Chuck Marohn of the excellent organization Strong Towns doesn’t like transit-oriented development (TOD), and instead recommends “development-oriented transit” (DOT?) in a 2014 piece quoted by Rachel Quednau today. Debates about TOD and DOT have been around for a while, but are they really about anything?
Transit-oriented development is the transit-advocate’s response to highway strip development in the same way that the early planned New Urbanist developments like Seaside were a response to greenfield suburban development. I’m sympathetic, but this isn’t the answer.
Instead of transit-oriented development, we should have development-oriented transit: Identify places where things are happening now and then connect them with the lowest level of viable transit possible. Make sure those places allow the next increment of development by right (without extensive permitting). This will ensure that the transit is viable and that it supports that next level of growth and expansion.
When that next level of growth and expansion happens, everything moves up a notch. Upgrade the transit to the next level — from jitney to shuttle bus, from shuttle bus to city bus, from city bus to streetcar, from streetcar to light rail, from light rail to subway — and repeat.
This is a beautiful idea that will make no sense to an actual transit planner. It would be nice if you could start out with a low commitment to transit and then grow it as demand requires. But this approach routinely fails when communities do grow to the scale that requires high capacity transit, only to find that there is nowhere to develop effective transit because it wasn’t considered at an early stage.
This is the argument for ensuring public ownership of key rights-of-way, like abandoned railway corridors and utility corridors, and retaining the option for putting transit there in the future. That much is usually not controversial.
But if we accept that, then it implies a greater challenge. New towns need to be along a possible future right of way, so that future transit will serve them.
One of the most common mistakes of New Urbanist development is to build “transit-oriented” villages in places where efficient transit could never reach them. Usually, this is because the village is in a cul-de-sac location position with respect to the larger network, so that transit can’t run through it on the way to anywhere else. I explain this problem more fully here. In my book Human Transit I call out one of the earliest examples, Peter Calthorpe’s Laguna West, but I still encounter them constantly across the US. (Here’s one in Davis, California, for example.)
So we transit planners are entitled to point out where development patterns make transit easier or harder to provide. If the developers want to claim transit as a possible outcome, they must deliver development forms that are adaptable to transit in the future. As Calthorpe and others have pointed out, the worst kind of sprawl is high-density sprawl, where travel demand is intense but the layout makes it impossible to serve with anything but cars. Geometrically, this can only lead to high congestion, high vehicle miles traveled, and a range of other awful outcomes.
So what is “development-oriented transit”? To be frank, I’m sure I’m not the only transit planner who finds the term insulting. What exactly do you think we do all day? Transit planning is a response to transit markets, which arise from the built form, i.e. “development”. If development determines where people are and where they need to go, then all transit is development-oriented, and it always has been.
There is plenty to dislike about certain transit-oriented developments. We must be suspicious of aesthetic objections that could be resolved only at high cost, as this amounts to dismissing the imperative of affordability, but even within that limit there are many ways to make development better or worse.
But in the end, transit-oriented development isn’t some architect’s theory, or even some set of prototypes. It boils down to the idea that transportation infrastructure drives urban form as much as urban form drives infrastructure. Virtually all authentic towns are located and configured in response to some kind of transportation: a port, a rail junction, a road junction, etc. In cities, almost all of the inner city fabric that people love is transit-oriented development, in that it grew around early transit lines.
Transit-oriented development is not the opposite of “development-oriented transit.” All transport is development-oriented, and all development is oriented toward some transport mode. If you want that mode to be public transit, then you need to plan development — not just its layout but also its location – with transit in mind, just as all urban planning did before 1945. That’s all that the term “transit-oriented development” says, and all that it should mean.