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How Transit-Oriented Development Works
Eric De Place, 11 Feb 09

And why TOD is good for economic justice and the environment.

TOD.htmHere in Seattle, the blogosphere is in a lather over this recent entry at the Rainier Valley Post by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, arguing against a bill that would encourage compact development along the new light rail line. Several readers have asked me what I think of the article, so I'll go on the record here: it's a terribly misinformed piece.

Take a look, for example, at the first two paragraphs:

The theory of transit-oriented development (TOD) says that clustering residents and businesses around transit stations will reduce auto use and thus greenhouse gas emissions...

On the surface TOD sounds plausible. But where’s the scientific evidence that it will actually work?

It's a leading question and they spend the rest of the piece implying that TOD is bad for the climate. And yet they have it exactly backwards: the academic evidence in support of TOD's benefit for the climate is pretty overwhelming. Colter and Fox clearly haven’t done their homework.

The best compilation on the research connecting urban form with greenhouse gas emissions is Growing Cooler, a reader-friendly volume edited by Reid Ewing. (By the way, this is an extremely well-known book in the business and it's perplexing that the authors would be unaware of it.) Another classic is the report Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact, also edited by Reid Ewing. Here's a wonderfully readable -- and recent -- summary, The Greenness of Cities, coauthored by professors from Harvard and UCLA. (Bonus: here's a blog post I wrote based on separate research from one of the authors, Matthew Kahn.) And then there's the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, where Todd Litman keeps an exhaustively cited summary of the research on transit-oriented development and its environmental and social impacts. There's also what is perhaps the magnum opus on the subject, Sustainabilty and Cities, a comprehensive look at density, driving and other topics in cities around the world by Newman & Kenworthy. If that's not enough, you might check out a longer technical review by the US EPA, as well as a boring technical report prepared by ICF International.

And if you'd like access to more of the primary research on the connections between density, sprawl, driving, public health, and social equity please see Sightline's bibliography on the subject.

The fact that the opening sentences are so distorting should give you a sense of what follows -- there's hardly any assertion that isn't importantly misleading. I simply don't have time to respond to every half-truth and mistake in the piece, but if you're just dying for more, go check out Dan's excellent take-down over at Hugeasscity; the comments section at Dan's Facebook page; Eric C. Barnett's piece at Slog; or Josh Feit's reporting at Publicola.

I don't want to minimize the importance of the subject. Preserving equity and affordable housing in urban areas (and their outskirts) is an enormous challenge, particularly as cities grow and evolve. The nexus of concerns related to housing, climate, and affordability  issues needs a thorough and fair hearing.

But Colter and Fox haven’t done that; instead, they’ve resorted to sophistry and innuendo. Perhaps they believe they’re doing low-income folks a service by fighting new housing development. But the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, a coalition of more than 200 affordable housing organizations and advocates, disagrees. They’re supporting the bill that Colter and Fox are attacking.   

This piece originally appeared on the Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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I'm a really big fan of transit-oriented development. I don't own a car in Denver and I get around by bus and rail only.

However, I must agree with a point brought up by the authors of the original article: affordable housing goes down the tubes.

I think it goes to the definition of affordable housing, and while it's admirable that affordable housing organizations and advocates are working to make sure there is a portion of housing that meets budget numbers for those earning below the median income, I think the budget numbers need reworking.

See, I think it's no longer workable to consider "35% of monthly gross income" as an acceptable value for housing, and the concept of location-efficient mortages is well-intentioned but misguided - it discourages a savings economy. It's especially limiting for renters looking to save for a down payment.

On top of that is the fact that TOD rental prices are generally MUCH more expensive than non-TOD developments even with car expenses and payments factored in, and there are large fluctuations in prices - I would venture to guess, because of speculation in value of these newer concepts in living. Until this stabilizes and until the concept spreads across an entire metro area, people will choose the cheaper place/car combo rather than the expensive place/no car combo while they still see the mobility value in owning a car.

I'm not saying that this is a good thing, or that metro areas should stop building TOD - rather, I think it should be a city-wide policy. But when the best urban and open-space places are still transit-remote or transit-poor, and the disparity in rent and sale prices on housing is still so great, don't expect it to catch on.

Posted by: dox78 on 12 Feb 09

The affordability issue is a serious one, but as the previous commenter says, we shouldn't abandon TOD simply because many such projects wind up pricing out lower-income people. Quite the opposite, in fact - we should be doing MORE TOD, because the essential problem is one of supply and demand.

Quality TOD is unfortunately scarce in America, and when it occurs, many wealthy people quite rightly choose it over sprawl development. This, of course, crowds out the average citizen.

There will likely always be some inequality in this sense - the prime condos right above a transit stop will always be expensive, since they're so convenient. But the real test will be ensuring that the next tier of housing - the units two, three, five, seven blocks away from a stop - remain affordable.

Posted by: Chris on 13 Feb 09

"TOD rental prices are generally MUCH more expensive than non-TOD developments even with car expenses and payments factored in."

That may or may not be true- certainly walkable urbanism commands a sharp premium on the real estate market.

But to compare TOD with existing non-TOD is apples and oranges. Many metro areas in North America and around the world are growing: that growth will either be channeled into more density (which will eventually moderate the walkable urbanism premium that now comes from limited supply) or it will turn into exurban sprawl.

The choice is really TOD or sprawl, not TOD or the status quo, and a number of studies have shown that when you compare the total affordability, compact development beats sprawl.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 Feb 09

At the risk of over-simplifying the issue, my observation of affordable housing and property prices in Japan was indeed that rent prices approach insanity in their proximity to train stations. And rates seemed to drop noticeable each half-kilometer or so back from each station. Of course, this is more complicated since there are many train stations and and reliable bus routes. But we don't have the same building density so that distance will probably be much longer.
And, as I live in the Northern US, we should have to take cues from Northern Japan, which is more car based anyway... but we've been having some issue with getting passengers to endure open air train stations here. Location. Location. Location.
To the point, pedestrian centered trains stations (MUST connect to bus transit nodes, not just one bus line, must have a bike parking garage, pedestrian tunnels, bridges and skyways, ought to incorporate shopping needs) these stations are nodal and can drive a percentage of TOD all on their own due to laws of demand. Conversely, not all commercial activities can or should be driven to these nodes. The kinds of business drawn to these areas are anything and everything for the mass market, read: lowest common denominator. However if businesses are planted in these areas - designed for the tastes of elites, it will look incredible on paper. If TOD is executed without considering geographic and economic functions, it could -could- end up being a mismatch between supply and demand, a waste of time and resources. From what I've seen, build the infrastructure and they will come.

Posted by: Javabeanboy on 21 Feb 09

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