TOD's Evil Twin: Transit-Adjacent Development

Lindbergh City Center, Atlanta, Ga.
When Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) announced plans to create a transit-oriented development (TOD) at the Lindbergh Metro Station, and that Atlanta’s second largest employer, BellSouth, was on board to locate new offices there, people could sense a shift in the air. Watercolor renderings of the project pictured a rosy mixed-use development with shops and easy access to transit. A village-like Main Street in the plans was organized in accordance with the principles of New Urbanism. Atlanta’s mounting traffic woes and years of sprawl seemed to be shifting into a new, transit-oriented future. “The plan was such a departure from the norm,” said Atlanta Journal-Constitutionreporter David Goldberg, “and so important a symbol of positive change, that it was front-page news for several days in the local papers.”

The final product left something to be desired. As resident Peggy Whitaker complained, “They…put together something they called TOD when it’s just a BellSouth office park with a transit station stuck onto it.” With the majority of the project’s square footage occupied by one corporate tenant, the pedestrian life of the station conforms to the traffic cycles of the business day. While it does include a mix of uses — residential, retail and commercial — the uses are mostly segregated to their own corners of the development. Moreover, while the final design kept some of the original “urban village” concept, it is hard for the visitor not to feel intimidated and closed in by towering buildings and parking decks, heavily trafficked arterials and the railroad trench.

Oriented or Adjacent?
Sites like Lindbergh City Center have come to be known as TAD, or transit-adjacentdevelopment. As G.B. Arrington of PB PlaceMaking says, “Within the family of TOD, you might say there are two ‘brothers’ — TOD and his ‘evil brother’ TAD.” TAD is TOD gone bad, development that is adjacent to transit but breaks all the rules that make TOD work, like making public spaces the focus of building orientation and neighborhood activity; creating pedestrian-friendly street networks that directly connect local destinations; and providing a mix of housing types, densities and costs.

In 2004, our organization surveyed the TOD landscape in the book, The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development.What we saw wasn’t heartening; many of the sites that were built in the first flush of excitement over the concept of TOD had failed to live up to their potential. The amount of hype around TOD far exceeds the progress to date, with many transit proponents selling new transit investments on the basis of future land-use changes. The result has been that transit opponents have begun to deride TOD as a failure by critiquing the performance of these flawed projects. This presents a particular challenge for the transit industry, because the long-term success of many projects depends on development trends over which the industry has, at best, only indirect control.

So why are we being saddled with TADs, and how can we stop them? What has gone wrong in the quest to build the perfect transit-oriented development?

The Urban Fabric
First and foremost, it must be remembered that 60 years of auto-oriented development is difficult to mend. Streetcar suburbs of the past created natural development patterns that scaled from dense, multi-story developments along the transit lines down to single-family homes. Today, station area plans such as Calthorpe Associates beautiful design for the area around the Colma, Calif., BART station have improved development directly at the station, but the surrounding area is still auto body shops, motels and strip malls. It has taken 12 years to inspire the current development, and it may take 12 more to repair the urban fabric of the immediate area.

As a consequence of auto-oriented planning, many station areas lack the infrastructure necessary to make people feel comfortable walking or biking to the transit stop. Large, dark parking lots separate pedestrians from station entrances, not to mention the major arterials and freeway overpasses that surround them. For the many benefits attributed to TOD to work, it has to be integrated into the landscape with easy accessibility to transit, including well-lit streets, comfortable sidewalks and streetside amenities.

Place Making
One of the greatest limitations on the current crop of TODs is that not enough attention has been paid to making them attractive and pedestrian-friendly places. Trips to the store, to visit neighbors, to the park, or to sit in a coffee shop and watch the world go by should be both negotiable on foot and a delight to those walking. If transit is inserted into a healthy pedestrian environment, then pedestrians can easily become transit riders.

