Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Transit oriented development: How much is the transit worth, anyway?

A common trend in urban planning circles in the English-speaking world, is transit-oriented development--higher density communities which are built with providing easy access to some form of (usually rapid) transit.  While the name TOD is fairly recent, the phenomenon is not--many cities in Asia and Europe feature so-called new towns, often built after World War II, which contain a significant transit component.  The new town is generally a larger-scale development that US-style TOD; and were not focused specifically on transit; so it would be incorrect to simply equate the two, but there are many similarities.

In many TODs, the development is built concurrently with the transit line, and predicted ridership from the development is often used in justifying the existence of the transit line.  In some cases, the developers may help finance construction of the line, or even operate it.  (The MAX Red Line airport segment is one example--Bechtel, which owned a big chunk of land near Portland International Airport, helped finance the line; and constructed a significant retail development, CascadeStation, along the line just east of the airport.  CascadeStation is not residential in nature--as it lies right under the eastern aircraft approach to PDX, it is not a desirable place to live--but it is there, nonetheless).

Such approaches are often highly controversial, for various reasons:
  • The heavy public/private involvement often draws accusations of corruption from many different political quarters.  While most such arrangements are conducted above-board and are not per se illegal; it is frequently alleged that the primary beneficiaries of TOD projects are developers, construction firms, and the relevant trade unions--not transit users or the general public.
  • This is especially true when the bulk of the ridership from a planned transit line is expected to come from TOD.  Many transit users would prefer that transit improvements come to where they already live, not to a new development which would require them to move.  Of course, it should be pointed out that in many cases "where they already live" often consists of low-density neighborhoods which are not possible to efficiently serve with high-quality transit.
  • In a political culture suspicious of central planning, TOD is a bright big red flag (complete with hammer and sickle) for some.  Of course,the notion that suburban sprawl is a natural byproduct of the free market is a myth, but reality seldom gets in the way of a good ideological soundbite.
Streetcars, part deux

Peter Christensen wrote an excellent article on a related subject--the financing and development of the original streetcar systems in the US during the early 20th century (which were usually private, for-profit operations).  In it, he noted that the streetcars "were a real estate ploy as much as a transportation ploy", and that efficient operation of the line (whether by a for-profit operator, or a public one) requires high density around it:

Basically, any city that’s building a light rail or subway line and not dramatically increasing the zoning around it is throwing money away. Without the proper land use, there’s not enough population to drive demand, without demand there’s not enough incentive to provide good levels of service, and without good levels of service people will find it faster to drive.
Indeed, much money made by streetcar operators was in real estate speculation--in some cases, the trains were a "loss leader" to boost the value of the surrounding real estate.  A common practice among streetcar operators was to build attractions such as amusement parks or stadiums as anchors for the line--Jantzen Beach, Oaks Park, and the now-gone Vaughn Street Park were all examples of so-called trolley parks.   


Some projects which are TOD, or cited as TOD, are successful--they have morphed into popular communities with good levels of occupancy, both residential and commercial.   Orenco Station in Hillsboro is frequently cited as one example.  The Pearl District occasionally gets cited as well; though much of the development of the Pearl predates the Portland Streetcar (more on that in a minute).

But other than a few surviving remnants, the old streetcar system is now long gone.  And there are many TOD project around the world--and in Portland, in particular, which have failed in some fashion; either failed to achieve the occupancy expected (resulting in lower-than-predicted ridership for the transit line), or in some cases which have resulted in bankruptcy for the developer(s) and or the assumption of debt by taxpayers when a private entity defaults.

The Round, in Beaverton, is one infamous example.  The South Waterfront development just south of downtown Portland, with OHSU as an anchor tenant and gorgeous Willamette River views, may be another.  (I'm cutting SoWa some slack as it started to open just as the housing bubble burst; whereas as The Round was a failure despite opening during the peak of the housing boom).

Why?  Is it not true that if you build it, they will come? 

Location, Location, Location

It is easy to note the staggeringly high prices of real estate in places such as Manhattan--or even in the Pearl or other nicer close-in Portland neighborhoods.  Which begs the question:  what makes these communities so popular--so much so that residents will pay a premium to live there?  Occasionally, it is alleged that the answer is things like "access to transit", or simply that high-density itself (and the more frequent interactions with neighbors that density brings--the "community", to use a frequent buzzword) are what makes these places pricey.

Were that so, though, then any old apartment building near a transit line ought to be popular--and have high occupancy at premium prices.  One would think.

But it's easy to see that it's not so.  Residents of The Round have a MAX stop at their front door, a decent selection of above-average restaurants on the bottom floor, and an office/retail park across the street.    However, they also have numerous trailer parks, low-cost apartments within walking distance; not to mention acres of car lots.  Museums, art galleries, truly fine restaurants, and first-class shopping?  Nada.  The Round is designed to appeal to upper-class consumers and sensibilities; but fails to offer any upper-class amenities.  And while inner Beaverton is no Hell's Kitchen, it's got its share of blight and crime--things which the well-heeled frequently pay a premium to avoid.  (There's probably a racial angle here as well, as the surrounding community has a strong Mexican presence).  And transit?  Besides MAX, the bus system in Washington County is sparse in both spacing and frequency--Beaverton is, and remains, auto-dominated suburbia.  Outside of The Round, all the neighboring businesses have huge parking lots, and are difficult to access on foot.

