On “Transit-Oriented Development”, and the importance of being en route

President Barack Obama tours St Paul's new metro system in 2014, as transportation secretary Anthony Foxx looks on. Image: Getty.

One of the problems with discussions of Transit-Oriented Development – high density development around transport hubs, known as TOD – is that the term sounds much too specialised. 

We hear talk of TODs as a special class of developments, which brings special requirements and possibilities, and perhaps requiring special expertise. In North America, we often hear that a certain development is or isn’t aTOD, as though transit-orientation were not (as it obviously is) a matter of degree.

Moreover, most of the urban development decisions that will determine the future viability of transit are not decisions about TODs. Most of them are not even conscious decisions about transit. The literature of “how to build TODs” is useless in these situations. What people need are simple guidelines about transit that they can keep in the back of their minds, and on their checklists, as they plan ALL kinds of urban development. The same principles could help institutions and individuals decide where to locate.


As a transit planner, I constantly encounter situations where something has been built in a way that precludes quality transit – where I can see that, if it had been built a little differently, transit would have been possible without compromising any of the development’s other goals.

I’ve also dealt with situations where a transit-dependent institution – say, a social-service office catering to low-income people, or an assisted living centre for active seniors – chose to locate in a place where the land was cheap because the transport options were terrible – and then blamed the transit agency for not running buses to their inaccessible site.

These cases are the result of a poor respect and understanding of transit as a background consideration in all urban development. Ultimately, they matter at least as much as the official TODs schemes do in determining the potential for transit in the cities of tomorrow.

If I could put one sentence about transit in the mind of every developer, every land use planner, indeed anyone who makes a decision about where to locate anything, the sentence would be this: Be on the Way. If you want to be sure you’ll have good transit, be on the way from one transit destination to another.

 

An efficient transit line – and hence one that will support good service – connects multiple points; but it’s also reasonably straight, so that it’s perceived as a direct route between any two points on the line. For that reason, good transit geography is any geography in which good transit destinations are on a direct path between other good transit destinations. (Obviously, this is not always a geometrically straight line; it may be a path defined by existing roads or rail corridors that everyone perceives as reasonably direct given the terrain.)

A bad geography is one that indulges in cul-de-sacs on any scale. It sets destinations a little back from the line, so that transit must either bypass them or deviate to them, where deviating means delaying all the other passengers riding through this point.

The same problem arises at many scales:

  • A person who lives at the end of a long cul-de-sac road complains that the bus doesn’t go by her house.
  • A small shopping centre or grocery store sets itself too far back from its street, even though the street is where the transit service is.
  • A university, hospital, business park or other campus-style development positions itself on a hill, often at the end of a road leading only to it, or on a road at the edge of the city where there is nothing further beyond it. This makes the institution look and feel important, but limits the possibilities for transit service because it can only be served by lines that end there.
  • An entire suburb, perhaps one called a Transit-Oriented Development, is located in such a way that no regionally logical transit line will ever get to its town centre, except for routes that go only there.

One of the major failings of Peter Calthorpe’s early 1990s project Laguna West, in Sacramento, is that the town centre is located in a place where no regionally logical transit line could ever serve it. Laguna West still has mediocre transit service because it’s impossible to combine its market with any other markets – which is what you have to do to create an efficient transit line.

Land use planners urgently need simple tools to catch these problems. Until those tools are developed and built into training, they’d do well to just remember one sentence: Be on the Way.

Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the author of  “Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives".

This article was originally written for his blog, and is reposted here with permission. All images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

Quiz: Can you name the UK city from a map of its public transport?

I'm so confused. Image: Chris Sharp.

Come on, this is an easy one.

 

 

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