Locating a mix of uses within walking distance of transit does not necessarily create a place where a child can be dropped off at daycare on the way to the transit stop, where everyday errands can take place on foot, or where a business client can be taken to lunch without driving. The types of uses located within TOD must be carefully matched with the function of the place and with the needs and desires of residents, workers, and visitors. Indeed, placemaking may be as important a factor in the success of TOD as access to transit.

And that’s where TAD often fails, by not creating a functional integration of transit and surrounding development. So how is TAD created? What turns a project like Lindbergh City Center from TOD to TAD?

Stakeholders with Competing Interests
Transit-oriented development requires the participation of many actors, and occurs in a fragmented regulatory environment, adding complexity, time, uncertainty, risk, and cost to projects. TOD requires the cooperation of agencies, private business, and community members, each with their own priorities, goals and interests. It is very easy for one well-meaning cause — say, historic preservation — to become the central focus of new development. When this happens, the big picture goals of TOD — which are imminently achievable — fall by the wayside.

Many of these goals — such as maintaining a high level of station parking and maximizing pedestrian access to the station — are in conflict with one another. A transit agency that prioritizes maximizing the monetary return on its land will probably make choices that lead to suboptimal results for creating TOD, as was the case with Lindbergh City Center when Atlanta’s economy took a downturn. Neighbors with property across the street will inevitably see newer styles of denser development as damaging to their property values, whereas residents of the larger area may see the benefits for the region as a whole. Keeping TOD focused on the outcomes and balancing the needs of the various stakeholders is essential to avoid creating TAD.

Research Implications
It should also be noted that TAD is responsible for diluting TOD research because it is difficult to filter out. TOD is often defined as development within a half-mile radius of a station. But that half-mile radius can contain train yards, ravines, eight-lane highways and other obstructions that isolate one area from another. Or it could encompass a wealthy, gated community or towering high-rises. In this way, one half-mile radius is barely comparable to another, and developments that aren’t transit-oriented in any way become part of the statistical research that makes the case for TOD.

Various groups are finding ways to isolate TODs for proper study, looking at the project level. The San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission has developed a number of techniques for reflecting the true half-mile walkable radius around transit stops, resulting in shapes more like Swiss cheese slices than circles. MTC has also commissioned a study to survey residents of effective TOD in the Bay Area in order to fully understand why those projects worked and others haven’t.

Transit-oriented development fosters greater use of a transit system by supporting housing and/or commercial development within walking distance of transit stations, offering a diversity of land uses and pedestrian-oriented design. Where such development has occurred, residents use transit five times as often as those who drive to the station and non-auto mode shares are substantially higher than in neighborhoods where every trip must be made by car.

Living in Lindbergh
Since Reconnecting America evaluated Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, things have been looking up. A new 352-unit condo building called “Eon at Lindbergh” opened in November 2006, with the slogan, “Bring Lindbergh to Life”. 100 mannequins were propped up around the square, looking more like a zombie invasion than a building opening. With the balance finally turning to condos over offices, maybe MARTA can turn this transit-adjacent development into the TOD they always wanted.

Maplewood, N.J.
It is not enough to plant dense housing within a half-mile of the transit stop. Transit must be part of the public realm, an accessible gathering place with amenities that people want and need. The New Jersey transit agency understands that making its stations into good public spaces that could serve as a catalyst for the revitalization of town centers could have a dramatic impact on ridership. “Many communities in New Jersey grew up around their train stations and we wanted to make these stations the center of community life once again,” says New Jersey Transit’s Mark Gordon. “So we began working with communities to make the stations more people-friendly and to make them relate better to the communities.”

New Jersey Transit landscaped and built a pedestrian plaza opening onto a large park on one side of the station and on the other side built another plaza opening onto the business district. There’s a picnic spot, and local garden clubs have ensured that the station area is blooming. Ridership has doubled, meaning that one of every ten residents now commutes — there’s a commuter in one of every three households.

Tim Halbur is a research and communications associate at Reconnecting America.