Transit-Oriented Development: Turning Back Time

A two storied building with beautiful trees, manicured lawn, and well-trimmed hedges in front of it.

Transit-oriented developments create walkable neighborhoods with easy access to housing, retail, entertainment and transit stations. Chancellor's Row Townhomes in Washington, D.C

As traffic levels soar in cities world wide, developers are turning to alternative planning methods to reduce congestion.

Although transit-oriented development (TOD) has been around for ages, it’s regaining popularity with urban planners, lawmakers and consumers alike, since it provides a potent solution to congestion. The above TOD is in Washington, D.C.

Raise your hand if you love being stuck in traffic. Anyone?

Each morning on my lengthy commute to work, I have the pleasure of watching my gas needle tick down in increments. Don’t get me wrong, I love my car, but I absolutely hate paying for gas and being stuck in traffic. And I’m far from the only one who feels that way. Enter transit-oriented developments, or TODs. Transit-oriented developments are designed to combat lengthy commutes and high transportation costs while creating walkable neighborhoods.

Prior to World War II, American cities were denser and organized around street car and commuter train lines. After the war, Americans moved en masse to the suburbs and public transportation fell out of use in many cities. When my parents were growing up in the 1960s, gas was around 35 cents per gallon. Everyone was immensely proud of their cars and cheap gas prices only fueled their love of driving. Urban sprawl happened naturally — people wanted a house in the suburbs with large yards and didn't mind adding time to their commute.

What's old is new again

Fast forward to today’s economy: rising gas prices, stagnant incomes, high unemployment and excruciatingly slow growth mean urban sprawl is less appealling. For many people, finding a home they can afford in the suburbs is offset by a longer commute and a higher cost of transportation. Recognizing that, planners and developers began investigating affordable housing solutions, one of which is transit-oriented development.

The defining quality of TOD is proximity to a transit stop: within one-quarter to one-half mile. A TOD solves the “last-mile problem” — the difficulty in moving people and the things they carry from a transport hub to their final destination. Beyond proximity to transit, TODs strive to create walkable neighborhoods that blend commercial and residential features.

“Compact neighborhoods with an interconnected street network, access to transit, mixed-land uses and concentration of retail and services are highly efficient communities,” according to the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. When correctly designed and executed, compact neighborhoods result in less time spent in traffic and reduced greenhouse gas emissions on the part of residents to meet their everyday travel requirements, not to mention affordable transportation costs.

Housing is considered affordable if it costs less than 30 percent of a household budget. Transportation is the second largest expense for families, but few home buyers consider those costs when choosing a new home. A better measure of affordability is if combined housing and transportation costs make up no more than 45 percent of a household budget. Transportation costs range from 15 percent of household income in location-efficient neighborhoods to more than 28 percent in inefficient locations. Though they may have higher initial costs, TODs are designed to significantly lower transportation costs.

Providing a safe space for pedestrians

Transit-oriented developments provide features to encourage public transport use, such as high-quality pedestrian crossings, narrow streets and reduced parking for personal vehicles. Developers widen sidewalks and increase the amount of shade available. A good TOD provides a mix of housing, shopping and transportation options while creating a sense of place in and of itself. At its core, the goal of TODs is to get people out of their cars and onto public transit or walking to do their daily chores.

As more retail, entertainment and restaurant options are added, TOD becomes more conducive to off-peak transit usage. Homebuyers are searching to find the best possible lifestyle — taking into account factors such as proximity to good schools, job opportunities, transit options, leisure options and tax rates. To compete with other housing options, a TOD must provide a wide range of amenities.

Beyond convenience, lower transportation costs and reduced emissions, TODs also provide health benefits. They encourage residents to do their daily chores while walking or biking. TOD neighborhoods have a higher Walk Score, meaning that a wider number and variety of places are within comfortable walking distance. Denser neighborhoods also tend to have a greater sense of community — another positive effect of TOD.

Developers must be creative: “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution — we have to think about typologies and the character of the community,” says Jeff Wood, new media director/chief cartographer at Reconnecting America, a nonprofit that works to lay the groundwork for public transit. TODs can be designed around metro, light-rail and bus stations — anywhere there’s a large volume of people commuting.

Evolving policy

“Traffic is so awful that everyone is looking for other options,” says Stan Eckstut, principal architect at EE&K, who has extensive experience in large-scale, mixed-use and transit-oriented developments. For developers, however, the fight against the status quo can be a tough one: “It’s still harder to get approval for a TOD,” he says. It’s tougher for developers to secure funds, since banks tend to lend to known quantities. However, opinions as well as codes and regulations are changing in favor of transit-oriented development. As transit and land-use policies increasingly align, cities are changing zoning laws to allow for more transit-oriented development. Results are largely positive: “Evidence shows that transit in Los Angeles and Houston is more successful than anyone thought possible,” says Eckstut.

Transit companies are changing both their services and the way they market to consumers. To get people out of their cars, they need to provide the most attractive and highest quality environment possible. Despite positive results, TODs can still be considered high risk by developers. Local governments offer incentives such as density bonuses, parking reductions, location-efficient mortgages and property tax abatements to encourage both developers and households to embrace TOD. Even though TOD was a tough sell at first, changing codes and increased education have made people see TOD as a valuable tool.

TOD isn’t just limited to metro or light-rail systems. “We’re seeing an increase in bus rapid transit (BRT) because it tends to be more practical,” says Eckstut. Bus rapid transit is a high-performance public transport bus service that combines dedicated bus lanes with high-quality bus stations, vehicles, amenities and branding to achieve the performance and quality of a light rail or metro system — with the flexibility and lower cost of a bus system.

“We have to be very cognizant of where population density is changing in order to adapt,” Eckstut says. Transit agencies are being more creative in how they attract riders. Many are increasing the quality and service level of their systems and improving marketing to encourage riders to leave behind their cars and take public transportation.

A global goal

More than ever, prudent homebuyers are re-evaluating the affordability of their housing based on the transportation costs associated with their location. Neighborhoods that provide residents with convenient access to services, walkable destinations, extensive and frequent transit, access to jobs and density have considerably lower household transportation costs than those that do not.  However, housing often has a higher up-front cost. “For many residents, cost remains a challenge. The ’good’ places — places that are livable and walkable with plenty of amenities — are in high demand,” Wood says.

Cities such as Portland, San Francisco and Montreal are on the forefront of TODs. Many European cities have extensive public transportation systems that work because their cities are denser. However, comparing U.S. public transit systems and their European counterparts is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. “People are starting to appreciate local examples of TOD. The South End, New York City and San Francisco are more established systems, but up-and-coming cities such as Austin, Portland and Seattle are gaining more attention. If those continue to grow, people will have even more successful examples to look at,” Wood says.

When shopping for a new house, take transportation costs into account. If you’re looking to live in a place where you can walk or take public transit just about anywhere you need to go, consider a transit-oriented development.

Seve Kale is an award-winning freelance writer for NewHomeSource. You can find her on Google+

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