Transit-Oriented Design Combats Urban Sprawl 0

Philip Proefrock | Tue Dec 20 2011 |

The automobile has been a defining influence in the latter half of the twentieth century. Interstate highways, the advent of the suburbs, and the lure of the open road have all played an important role in building community and strengthening our economy.

But the rise of the automobile has not been without its costs. As the population continues to expand outward, roadways have become increasingly congested and commute times crippling.

According to a Gallup survey of American workers, commuting took an average of more than 45 minutes a day. Additionally, transportation costs have grown from an average of two to three percent of income to between 15 to 28 percent since the introduction of the automobile in the early 1900s.

Transit-oriented design

Transit-oriented design (TOD) looks to create spaces with a rich variety of options for living and working, leisure and commerce. In short, the focus of a TOD neighborhood is the neighborhood itself, not the transit.

TOD is not just a network of routes. Many cities and towns have bus networks, but that alone does not make for transit-oriented neighborhoods. TOD raises the proverbial bar, providing a mixed-use development with a combination of retail, office, and residential spaces within walking distance from the center where transit is located.

Far from being a limiting effect on people, wider transit options offer greater flexibility and an increased variety of opportunities available in one’s immediate surroundings.

Recent studies have found that transit-oriented neighborhoods have prospered even as other areas in the same market have faltered.

Denver, Colorado perhaps best exemplifies the market for new approaches to growth and transit. Home values for Denver residents within a half-mile radius of the Southeast Light Rail line increased by 18 percent just as home values in the remainder of Denver declined by 18 percent between 2006 and 2008.

Walkability and density

Green building rating systems pay close attention to energy efficiency, but the building’s location and connectivity to the neighboring community are also important elements.

When applying for LEED certification, the credit for Development Density and Community Connectivity is worth five points, and the credit for Alternative Transportation—Public Transportation Access is worth six points. Taken together, these two credits can account for 25 percent of the points needed to qualify for certification. Only two other credits (Energy Performance and On-Site Renewable Energy) offer the possibility of receiving as many points.

The defining characteristics of these credits are similar to the goals of TOD neighborhoods: to obtain the Development Density and Community Connectivity credit, the building must be within walking distance (defined here as one-quarter mile) of at least 10 various services (banks, restaurants, libraries, etc.). The Alternative Transportation credit is awarded when the building is located within one-half mile of a commuter rail station or within one-quarter mile of a stop for two different bus routes.

The transit solution

Far from being a limiting effect on people, wider transit options offer greater flexibility and an increased variety of opportunities available in one’s immediate surroundings.

Richard Murphy, Transportation Program Coordinator with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, likens the modern urban fabric to a prairie. With only automobiles for access, it’s a monoculture, like a lawn with only one kind of grass. But a community with other transportation options is like a full prairie, with a diversity of species and a much richer ecosystem.

A more connected community with a wider number of options is both the goal and benefit of transit-oriented development.

The transit solution does not lie in the replacement of one method with another. Instead, it is a matter of including additional options to make a place more widely accessible to larger numbers of people.

“It’s not an issue of giving up the freedom to go anywhere with a car,” says Murphy. “It’s exchanging that freedom for the freedom from car ownership.”

A more connected community with a wider number of options is both the goal and benefit of transit-oriented development. When existing development and new transit are combined in strategic ways, a virtuous cycle develops where both sides work together to help build a stronger and, ultimately, a more prosperous community.

Illustration by Ryan Chapman