Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Interview With G.B. Arrington

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Our TOD expert this month is urban designer Peter Calthorpe. Calthorpe needs little introduction- his name has become synonymous over the years with New Urbanism, smart growth, and the revival of intelligent urban design. His latest book, written with William Fulton, is called, The Regional City: New Urbanism and the End of Sprawl. We asked Peter to give us his definition of transit-oriented development.

PC: Well, very simply stated, it’s an area, a walking shed, around a transit station that should be mixed-use and very, very walkable. The idea is that people are more likely to use transit if they can walk to the station then if they have to drive, park, and then get on the transit system. You know the greatest environmental and economic savings are when people walk to transit. And you need walkability at both ends! If you arrive at the end of a transit trip and you’re stranded, you can’t walk to your final destination, you’re not likely to use transit.

Now, there are the park-and-ride systems, like BART, and the tension between that model, where people use the TOD station as a remote parking lot for the final destination- for example, San Francisco, where parking is very expensive, and so it’s less expensive to park somewhere like Oakland and ride in- that’s a good thing in terms of congestion, but it’s not the best thing in terms of land use patterns. That doesn’t really generate the kind of walkable intensity.

And when you look at the numbers across the world in terms of mode split or how people travel, the vast majority of places that are succeeding are doing it because a very high percentage of trips is on foot. And it’s almost as if transit is an enhancement of the pedestrian environment rather than an end in itself. The pedestrian environment becomes richer if you can walk to local destinations and then simultaneously get to regional destinations. So on your way to work you can stop and do some shopping, or drop off the mail, or go to the laundry, or what have you, get some breakfast and then get to the station. If you can multitask, put those all together in one mixed-use neighborhood, you can have a very successful combination that is the kind of environment that will get people out of their cars.

I think that, in the end, it’s a pattern that will be the next layer of the American metropolis. We’ve had suburban, auto-oriented, freeway-oriented growth for fifty years. And now we’re going to make that richer by overlaying a network of transit that then creates walkable, mixed-use, higher-density and more affordable neighborhoods.

RA: Some of the TOD that’s been built has been built under the idea that if you put a mixed-use building within a half-mile radius, suddenly you have TOD. And the walkability part gets missed. How do you make that fine-grain fabric work for walkability?

PC: First of all, you have to disperse the auto traffic. You can’t collect it on one or two major arterials that then become barriers to the pedestrian. Secondly, you’ve got to design the street as if the pedestrian, or the biker, really matters. The street can’t simply be a utility for automobiles, it has to be a multi-purpose throughway that works for everybody. Traffic calming is a big part. Street connectivity, so that you don’t run into dead ends and you don’t have to go out of your way to get where you’re going. All of these things work together to create a classic urban network of streets. It doesn’t have to be a grid, although in America it traditionally was a grid, but the larger the density of street intersections, the more street connectivity you have, the easier it is to walk, and the easier it is for the auto traffic to be dispersed.

But, you know, it also goes to things like: What do you experience as you're walking down the street? Are there street trees to shade you? Is there parallel parking to protect you from moving cars? Do you have interesting buildings with porches and storefronts, or are you walking somewhere sandwiched between a parking lot and an arterial? These are very different experiences both in terms of aesthetics and safety. So it’s a whole range of things, and that’s why it’s called “urban design”.

RA: On the topic of design, what do you see as the importance of building densely around stations, and can you design density so that it is appealing to people who are not used to it?

PC: Well, density is relative. Certainly in most of our suburban areas, given the economics and demographics of the next generation, we need more choices than single-family housing. We’ve got a pretty good bank of single-family housing options, and contrary to what many people say- that it is it the house of choice- it’s the house of choice for one age group and one family type, but people go through many phases of life. There’s the young single phase, there’s the young couple without kids phase, and then there’s the family phase, which sometimes, but not always, needs a single-family home. What they really need are good schools! And then there’s the empty-nesters, the older folks whose kids have gone. And single people, and single moms. I mean, the market is so diverse now, and the market has been fairly homogenous. And so we’re using TODs to fill out a range of housing choices. So I think the point is not to create density for density’s sake, but to create a more diverse palette of lifestyle options.

It’s interesting to me that in the age of the streetcar, you had low-density streetcar suburbs that worked just fine. I think that that kind of lifestyle can work, where you can get even moderate densities to be very effective in supporting transit systems. I don’t think we have to correlate high density apartment living with TODs, I think there can be townhouse neighborhoods and even small lot, single-family neighborhoods with transit systems. Once again, it’s the mix.

The other thing that people tend to ignore is job centers. Jobs are the primary peak hour destination. It’s only 25% of household trips, but it’s a very important one in terms of load and cost to the household. If you have to own a car- averaging $8000 dollars a year- that’s a huge economic burden for many, many households. And so the idea that your job could be easily accessible to transit I think is one of the most important aspects of TODs.

RA: In your practice, are you seeing a disconnect between the theories of TOD and how it’s being implemented in practice? And if so, where are the roadblocks, what is causing that to happen?

PC: I think largely it’s being very successful. There’s no question that in all the cities, especially the Western cities where they’re adding new transit systems as opposed to East Coast cities where they have transit systems and they are revitalizing old neighborhoods, the new transit systems- Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Sacramento- the city center benefits the most, becoming the focus of this new network of mobility. And that’s a good thing. So city centers are growing out in really positive ways.

We all tend to discount Portland, but I was actually there yesterday and as I traveled around I said to myself, “I came to Portland in the 60s, and it was a DUMP.” The idea that anyone would want to live in Portland was a bizarre fantasy at the time. Everyone says that Portland is a special case, you can’t transfer it, but the reality is that Portland has, really, few assets. It doesn’t have a strong economic base. It’s not a Seattle with Boeing and Microsoft, or the Bay Area with Silicon Valley, it’s not New York, it’s not LA. In a way, it’s overcome many barriers that many regions don’t have to overcome in terms of economic health. And it’s done it by creating a more livable environment. And livability becomes thereby a very important component of economic development.

The part of TOD that I don’t see happening as much is this commercial side, gathering the job centers around the station and making that work trip destination- other than in the central cities- happen. So the suburban locations as job centers. There is this problem of jobs growing in areas of like uses rather than in more mixed-use areas related to transit, and that’s a big dilemma. I was up in Portland yesterday and Adidas has fit themselves into a residential neighborhood in a very beautiful, seamless way. Huge campus, 1000 employees, but it really creates an amenity for the neighborhood. It’s pedestrian accessible, the bus is right there and transit’s a ¼ mile away, and it really seems to work. So there are models, but they’re few and far between. I think we’ve broken the mentality of single-use subdivisions and residential, but we haven’t broken the mentality of single-use commercial.