Transit-Oriented Development: More about Orientation than Transit or Development

Cities and Solutions Under Assault

Transit Oriented Development, a term coined by Peter Calthorpe in the 1980s, has become a quintessential rallying cry for planners seeking to move American cities forward. Despite near-unanimous consensus on the need to maximize TOD in order to make cities successful, the buzz-wordiness of the notion now has critics claiming everything is TOD. Worse yet, this now has many cities rationalizing whatever it is that they have as “TOD.”

An example of rationalizing: At the OSU Knowlton School of Architecture, we recently had a “Planner’s Panel” on TOD in Columbus. It was a fabulous panel with city planners from Dublin, a remarkably progressive city, our fairly progressive MPO, our downtown SID, etc. For those of you that have been to Columbus and think you’re missing something, you’re not. We don’t have any TOD. But give us 5 minutes, and we will tell you all about how close we are.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: The reality is that TOD has been elusive and “true TOD” still evades even the most progressive communities. (An example of this might be Cleveland’s proposed TOD at the West 25th Red Line station, complete with 555-575 parking spaces. So is it really “true TOD?”) As the concept becomes more shrouded in smoke, many of the more independent thinkers now avoid it altogether for fear of being cliche. Sidebar: I know we’re all looking for the “IT Factor” in how we plan with limited community resources. Usually in business, a good bet is the one everyone is sleeping on or can’t figure out (as long as you can figure it out).

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The iconic St. Charles Streetcar in Uptown NOLA.

One of the more cringeworthy revelations toward this end is Jarrett Walker’s recent assertion that “most urban redevelopment is bus TOD.” Uh yeah, a respected urbanist actually said that. Generally, equity-focused planners (a niche that is historically prone to self-defeatism, in this case perfecting the “deer in the headlights look” with the spread of gentrification along transit routes) have always used their advocacy outlets to dog streetcar projects on any basis that they can (see: CityLab, any articles tagged “streetcar”). They attack and smear struggling cities such as New Orleans that want to harness rail-based transit to turn their situation around (although it seems like unfairly attacking anything New Orleans does is all the rage these days). The worst, perhaps the most dangerous of the mavericktivistsMatthew Yglesias’ VOX screed proclaiming streetcar projects to be categorically “evil.” I am reminded of that time that Hugo Chavez insisted he smelled sulfur after taking the podium following George W. Bush. Pot. Kettle. Black.

264100_2056634249073_2486104_nAnd then, sometimes equity planning’s defense of bus-only transit is downright hilarious. Meet the “Coolest Bus Around.” Why would anyone want a clean, modern, efficient, well-designed LIGHT RAIL when you can have a bus with a hot driver? No? Well you must not get all hormonal when you step onto the typically squalid city bus. You’re just not getting the right contact high when you ride the buses in your town.

Battleground Backyard

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Simply put, modern transit and TOD has become a battleground. Just about everything in urban planning tends to become a battleground, as it’s sometimes hardest to marshal a consensus on projects in our own backyard. We all need to take a deep breath and find ways to move forward on transit. Collectively, holistically, and comprehensively. As a rail advocate, I’m willing to extend the olive branch in agreeing that we must leverage rail corridors to make bus networks more effective. There has to be a place for both. That said, I would rather err on the side of modernity than that of antiquity. ‘Nuff said.

It shouldn’t be bus or rail, zero sum, winner takes all. I understand that’s easy to say when my end goal is just moving the needle a little on rail, however, this isn’t an incremental ploy I’m proposing. I genuinely think with a few small additions of rail, the whole picture for transit can come into focus. With the addition of rail that serves as a “high-frequency spine” that bus routes feed into, with multi-hub corridors that syncs the two transit modes together, American cities can very easily offer premier transit service. It will be those cities – with the ability to make sense of the bigger picture and the combined roles of rail, bus, and cars (maybe even “driverless cars”) – that have the biggest upside in the 21st Century.

If we all take a deep breath on this issue, I’d like to make a new point (I promise not to go all mavericktivist): Transit Oriented Development requires Development Oriented Transit. It goes both ways. Re: “everything is bus TOD.” No, not everything is bus TOD. In fact, bus TOD is almost negligible. It just doesn’t pass the scrutiny of essential nexus. How much development is deliberately oriented toward and not away from a bus stop? There has to be a mutual relationship between the TOD and the transit. When you run public transit as a social service, you limit your TOD to facilities that provide social services. That’s the unfortunate reality, and that’s coming from someone who rides the bus every single day.

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High Street in downtown Columbus is clogged with slow-moving, view-blocking, often-stalled, and smog-billowing buses.

Here in Columbus, efforts to stymie rail planning and transit have been remarkably successful over the last 20 years. Despite countless plans and proposals, Columbus can now lay its claim as the largest city in the nation without passenger rail. Many transit activists attribute some of the city’s development boom to the city’s hyper-concentrated bus service along High Street (served by 6-7 bus lines, with almost all bus routes funneled down High Street through downtown), where development has also been concentrated. Correlation is not causation. The reality is that the occupants of new spaces built along High Street exist in spite of the buses that plague the corridor. Developers are finding creative ways to detach their projects from the surrounding streetscape due to this, and unfortunately, there are no shortage of ways to do this: No street retail, parking podiums, tinted first floor windows, landscape band-aids, plaza/moats, and more.

Here’s a quote from a Columbus Dispatch article three days ago:

Local retail consultant Chris Boring said it is difficult to make retail work on High Street because of bus traffic and the lack of parking.

“The focus needs to shift away from High Street,” he said, even as new multi-use projects on High Street include first-floor storefronts, such as the Day Cos. plans to refurbish three buildings along N. High north of Long Street.

What pains me is the obvious disconnect that I am seeing. We don’t need more transit-resistant development. We don’t need more anti-transit, anti-development, and anti-equity. We need all three of these things to work together and move each other forward. There’s an assumption that retail needs people with fat wallets, whom we all know only show up in cars (I hope not). There’s also an assumption that rail transit is a ploy to create transit just for the rich (because they don’t need transit). Underpinning all of this is an assumption that the two sides can not work together.

That’s the problem we face today. We need to come together, not come apart. That’s where we need to seriously reevaluate how our development AND our transit is oriented.

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