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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

"Transit-oriented development" - becoming loose talk?

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 26, 2013

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  Fruitvale Village at transit station, Oakland CA (courtesy of Eric Fredericks,

In my world of environmentalism and community planning, it’s gotten to the point where we bestow the moniker “transit-oriented development” (or TOD) on any building or group of buildings near public transportation.  But we shouldn’t:  To make both transit and nearby neighborhoods work together, we must pay as much attention to the neighborhood as to the transit.

Some time back, I wrote an article on the subject, “Transit-oriented development requires more than transit and development.”  The two must be coordinated, and that word “oriented” is in the phrase for a reason.  As I wrote before, placing development near transit is good; but orienting the development to the transit is better, and more effective for creating a sustainable, well-functioning community.

What does that require?  There must be adequate density and a walkable environment; the densest, most walkable portions of the development should be placed closest to the transit stop; commercial and mixed-use buildings should also be close to the stop, with their primary entrances highly accessible to transit passengers, to facilitate multi-purpose trips; buildings and public spaces should be designed to make the area around the transit station or stop feel inviting, comfortable, and secure; design should make it easy for transit and bicycle transfers and vehicle drop-offs; single-family residences may be placed a bit farther away; and so forth.

The visionary designer from whom I – and most everyone else – first learned the phrase, Peter Calthorpe, has now gone so far as to say that maybe we should ditch it altogether.  In a provocative and thoughtful interview with Martin C. Pederson in Metropolis, Calthorpe says walkability is actually more important:

Pederson:  “On your website you said you wanted to retire the term “transit oriented development.”  A term you coined.  Why do you want to retire it?”

walkable Sydney (by: Amanda Slater, creative commons)Calthorpe:  “The reality is that people get almost too focused on transit.  There’s a symbiotic relationship between it and walkable destinations. You can’t have good transit if you can’t walk when you arrive.  So pedestrian-oriented development is really at the heart and soul of great cities.  Every city that you love is a city that you want to walk in.  We travel the globe in order to walk in great cities.  But as an organizing principle for how you shape regional growth, transit oriented development is probably a better term for China [where Calthorpe has been doing a lot of planning work].”

(Emphasis added by me.)

Food for thought, no?  I think he is on to something.  Maybe it's time to replace TOD with POD as the Holy Grail of smart urbanism.

For myself, I want both transit and walkability but, if I have to choose, I’m picking the latter.  I’m on record as saying that we should aspire to make great places, not just environmentally efficient ones.  Plopping an apartment building somewhere near a transit stop, by itself, doesn't do that.  And I’m also on record as saying that we have become so loose with vocabulary that we frequently render it meaningless.  I’m not entirely sure that we should retire “transit-oriented development” as a phrase, but I’m quite sure that we should ask more, and better, of it in practice.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. For more posts, see his blog's home page. Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Bill BradleyJul 26 2013 03:07 PM

I wrote a piece for Next City about a new tool—still being developed—that sort of quantifies TOD. It's like LEEDs, but for TOD.

Interested what you think. You can check it out here:

Eric OrozcoJul 26 2013 04:55 PM

As a policy tool, TOD is effective, since it qualifies the character of what good TOD is about in code. Particularly, in flipping parking minimums into maximums. I don't debate the thinking that, overall, we should strive for walkability, but land use and transit access is part of your zoning and development strategy, the concept falls far beyond theory. When you say TOD in Charlotte, NC, for example, with think of it as a zoning category, and it codifies the intentions. I think CNU and NRDC should take pride for the practical impact it has had. Why the sudden change of heart? What's motivating that?

Scott RanvilleJul 28 2013 04:51 PM

For me, TODs are missing the families and family related amenities.

Our article: "Go BIG!! Transportation: A Larger and More Profitable TOD" is the lead article in the latest edition of the Urban Planning and Economic Development magazine describing some of this as well as a proposed solution.

Basic concept is adding bike and Low Speed Vehicle rental/sharing stations at every light rail station (easily expanded to any transit station). Some call this the 'last mile' concern in transportation.

Ben BroesamleJul 29 2013 12:05 PM

Unparked TOD is, unfortunately, not yet redundant. It should be. The real issue with designing TOD and generally a built environment for humans is that we're still designing for cars first. Blame who you like. It has to change.

Richard GellerJul 29 2013 04:46 PM

During a tour of Portland's Pearl District last week with Rollins College Master of Planning students, Orlando urban developer Craig Ustler used the term "Transit Integrated Development," or "TID." Another description to consider.

EricJul 30 2013 01:40 PM

Exactly, there's no such thing as "TOD". It's walkable pedestrianism or it's not. Whether it's dense and has parking or other amenities around the stop has nothing to do necessarily with urbanism.

Jason BurtonJul 31 2013 11:08 AM

There's a difference between Transit "Adjacent" Development and Transit "Oriented" Development, which has been talked about and described for over 20 years.

However, TOD has been sort-of-been usurped from the planning and urban design world and is now being utilized by politicians and developers of all walks of life to justify all sorts of development from expanding urban growth boundaries to getting federal transit funds for commuter rail.

At least the concept is out there, and walkability is merely one factor of several to creating Transit "Oriented" Development (or "integrated" as Rick Geller points out).

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