As an upscale community, The Round fails.  As TOD, it fails, too.

So why is the Pearl successful?  Or numerous other trendy inner-city Portland neighborhoods, whose only transit is local bus service? 

Proximity to cultural attractions.  Proximity to jobs.  Proximity to goods and services.  And for some, exclusivity.

This is not to say that transit is unimportant--as good infrastructure (provided it's not obnoxious or intrusive) increases the cultural attractions, jobs, goods, and services which are within ready reach.  However, most people ride the bus or train (or drive) because they want to get somewhere.  Being located next to a train is like being located near a freeway--great, but what else is in the neighborhood?

The Pearl is conveniently located to both downtown (and all the cultural activities located therein) and to some of the most exclusive shopping districts in Portland (and here the Streetcar helps a great deal).   Orenco doesn't have these amenities, but its located in the heart of the high-tech industrial employment zone.

One of the most interesting TOD projects in the Portland area, is Villebois in Wilsonville.  Located on the site of a former mental hospital, it's arguably a TOD which is located a short distance away from the southernmost WES stop.  It has enjoyed moderate success, as many folks have moved there, though retail occupancy still remains to be desired.  Wilsonville is also a key high-tech employment center in the Portland area.

But WES?  It's a peak-hour-only commuter rail service, that is a really inconvenient ride into Portland.  While Villebois may help drive usage of WES, the limitations of the service cast doubts on the notion that people moved to Villebois to be near commuter rail--if they did, many of them are doubtless disappointed.   The success of the development, if it continues to blossom, may have end up having little to do with transit at all.

The bottom line

Transit-oriented development can be a useful thing, if new infrastructure is to be built.  However, for it to succeed, a few things ought to be kept in mind:
  • Proximity to transit is not sufficient (nor is it necessary) for a desirable community--this is especially true when the community is located in suburbia (and where residents will probably need a car anyway).  What is important--with all communities--are things like good amenities and services, avoidance of blight, crime, and other undesirable situations.  Building new communities along transit is often better than building subdivisions on the next cornfield--but for either to succeed, they have to be good places to live.  Being near infrastructure is a small part of that equation.
  • From a planning/infrastructure, infill is often a better way to improve transit outcomes.  Of course, infill is often unpopular with existing residents (and less attractive to well-heeled developers).
  • If you are going to build new infrastructure based entirely on speculative demand (serving new communities rather than existing ones), you had better be right--this is especially true if creation of a new service requires curtailment of an existing service elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. The issue with many of the TODs in the Portland area have to do with bad urban/neighborhood design and not designing them to fit within their mostly suburban context.

    When comparing Orenco with that of The Round (with Orenco arguable being waaayy more successful than The Round) it becomes very apparent that the design of these TODs are vastly different in appearance and function. The Round's TOD is based around the light rail station/tracks whereas Orenco utilizes very "timeless" neighborhood design principles to create a pleasant place (albeit the Transit station is a bit far from the core of Orenco). That's not to say that The Round isn't aesthetically pleasing, but not too many people want to live literally inside a very public park with trains blasting by every 15-20 minutes, with their back decks facing people want reasonable privacy (and even in very urban situations, the back deck of a building provides decent privacy).

    Even Central Park, with it's high flying real estate adjacent to the park has a street to separate the uses from each other -- a typology that people are more comfortable with.

    The simple thought of so many TODs is that "if you build it, they will come". The actual design of them to accommodate true, people-places was forgotten, and it shows in the amount of vacancies and fallow land around these stations that are zoned for TODs. And personally, the density and retail requirements around many TODs is overstated for much of the area.

    We need more communities and neighborhoods, and less subdivisions and TODs. You can't just put in transit access to people's doorstops and expect miracles, it's much more complex than that. Providing quality transit to new towns/developments should absolutely be thought of in their design, but it should not dominate the final outcome.

    Regarding Villebois, that is the most faux-European-overly-marketed-pseudo-urban experience I have yet to witness and I think it will fail if it has not already. It certainly insults my intelligence at the same level that Bridgeport Village does.

    Orenco is good because it did not forget what it was and what it was trying to be, even if you could classify some of the architectural details as reasonably fake -- but no more than a stucco McMansion in a typical Beaverton cul-de-sac.

    The Pearl District and Orenco Station are not successful simply because you can classify them as TODs, but because they provide quality urban and neighborhood experiences that just so happen to have good transit access.

    It's the whole chicken and the egg thing. Or something like that. The wheel doesn't need to be reinvented like so many TODs have tried to do, humanity has been building quality spaces/places for many, many years now.


Keep it clean, please