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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.