Visioning Rail Transit in Northwest Arkansas: Lifestyles and Ecologies.  A kind of graphic novel for grown ups, Visioning Rail Transit uses diagrams, maps and before-and-after images to explore how light rail and related development could ease traffic congestion, revitalize the downtown core and preserve the rolling green hills and crumbling barns that embody Arkansas’ agricultural past.

“Could downtown Springdale be cool again? You bet,” Luoni said, pointing to a series of images that show the transformation of Springdale’s historic main street to a tree-shaded nexus of cafes, thriving small businesses and housing bustling with people. Planners like Luoni can look beyond the decay of struggling working class towns like Springdale to see the bones of a good downtown – and increasingly, they view light rail as the backbone for smart growth, an antidote to the suburban sprawl and highway gridlock fueled by the almighty automobile.

Money Matters

Northwest Arkansas’ land use.

The figures back them up. According to Visioning Rail Transit, every dollar invested in rail transit generates $6 or more in high quality development. To take just one example, it cost $1.8 billion to build DART, the light rail system based in Dallas, Texas, to its current state of 45 miles on the ground. DART has generated more than $7 billion in existing and planned mixed-use, high-quality development in the past 10 years, according to DART spokesman Morgan Lyons. Light rail also moves four times more traffic, faster, than the interstate can, and lightens fuel emissions in an era when global warming is shifting from threat to reality.

Rail transit makes sense for northwest Arkansas, in particular, because the area’s six cities developed along what is now the the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad.

“More than two-thirds of the region’s population lives within one mile of the rail right-of-way, and five of the region’s top six employers are located along the rail corridor,” Luoni said. “There’s enormous potential to be tapped.”

Though some might argue that rail transit makes sense only in big cities with robust multi-modal transportation systems, in reality two-thirds of the 60 regions that have sought federal funding for rail transit development through the federal “New Start” program are mid-sized cities adopting a “build it and they will come” approach. Would-be players such as Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn., both less densely populated than northwest Arkansas, “have flipped the whole game – they’re building the transportation system to get the urbanism they want,” Luoni said.

What’s not to love? Light rail’s estimated $32 million per square mile price tag, for starters. That kind of capital outlay requires a realignment of resources; someone’s going to get a smaller piece of the pie. To justify change at that scale requires big-picture thinking. That’s where Luoni, his staff and students at the Community Design Center come in.

Scenario Planning

The University of Arkansas’ light rail initiative launched in 2006 with three studios involving 40 students, Luoni and three other architecture professors and two visiting consultants: William Conway, a Minneapolis-based architect and planner well-known for his efforts to redefine the public realm, and Eric Kahn, a principal with the Los Angeles firm Central Office of Architecture who has also developed award-winning built works and theoretical planning projects.

Olympic City

The professors mapped the 32-mile path for light rail, which would connect Fayetteville, a thriving college town, to Bentonville, home to retailing giant Wal-Mart, with a spur to the region’s airport. The architecture students did not develop designs for a light rail system per se; instead, the professors challenged them to imagine development that would support light rail.

“We wanted to engage students in a conceptual chess game using the world, and bring back a set of possibilities to the studio,” said Eric Kahn. The students traveled to Dallas, Minneapolis and Los Angeles to study mass transit-related development and then dug into research and visualization. They used analytical mapping, graphic analysis and modeling to create regional development scenarios that ranged from a financial valley with Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt as anchors to a summer Olympic city that utilized University of Arkansas sports facilities and nearby rivers as venues. Graduate students at the Washington University School of Architecture in St. Louis, where Luoni was a visiting professor, helped visualize how the rail system stations and neighborhood development might take shape.

Why Now?

Marie, an 82-year-old who taught history at Springdale High School for 35 years, handed over her car keys to her daughter a year ago. My mind is sharp, my reflexes less so, she jokes, but today she’s frustrated: she’d like to attend a noon-time talk on painter Marsden Hartley at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, located 20 miles north in Bentonville, but doesn’t want to bother her daughter, who’s already taken several hours from work this month to drive her to medical appointments. She’ll settle for another hour of Oprah.

