If They Build It, You Will Come: A Look at Transit Oriented Development

From almost the time that suburbs began to take root in American society they have been the source of criticism. Initially towns near cities grew or were founded due to the fact that rising affluence meant that a family might be able to own a home of their own and enjoy some land along with it. Improved transportation links begun in cities were extended to the countryside so that people could work in cities but choose a more leisurely lifestyle during their non-working hours. Suburbs were intended to give residents the ease and tranquility of rural life, while still providing the opportunities for work and trade in the cities.

If suburbs were generally safer, more comfortable, and had more untapped possibilities, what wasn’t to like? Fictional depictions of suburbs over the years such as Lolita, Revolutionary Road, The Virgin Suicides, and the works of authors like John Updike and John Cheever generally play on the boredom, hypocrisy, and inauthenticity of these planned areas. But, aside from cultural distaste, the greatest problem that has occurred as a result of suburbanization is the social dislocation.
As more Americans could leave cities to settle in the neighboring towns, increasingly the suburbs became more dependent on personal transportation, largely in the form of the automobile. The use of automobiles led citizens to move increasingly further and further away from cities. It also meant that more development of these living spaces were carved out to provide parking spaces for cars, such as shopping centers, and malls. And as traffic began growing on the new highways constructed to take people to and from work, more businesses relocated to large (car-friendly) office parks in the suburbs. As the suburbs became well-developed themselves, there began a push to move residential areas out into more and more previously rural areas. Urban areas lost heavily in this societal change, as fewer suburbanites were dependent on working or shopping in cities, and they lost the economic and political clout they had always held.

The other manifestation of social dislocation arising from suburbanization has been less civic and social
involvement, as Robert B. Putnam’s seminal work, Bowling Alone, makes clear. As towns become more sprawled out, and work commutes longer, residents have less time to take part in, or stay informed about, civic affairs, local organizations, volunteer groups, clubs, and churches. Growing affluence also tends to result in citizens becoming more focused on personal goals rather than those of neighbors and a neighborhood. Urban areas, by contrast, due to their more densely populated living spaces, had traditionally been more civic-minded, because neighbors were more likely to know each other, and have similar ethnic, occupational, religious, and political concerns. Suburbs provide more privacy, choice, and mobility, which can all have salutary effects. But all tend to promote individual interests over that of the group, and personal goals over the common good.

When sprawl occurs there are a number of other negative factors that result, aside from a lack of rootedness. Initially suburbs were considered healthier than cities because the less-developed areas were free of the smoke, run-off, and smells of the heavier industries of their day. But today, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most polluted air many Americans will encounter is on highways where suburbanites generally travel. The majority of pollutants that are created by auto emissions emanate from those longer commutes suburbanites make as compared to their urban and rural counterparts. [1]  

The automobile’s influence on global climate change is hard to understate. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that a single gallon of gas emits 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other gases that warm the environment when burned. Passenger cars and light trucks are responsible for 61% of the nation’s transportation emissions and about 20% of all emissions. [2]

According to a New York Times piece, “Commuting’s Hidden Cost,” Jane E. Brody notes that mounting research suggests that the longer one’s commute and overall dependence on automobiles, the less likely he gets regular exercise, and is more likely to obese. Brody also quotes Leigh Gallagher, who wrote the groundbreaking The End of Suburbs, as saying that residents of New York City were on average 6 to 7 pounds lighter than their suburban fellow citizens due to their reliance on walking and public transport. [3] The reliance on cars also means that frequent motorists are putting themselves at greater risk for an injury or death as motor vehicle accidents are consistently one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. [4]

Public infrastructure is another area in which sprawl exacts high costs, both economically and in terms of safety. Suburbs have almost by definition fostered low-density development so that homeowners can have expansive lawns, larger lot sizes, and generally more space. Not only does that increase the cost of home ownership, but having larger areas to cover makes it difficult and more expensive for communities and utilities to deliver services such as power and sewage, and determines school size, availability, and transportation. Resources are needed for additional roads, highways, parking areas, and their continuous upkeep. Unplanned growth, or even so-called “leapfrog” development in which developers tend to have charge in planning a new subdivision as opposed to the municipal government, can also lead to longer and less successful response times by emergency personnel according to some studies. [5]  

The lack of a sense of place, firm roots, and connectedness with others as commutes become longer and mobility makes people more transient, has led both academics and other citizens to consider ways to reinvent urban areas and consider smarter ways for communities to grow while sustaining the value of common aspirations. In recent years three schools of thought have developed on how to use intentional planning that will provide value to a whole community through mixed types of housing, workplace, and transportation options so that citizens can live in and value the places they inhabit rather than traveling long distances. New Urbanism promotes a traditional view of neighborhoods that are walkable, contain a definable center (such as a park, church, or municipal building), have a good means of transport, as well as shopping, schools, and jobs that are nearby. Vehicular traffic is routed through a more predictable network, so that pedestrians and cyclists can utilize the rest of roads and walkways. The Smart Growth movement’s principles are summed up well by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Sustainable Communities:

·        Mix land uses

·        Take advantage of compact building design

·        Create a range of housing opportunities and choices

·        Create walkable neighborhoods

·        Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place

·        Preserve open spaces, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas

