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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).