In the car-oriented culture of the United States, the loss of driving privileges leaves many seniors stranded in the suburbs. With baby boomers aging, the need for light rail and the walkable neighborhoods it engenders will continue to grow.

Natural State Sprawl

“It is projected that by 2050 the number of people 60 and older worldwide will increase by nearly 2 billion,” said Korydon Smith, an associate professor of architecture and author of the forthcoming book Just Below the Line: Disability, Housing, and Equity in the South. “For Arkansas, the 65-plus population will double in the next two decades. With these aging trends, housing and public transportation will be vital to Arkansas’ future.”

There are other reasons why light rail makes sense now, including, somewhat counterintuitively, the recession currently gripping the nation. In April of 2009, President Barack Obama announced more than $16 billion in new funding for high speed rail, praising rail transit as a “smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century” that would reduce dependence on foreign oil, decrease congestion and emissions, boost productivity and create new jobs (30,000 jobs are created for every billion invested in light rail, according to an April 2009 report from the American Public Transportation Association).

Even for those who are gainfully employed, Obama’s support could translate into more dollars to pocket. According to Visioning Rail Transit the average national household spends 18 percent of its annual income on transportation (in Arkansas, the average is 20.5 percent), while the average household in communities with well-established rail transit systems spends 16 percent of its annual income on transportation. A light rail system in northwest Arkansas could generate a 4.5 percent bump in annual income for area households. At the national level, savings are even more significant – Americans living in transit-intensive areas save $22 billion each year by using public transportation, according to Visioning Rail Transit.

What’s Next

Ramay Junior High students Eli, Nile and Charlie are bored. They’re out of school for the summer and Wilson Park pool is closed due to intermittent rain. The boys want to go to the indoor skate park in Springdale, but their parents are at work. So they plug in the XBOX 360 for a round of virtual skateboarding, helping themselves to a family-sized bag of Doritos and sugary soft drinks laced with extra caffeine. If light rail were available, the boys could walk two blocks to the Dickson Street station, ride three stops up the line and spend the afternoon perfecting new moves.

Lenore Skenazy made national news in 2008 with her New York Sun article about letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. Debate continues between parents who want to nurture “free-range kids” and “helicopter parents” who take pains to protect their children from any possible harm, but teenagers’ desire to go places with their friends remains a constant. Light rail and the walkable neighborhoods depicted in Visioning Rail Transit could help parents raise kids who are prepared to explore the world on their own.

Dense downtowns, intact natural areas, cleaner air, a healthier population and transportation options that bring greater freedom to people of all ages, abilities and incomes: the arguments for light rail are compelling, and the Community Design Center has won three national awards for making the case for it in northwest Arkansas, the most recent being a 2008 Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects. Thanks in part to a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a $4,500 grant from the University of Arkansas Women’s Giving Circle and $16,000 in discretionary funding from the university provost’s office, 2,000 copies of Visioning Rail Transit will be distributed for free to business leaders, government officials and anyone else in the area who is interested in sustainable development.

With its images of sunflower-studded floodplains, futuristic train stations and tree-shaded, people-packed downtowns, Visioning Rail Transit radiates an optimism that is nevertheless grounded in facts and common sense. The book considers, and answers, the cost of light rail relative to automobiles and buses. (Think the car is cheapest? Think again – see graphic.) But Americans love their cars, and change at this scale takes imagination and strong leadership. Steve Luoni admits, albeit reluctantly, that light rail may never come to northwest Arkansas: “The bottom line is that we need to give the region urban options; that’s what we had 80 years ago, when we were a classic transit-oriented development. If we could direct some of the expected growth to urban settings, then this book will have served its purpose,” he said.

The Community Design Center’s big-picture vision to take northwest Arkansas back to its past – a series of urban areas anchored by rail – to create a more sustainable future may be the project’s most enduring legacy. But for the sake of the hypothetical Frank and Marie and the skateboarders, and the real commuters and aging folks and kids that they represent, let’s hope that light rail does happen in northwest Arkansas.

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