·        Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities

·        Provide a variety of transportation choices

·        Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective

·        Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions [6]  

The third movement which looks to reform sprawl and recreate a more purposeful sense of community is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). The goal of TOD is to position public transit and other more efficient and healthier means of transportation at the center of development (in other words within a mile of mixed housing, shopping, schools, and workplaces), and progressively ease the density of development the further one gets from these transit hubs until one reaches the next transit area. Having jobs and shops near transit or the ability to walk or cycle to them can drastically cut commute times, the expense of car upkeep and pollution, and create “centers” that allow more social interaction and a sense of place lacking in many bedroom communities and exurbs of today. The biggest development issue for TOD is for the large costs involved in putting together such projects. Critics of Smart Growth point to the fact that consumers have already “spoken” by flocking to the suburbs. But when presented with opportunities to cut transportation costs, gain health benefits, develop more free time, and feel a sense of community, more Americans are finding TOD projects to be worth the investment.

This writer experienced the development of “The Tide,” a short (7.4 miles) light rail system introduced in the
city of Norfolk, Virginia in 2011. Local politicians at times bitterly fought what they felt was a transport system people wouldn’t use, forced on them by tone-deaf planners. Ironically or not, many of the same politicians frightened to death to raise the Commonwealth’s gas tax had helped create the huge automotive daily traffic gridlock, since the tax pays for road maintenance and expansion. The Tide was enormously expensive and, inevitably, there were cost overruns. But when The Tide opened something interesting happened. It was very popular. The local transit authority projected perhaps 2,900 daily passengers, but within its first year the actual ridership was closer to 5,000, and a million rides had already been logged. [7] It was a sea-change for a metropolitan area heavily dependent on cars. In subsequent months and years, the debates began to switch from how to defeat and eliminate The Tide to which areas would get future extensions of the line. The U.S. Navy, which is a major employer in the area, has hinted more than once that improved infrastructure to and from their facilities is critical for future development (or redeployment to other coastal bases) of their operations. Additionally, housing and commercial developers have started organic but concerted efforts to set up near The Tide lines (or promote their proximity) to take advantage of this new source of potential customers.

Norfolk’s experience echoes the experiences of many other cities like the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and Boston which have made the commitment to begin offering rail and other intermodal transit systems (i.e. high-speed rail, commuter stations, rapid-bus, traditional buses, and subways) the price tag for which often resulted in open political hostility. But the hostility began to fade when the benefits of TOD started to be realized. In both Boston and Washington, the transit riders frequently advocate for improvements to their particular station areas, request new stops, and generally take a real sense of ownership of their parts of the system. In Arlington County, Virginia, a network of urban villages has sprung up near many of the D.C. Metro subway stations. The government and regional planners have tried to concentrate most new development within a half-mile of bus and train stations. The popular Capital Bikeshare allows residents to use cycles as yet another choice beside transit and walking.

Some discussion has begun in academia about whether the new found interest in TOD will lead to higher property values since living near transport hubs could be viewed as very desirable. There seems to be some concern that housing in the immediate vicinity may not benefit if there is too much noise and activity, but may improve given some distance. When Dallas’s DART system (which opened in 1996) was analyzed in January of this year it was found that “(t)he assessed values of multi-family residential, office, and retail properties, in particular, greatly exceed the values of similar properties not associated with a DART Rail station.” [8]  

Higher property taxes and commercial success could become a stream of revenue for local and state governments to utilize for the TOD system upkeep and expansion. TOD can also shake up moribund urban areas by providing the transit links necessary for those with initiative to attempt new development, since developers can tap into links to other neighborhoods. Buffalo’s plans for a medical campus area are expected to transform its northern sections as employees seek to live nearby. [9] Norfolk’s “Tide” system also has a terminus in its medical complex areas downtown, which is now becoming a fashionable residential area due to the ease of transit.

Moderate and low-income workers may be some of the best beneficiaries of a TOD approach to community development. Since they are less likely to own automobiles they can maximize their earnings on housing and better food shopping than most current urban neighborhoods allow, since more workplaces and stores will likely want to locate within range of public transport. One worry about TOD is that the urban villages and communities that are springing up near transit centers nationwide will have a gentrification effect, in other words, bringing affluent people in and uprooting poorer folks who can’t afford to live in the new highly-prized areas. The San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank has written on the importance of maintaining equity in the types of mixed housing available and making sure the public has a voice in planning decisions to avoid economic red-lining. [10]

Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy’s Sustainability and Cities points out that investing in transit provides double the economic return than would building highways that bring motorists from outside city borders. The network of smaller but denser neighborhoods cropping up near transit hubs are effective ways to reverse sprawl. Finally, creating more of a corridor-style transit path makes it easier and more predictable to provide infrastructure services like water, sewage, and power. The TOD advocacy organization Transit-Oriented Development may sum it up best on their website: “A New Train network is the most effective way to curb sprawl, and goes hand in hand with smart growth, creating livable communities, economic sustainability, environmental protection, human rights, and sustainable community design. When planned together with compact, walkable forms of development, trains solve many serious problems facing society.” [11] For Americans who want to rebuild our communities with a focus on civic spirit, and develop a sense of place, transit-oriented development points to a brighter future.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.