Skip to content

Creating Livable Communities through Transit Oriented Development

This post is the third in a series being published in advance of State-City Collaboration on Clean Energy Transformations, taking place from May 29–30, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia in parallel with Clean Energy Ministerial 2019.

Written by Mike McKeever, a Senior Advisor and former Chief of Staff to Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg

Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is an essential component in any sustainable communities toolkit for urban areas. We have learned a lot over the last 3 decades about how to build high performing TOD. Here are my top 10 “must do’s”:

  1. Located within ½ mile actual walking distance of high-quality transit service (day and evening frequencies of at least every 15 minutes that connects to many destinations)
  2. High densities/floor areas ratios (too much parking lowers densities, increases costs and attracts car trips rather than transit trips)
  3. Fine-grained right of way grid texture that creates an excellent pedestrian experience
  4. A healthy mix of land uses — in Portland, Oregon known as “the 20-minute neighborhood”
  5. A strong mix of residential products for various household sizes (including families) and incomes (lower income households obviously have the greatest need to escape automobile dependence).
  6. Codes and policies that send clear market signals, rewarding developers who want to build high performing TODs with speedy, reliable, affordable entitlements, and prohibiting auto-oriented developments that waste the ability of the finite supply of parcels near transit to yield high transit ridership.
  7. Ensuring that high-quality transit service is available when the development is constructed, not some indefinite time in the future
  8. High-quality design that accentuates the positive characteristics of taller buildings
  9. Close integration of transit service with pedestrian and bicycle facilities and, where appropriate, first mile-last mile shared mobility options
  10. Consistency and alignment of any financial incentives from governmental entities to incentivize high-quality TOD, especially those for affordable housing.

TODs that meet these tests reliably deliver numerous, substantial benefits to the transportation system, notably daily vehicles traveled per capita of residents and employees several times lower than average daily vmt/capita in a regional area, much lower average number of daily car trips, and greater systemwide access to typical daily life destinations. There are also significant financial benefits from lower per unit infrastructure costs, social benefits from the housing product income mix, and health benefits from more active daily transportation behavior.

Of course, not all development constructed near transit over the last few decades meets my 10 “must do’s”. Two general categories of all too common mistakes are briefly described here.

  1. Compromises on the type and density of uses are made to allow lower density and sometimes allow auto-oriented uses to be built with the rationale that “market conditions” won’t support a better TOD and some development near transit is better than no development. Transportation and urban form decisions are for the long-term. Infrastructure and buildings last for decades, sometimes centuries. Once a sub-optimum use is allowed to occur in the finite number of acres near high-quality transit an opportunity to improve the transportation system and the environment is lost for a very long time.
  2. Building a housing product focused on high price point units with high parking ratios. This attracts people who want to enjoy all of the benefits of urban living while traveling as if they lived in a suburb.

Recent transportation trends have also caused some to doubt the future importance of TOD, including autonomous vehicles, shared mobility options, lower gas prices, and financially struggling transit systems with declining ridership. My opinion is that there is no future for cars in dense urban environments, whether they are driven by computers or constantly circling shared mobility operators. The job of public officials and urban planners is to treat these recent trends as the servant, not the master, and to stay the course on the by now common sense conclusions that under any future using land efficiently, placing daily activities close rather than far apart, and providing a transportation system with a multiplicity of options instead of just one is the best bet for a future high quality of life. Reducing a commitment to TOD because of short-term gas prices would be the height of folly. It is abundantly clear that a viable transportation future does not involve fossil fuel, at any cost.

Now is the time to fully harvest and apply the substantial knowledge that has been developed over the last several years to make sure we build high performing TODs in abundance in the future.

Mike will be speaking at the Renewable Cities Conference on State-City Collaboration on Energy Transformations in Vancouver, Canada (May 29–30, 2019).

Mike McKeever is a Senior Advisor and former Chief of Staff to Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Prior to that, he was the CEO of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments after leading their groundbreaking Blueprint planning program for 3 years.

McKeever has dedicated his nearly 40-year career to promoting collaborative action between communities and organizations, promoting economic and environmental sustainability, and helping to develop and apply innovative planning software that allows professional planners and thousands of residents access to high-quality information to help understand how neighborhoods, cities, and regions function.

McKeever was a key player, working with then California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, in writing Senate Bill 375, a groundbreaking bill linking regional transportation, land use, housing, and climate change planning.

Interested in collaborative clean energy governance? Join us at State-City Collaboration on Clean Energy Transformations in Vancouver.

Featured image courtesy of H. Emre (Pexels) and secondary image by Kaique Rocha (Pexels)