When I think about the future of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the United States, two major recent events stand out as opportunities for change:
First, the Biden Administration has reinvigorated our nation’s focus on infrastructure and transportation investments such as rail travel. The recently unveiled American Jobs Plan calls for unprecedented federal aid—in the ballpark of $80 billion—to expand the U.S. passenger rail system. On the East Coast, this boost would help address Amtrak’s repair backlog, expand service to more cities and modernize the network in the Northeast Corridor. On the West Coast, the proposed Cascadia Rail spanning Oregon, Washington and British Columbia is also gaining momentum.
City and regional transit agencies are also poised to benefit, but the benefits can go further. Transportation projects don’t just move people, they connect communities. Reinvigorating our nation’s once best-in-class rail network opens an opportunity to rethink existing and future neighborhoods and districts that they serve.
Second, the coronavirus pandemic has been a testbed for recapturing public spaces. Many people, particularly those living in dense urban environments, took for granted the ability to roam free until going into “lockdown” last year revealed how deep our need is for space outside the home—whether parks, walking and biking trails, or neighborhood streets that are safe enough for kids to play. Many cities have successfully captured these outdoor spaces, from the “slow streets movement” in cities like Seattle and Oakland, to extended retail and dining on sidewalks and parking strips that accommodate social distancing. Now that we’ve seen how it works, many are asking, “Do we have to go back to the way it was before?”
With all these developments comes a renewed optimism among urban planners and designers. The world has realized that placemaking improvements to the public realm, such as streets, parks and plazas, can significantly improve quality of life, social equity and economic opportunity.
Like many aspects of life coming out of the pandemic, we have a chance to create a new normal for TOD. Let’s start by unpacking the letters of this now commonly used acronym. Historically, the Transit component of TOD has focused on moving people from point A to point B, with less emphasis on the human experience of getting to and from the station. At the other end, Development has frequently prioritized maximizing real estate opportunities around transit stations at the expense of building community.
What ties Transit and Development together is how they are Oriented to one another. That’s the public realm: the space in between that breathes life into cities; the space that people using both transit and development actually inhabit. When considered on equal footing with transit and development, the public realm orients us in the places we inhabit as well as to the transit that moves us further afield. This is what elevates a transit-oriented development to a people-oriented community.
Creating people-oriented communities accomplishes three things:
It facilitates ridership. Convenient access and high visibility of transit makes it easier for people to use. When frequent transit service is well integrated into a community, it becomes an integral part of daily life and an extension of people’s daily routine, requiring less thought and effort to move about.
It creates economic opportunity. Not only maximizing long-term real estate value around transit stations but capturing the opportunity to create housing and business equity. A more accessible, affordable and diverse place for people to live and work in proximity to everything they need—such as retail, business, healthcare and community services—which also reduces dependency on private car ownership.
It improves quality of life. Having safe, vibrant, welcoming spaces for socializing and connecting to nature outside the home is important to our health. Being able to walk or bike to carry out our daily activities also makes good economic sense and supports local business.
In my urban planning experience throughout the world, I have applied five principles for the public realm that can lead to better transit and people-oriented development. These have proven relevant from places as diverse as the Pacific Northwest to the Middle East.
Arrive at the place you want to be.
Locating a transit station in the heart of a community, rather than on the outskirts, means that when riders get off the subway, train, streetcar or bus, they have already arrived at their destination. They don’t need to traverse highways or navigate busy thoroughfares that prioritize cars over pedestrians.
When ZGF developed the Columbia Heights Public Realm Framework for Washington, D.C., we planned two public plazas—Metro Station Plaza and Civic Plaza—located a block apart from each other, at key intersections surrounded by retail and high-density housing. Subway riders come up to the street level and find themselves in a bustling public zone where people come and go for transit but also carry out their daily activities and social gathering. The plazas become the heart of the community.
Design streets for people.
In most cities, traffic engineering dominates roadway design. Meaning, streets are designed for vehicles first, people second. Flipping the model to prioritize pedestrians, then bicycles and scooters, then public transit and AV, and private cars last, is an opportunity to apply the level of service to all users equally.
In my Seattle neighborhood, First Hill, the city allocated funds for new public parks, but rising real estate value and development pressure is so high that affordable land for parks is scarce. As a board member of the First Hill Improvement Association, I worked with a passionate group of neighbors implementing the First Hill Public Realm Action Plan, which identified existing street rights-of-way that could be reallocated for public open space.
Out of this plan, the University Street Park was born. Located at a three-way intersection deemed unsafe for both pedestrians and traffic, the pocket park prototype was piloted with a series of temporary activations, including a life-size street Scrabble tournament that created buzz in the community and attracted roughly 200 people in attendance. Since then, a new apartment building with a ground-floor neighborhood restaurant was built across the street and part of the project’s community benefits is dedicated to maintaining the park.
People now use the space daily, including a fellow ZGF employee who says it has been a “lifesaver” during the pandemic.
(Photo credit: Joe Iano)
Balance the needs of all users.
(Photo credit: Tom Bennett)
For the public realm to be equitable, it must balance the needs of all users. A great example is Barcelona, where the city’s prolific boulevards are wide enough to accommodate large volumes of traffic, various modes of transit and neighborhood amenities such as generous sidewalks, playgrounds and bicycle parking—all in the right-of-way. Bottom line: There is room for everyone when space is allocated equitably.
Manage the investment.
(Photo credit: Center City District, Philadelphia)
Once a city has delivered on the promise of people-oriented TOD, ongoing investment is needed to maintain the physical improvements. Cities like Seattle and Philadelphia have created ambassador programs that provide daily street cleaning, landscape maintenance and public safety. These programs also create jobs and add a familiar human presence on the streets.
Engage the edges.
From the outside in, well considered buildings contribute to the public realm and create a presence on their streets.
The Emery, a mixed-use residential building for students attending Portland State University, Oregon State University, and Oregon Health & Science University, sits on the edge of a transit corridor in a post-industrial district that previously didn’t see much pedestrian activity. The building exterior and streetscape are designed to enhance the character of the transitioning area and activate the street with an engaging urban form, including a retail podium, two restaurants and bicycle parking.
Vulcan’s Block 44 office building, currently leased by Amazon, sits on a megablock along one of Seattle’s busiest traffic corridors. Using a midblock pass-through, the building articulation creates additional public space to make up for narrow sidewalks. It also enables amenities that would normally be placed on the sidewalk, such as bicycle parking, to be placed within the building footprint, therefore freeing up public space on the street. The pass-through is landscaped with trees and water features that create a lush oasis in a busy part of the city, while an open-air canopy protects people from the elements and allows daylight filter in.
When these principles are applied together in Transit Oriented Development, the result is a public realm network that collectively enhances the value and viability of the transit investment, community development, and most importantly, a better quality of life for people in all types of urban—and urbanizing—neighborhoods.
Tom Bennett is an urban planner and designer who is passionate about creating vibrant, healthy, equitable spaces for a people-oriented public realm.