skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Transit-oriented development requires more than transit and development

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 25, 2010

, , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

  Phase I of Crestview Village, a TOD under way in Austin (by: Trammell Crow & Stratus Properties)

I attend a lot of meetings and read a lot of documents and policy language using the phrase “transit-oriented development,” frequently shortened to its acronym “TOD.”  Most of us in the world of smart growth and urbanism love the concept, designed to make it more convenient for more people to use public transportation. 

But I have come to believe that many of us are also misusing the phrase and, in the process, failing to be sufficiently ambitious in our advocacy.  Example:  a coalition NRDC belongs to has been working on proposals to define high-priority development locations, in order to fashion supportive policy.  TOD is proposed as one of the categories, and defined in the latest draft by the proximity of the location to transit service.  Fair enough; LEED for Neighborhood Development does the same thing, giving credit points for development that is within ¼ mile walking distance of bus transit service or within ½ mile walking distance of rail transit service.

the Portland Streetcar (courtesy of Reconnecting America)But I would argue that we have really defined only transit-served development locations.  The design process of orienting the development to transit requires more.  For instance, 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.  While placing development near transit is good, orienting the development to the transit is better, and more effective for creating a sustainable, well-functioning community.

  elements of TOD (from US GAO Rept 09-871 via Reconnecting America)

Now, I’m not a designer, and I’ve already told you about as much as I really know about what makes TOD work.  But, fortunately, you needn’t be constrained by my limited expertise: A large number of resources are available to flesh out the topic.

For example, you can consult the handy and informative Station Area Planning Manual prepared in 2007 by Reconnecting America for the San Francisco Bay Area.  The 36-page manual provides design and policy guidance for seven types of transit stations from city and suburban centers to neighborhoods to corridors.  (Paragraph bite:  “In order to create a station area that encourages transit use and TOD, the public space around stations must be inviting and usable. A successful public space is easy to walk through, is comfortable to sit and visit, and has attractive features such as water fountains and public art. Great public spaces often include retail . . .”)  I was recently reminded of the publication by an interesting post concerning parks and public spaces near transit, written by Ben Welle on the Trust for Public Land’s City Parks Blog.

  a station area in Denver (by: Denver Metro Board of Realtors)  the same area as a planned TOD (by: Denver Meto Board of Realtors)

To cite just a couple of the many additional publications available, Minnesota’s Metropolitan Council, serving the Twin Cities region, has produced a Guide for Transit Oriented Development that is excellent as a shorter, less technical overview (Sample caption: “Attractive pedestrian environment, with street-facing buildings and a network of pedestrian-scaled streets connecting the transit stop or station with the TOD’s commercial, civic and residential areas.”).Bowden Village, a TOD in Adelaide, Australia (by: Sensational Adelaide)  One of the better PowerPoint presentations I have seen on the subject was prepared by PB Placemaking for a transit corridor in the City of North Las Vegas (“TOD planning principles: greater density than community average; a mix of uses; quality pedestrian environment; a defined center”).

Straying for a moment from the subject at hand to venture into the world of personal pet peeves, I have to say that I find myself one of a dying breed in my love of and insistence upon precise, descriptive language.  That’s a tempting but dangerous rant for me to begin here, so I won’t, but let’s just say that it isn’t by accident that I found my way to law school back in the day.  And I offer TOD as exhibit A for my case that thinking carefully about why we use particular phrases and words can make a difference, and in this case an improvement, in thinking about how to improve our communities. 

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


Share | | |


Lucy GalbraithJan 25 2010 03:22 PM

Thanks for featuring the rendering of Midtown Commons at Crestview Station. The transit agency and the developer worked together to create that TOD, including joint design of the transit plaza. Phase 1 has people living there, and the first commercial tenant is America's only brew-pub cooperative, Black Star.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 25 2010 03:29 PM

Bigger thanks to you and your colleagues, Lucy. Looks like an outstanding project. Keep up the great work.

FaithJan 25 2010 05:35 PM

With all due respect, I don't think that the Met Council's handout is quite the same level as what Reconnecting America put together for San Francisco. For example, the Met Council handout specifies: "Street Design: Traffic management and pedestrian street crossings." I'm not quite sure what 'traffic management' means here and it could be interpreted as anything from ensuring automobile LOS A to implementing road diets and traffic calming. This differs from the San Francisco manual that states, "In close proximity to transit, priority should be given to non-automobile modes whenever possible." and "Plans should consider adopting performance standards—such as Level of Service (LOS)—for all modes, and assess flexible TOD-appropriate standards for autos."

Richard LaymanJan 25 2010 06:48 PM

FWIW, I have been making this point for a few years. When people hear "TOD" too often they really hear "giveaways to rich connected developers." This is the thread used by opponents of the Purple Line light rail in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, and is used to smear the advocates for it, as tools of developers.

What I try to focus on are the benefits. I try not to use the term TOD at all.

More people (which we have to accommodate anyway), who mostly use transit don't take up much in the way of roadspace, provide us with more income, property, and sales tax dollars necessary to support our municipal budgets, provide more customers to local retailers, so that we can maintain and increase the number and variety of retail options that are more proximate to where we live, add more eyes on the street and other positive street activity to make our neighborhoods safer, and provide more hands (and brains) to participate in civic life and local organizations in our community, further improving it.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 25 2010 11:52 PM

Richard, that is an excellent point. Regardless of the phrases we use, we have so much more education to do in order to demonstrate the benfits of smart development. There is a lot of distrust and instinctive negativity out there, some of it justified because people have seen so much crappy development over the past several decades.

Faith, I certainly agree that RA's 36-page manual designed for planning practitioners is more sophisticated and detailed than the Met Council's 9-page brochure designed for more of a public audience. They serve different purposes and, in my opinion, the Met Council's publication is quicker to grasp and has better images as a brief overview, which is how I desribed it.

Cameron MuhicJan 26 2010 09:56 AM

This is a fascinating, and for me, very enlightening topic. I've felt for some time that there was something wrong with the way the term TOD was being used in many circumstances--but was unable to put my finger on what seemed wrong.

I'm wondering if it would be possible for people making comments that include comparisons to other studies, papers, articles, Powerpoints etc. to list the full name of the item, or to provide a link to the item when possible. I'd be really interested in reading the RA's manual that Faith mentioned--but I've not heard of the document before and while I'm now going to spend time looking for it on the internet--I'm not sure that her description will be enough to track it down. Mr. Benfield is very good about giving us either the complete name and/or a link to the items he writes about in his blog. Is it possible others could do the same-or at least provide the full name so we have a hope of finding the item?

Kaid @ NRDCJan 26 2010 10:55 AM

Cameron, Faith and I were both referring to the "Station Area Planning Manual" that is linked in the original post.

J.H. CrawfordJan 26 2010 01:50 PM

Of course, the ultimate expression of TOD is the carfree neighborhood/district/city. Once cars are gone, the streets can be made far narrower than they must otherwise be. The extra space can be used for any purpose, including the provision of green space.

In the USA we tend to forget that this approach is even possible, but most European cities have carfree areas in their downtowns, and some much larger carfree districts exist. Venice, of course, tops the list.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In