Transit-oriented development (also known as “TOD”) refers to a range of development projects that typically consist of a mix of uses (such as retail, residential, hospitality, entertainment, neighborhood services and employment). They’re located adjacent to places where multiple modes of transportation come together. Often, this is at a passenger rail stop, bus rapid transit (BRT) station or multi-modal transfer facility where mass-transit vehicles (like trains and buses) allow people to connect with more individualized modes of transportation, like automobiles, bicycles and pedestrian routes. One of the standard rules of thumb is that a TOD should be located within a quarter-mile (1,320 foot) to half-mile (2,640 foot) radius of the transit node. Studies have shown that this five to ten minute walk (under certain conditions) is something people will willingly commit to before wanting to get into their car to get somewhere (and for more on how this is evolving and malleable, read here and here). TODs can occur naturally (evolving and growing over time around a transit hub) or they can be more intentionally developed.
People have always tended to naturally settle in locations where trading routes crossed, seaports connected to rail depots or where wagon trails intersected.
TOD, in a sense, has been around for centuries. People have always tended to naturally settle in locations where trading routes crossed, seaports connected to rail depots or where wagon trails intersected, if conditions were favorable. This is where goods and services were most conveniently offered and traded, and where people came together from near and far. So, the idea of communities aggregating around nodes of transportation is really not a new one.
What is new today is the codification of the concept and the development of a lexicon for the intentional design and development of TODs. A result of this is more people exposed to the many benefits of transit-oriented development. Today, TODs give people the chance to abandon an automobile (or simply not feel required to purchase one) in order to get around. If properly designed (or adequately evolved) a TOD gives people a choice to live a more multivalent and transient existence. We are an increasingly mobile and intermixed society, and TOD offers the chance to locate our home at a point of both departure and arrival, where people can enjoy living in a very convivial and meaningful way. This is not only something for young, active millennials, but also, increasingly, for active retired adults seeking an alternative to the monocultural and often isolated retirement community.
We are an increasingly mobile and intermixed society, and TOD offers the chance to locate our home at a point of both departure and arrival, where people can enjoy living in a very convivial and meaningful way.
When I think of the best and most iconic transit-oriented developments in recent years, four different examples come to mind in the U.S., though there are many others abroad and elsewhere in the U.S. First, Del Mar Station in Pasadena, California is an example of a compact development literally straddling the Los Angeles County Metro Rail Line. This was completed in 2003 as a developer-driven project with support from the city. Second, is the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, Virginia. This district is a combination of naturally-occurring and developer-driven TODs, oriented around five separate stations along the Washington Metro. Third, Orenco Station is an example of a greenfield (i.e. built on vacant land) TOD along the TriMet Westside Light Rail Line in Hillsboro, Oregon. Fourth, and I believe one to watch, is the development occurring along the Lynx Blue Line Light Rail in Charlotte, North Carolina—an interrelated series of projects along a transit corridor. It’s actually a movement that Shook Kelley helped inspire and launch, beginning in 1993 with our collaborative planning workshops for the Charlotte Trolley and then the light rail station-area planning that led to the transit system we see today.
With all this talk about transit and movement, what does that mean for our idea of “home”? I think that most people, whether you live in a TOD or not, still view their home as a stable place—their haven, their comfort zone. I don’t think this paradigm has changed (and I believe this to be true in most places around the world where the concept of the individual’s private home has existed). For those that choose to live in a TOD, however, the paradigm becomes as much about a lifestyle choice as it is a housing choice. In a TOD, people often accept a smaller home, more urban conditions and minimal private open space, in exchange for conveniences and other personal and social benefits. One major benefit is the mobility or freedom of movement from home to work to the many other places that feature in daily life.
And put simply, TODs provide more opportunities for convening. In his book, The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg talks about the idea of the “Third Place”—that place outside of home and work—that modern society and contemporary life often prevents us from enjoying because we have such trouble putting aside our day-to-day concerns. Third Places could be the local cafe, the bookstore, the tavern, a park or even our church. These are places that we often don’t have nearby, nor do we have much time these days to travel to visit and enjoy them. So, TODs provide opportunities to incorporate these Third Places more frequently into our everyday lives. And keep in mind that TODs are not only occupied and enlivened by the people who live there, but also by the people commuting through or making it a destination for something.
A characteristic shared amongst people that choose to live in TODs is that they’re all trying to get the most out of their everyday routines.
I don’t know that TODs in particular inspire more sense of community or community-building than, say, a greenfield traditional neighborhood development (TND), a more commercial mixed-use development or any of the great neighborhoods, towns and cities that occur naturally throughout the country. I would submit however that a characteristic shared amongst people that choose to live in TODs is that they’re all trying to get the most out of their everyday routines. If you consider that modern day life is increasingly time-stressed—between commutes, deadlines and all of our social obligations—living in a more compact world allows people to pack more into their day—or at least manage a more reasonable schedule. This is, in part, because of the transportation choices afforded to people living in a TOD, mainly from reducing commute times. But it’s also because of the close proximity of neighborhood services. You might conclude that people who gravitate towards TOD do so because they want to be more in charge of their daily lives.