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Transit Oriented Development: A Conversation with Professor Robert Cervero

SPRING, 2012 —  Community development that includes a mix of housing, office, shops and other amenities integrated within a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of quality public transportation is called Transit Oriented Development, or TOD. Proponents see it as a relatively low-cost solution to problems ranging from traffic congestion and housing affordability to global warming. Detractors are calling it a war on suburbia. The Berkeley Transportation Letter turned to Robert Cervero, a UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning and director of the UC Transportation Center and the Institute of Urban and Regional Development to bring readers up to date on TODs, their successes, failures and future.

BTL: The concept of Transit Oriented Development has its proponents and detractors. Where are we with TODs today?

RC: What’s fascinating about TODs is they’re really nothing new. We did this very successfully 100 years ago. Most of our cities grew rapidly along early streetcar lines and inner urban systems. In the pre-automobile age, that’s how cities developed. They were compact and had a mix of land uses that were physically oriented to transit because there was no other way to get around. So TODs are, in many ways, just a new name for traditional urbanism.

What’s changed has been the problems of extreme traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change considerations, along with shifting demographics, like fewer traditional households, couples drawn to inner city urban living and immigrant households accustomed to living in more transit-oriented areas of Asia and Latin America. We’re also building a lot of transit systems: bus rapid transit, railway extensions and commuter rail. So basically, TOD is a modern-day version of traditional urban development. And it’s driven by all these policy concerns, shifting demographics, and lifestyle preferences.

BTL: Yet there’s also been a lot of resistance from some communities.

RC: Everyone understands that if you create denser cities with tall buildings built closer together, and you intermix activities you’ll shorten distances. That will encourage more walking and cycling and reduce the load on road networks. Everyone understands this on some level, but every time we try to do this, there’s tremendous resistance.                                                                       

All things being equal, people don’t want to live in denser settings —  which they associate with more crowded local schools, longer lines at Safeway and more traffic.  That said, most people can relate to the idea that if there’s any logical point on the map where we should build compact communities, it’s around major transit hubs and stations. They are the connections between immediate neighborhoods and the entire region. Through transit networks you can connect from anywhere to everywhere in a city like Paris or London where you have fully developed metro systems. I would say less so here in the Bay Area where the BART obviously doesn’t connect anywhere with everywhere. So I find politically, at least, as it relates to smart growth and new urbanism concepts, most people agree that station areas are the logical places to funnel new growth. 

BTL: So where does TOD work best?

RC: You don’t want to go into established single-family, middle-income neighborhoods and attempt to spawn TOD. If you look at the original BART studies and plans, they called for European-style, fairly dense buildings in and around Rockridge and Orinda. These are fairly well-to-do, established stable neighborhoods, and people generally just didn’t want that. Densification doesn’t go over well in well-to-do communities.  TOD is clearly not meant for everywhere. It seems to work best either in depressed areas that are dying for investment — Oakland’s Fruitvale TOD, for example, has taken off after years of distress — or stagnant areas where not a lot has happened.

TOD can also work in greenfield areas where there is effectively no established neighborhood or community to resist new development. We’ve seen that in the case of the Washington Metro system where dense centers have developed over the past 30 years on what were formerly farmsteads or vast open spaces.  It is important to pick and choose where you can leverage TOD and where you can’t.  We’ve learned to be a lot more discriminating in that sense.

BTL: Do you find younger people are more receptive to the idea of living in a TOD because they find urban living more exciting than their parents did?

RC: Yeah, that seems to be kind of the stereotype that we have. Either it’s non-traditional households —  e.g., Generation Yers and Millennials who don’t have kids, aren’t drawn to being in good school districts or owning big yards and are looking for a TOD-compatible lifestyle -—  or it’s empty nesters whose kids are gone and they’re stuck with an oversize house and want to be closer to cultural attractions. Today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings grew up with images from TV shows like Friends, Seinfeld and Sex in the City that made urban living “cool,” complete with sidewalk cafes and a vibrant street life where people walk and socially interact. But it’s not so much that these groups are tied to living near transit stations, but rather they are drawn to high-quality and safe inner-city living. If good transit happens to be nearby, all the better.

BTL: What indications do you have that there is support for these denser, urban-style developments?

RC: If you look at the real estate market mortgage meltdown in the last three or four years, within the big metro areas a lot of suburban, ex-urban markets got hit pretty hard — think Fairfield and Vacaville in the Bay Area. But the neighborhoods that have best weathered this economic downturn have almost consistently been these middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods close to transit stops. So if you look around Washington, D.C. and here in the East Bay, Boston, New York and in most of the big metropolitan areas, it’s been those pockets of neighborhoods, not low-income or marginal places or unabashedly car-dependent suburbs, but the stable, middle- and upper-middle class neighborhoods with good access to transportation that have weathered the economic downturn better than almost any other areas. And I think that simply reflects people’s preferences: they value transit-accessible locations.

People accept larger lots and cheaper prices in the suburbs up to a degree, but as metropolitan areas get bigger and bigger and more developments stretch out even further onto the metropolitan periphery, it sets the stage for these enormously long commutes. More and more households are increasingly rejecting this lifestyle. And the market is reflecting this reality.  Prices have gone down in many suburbs and exurbs. That’s where we’ve seen the most foreclosures. This reflects a disdain for “time pollution": the excessive amount of time —forty-five minutes or an hour each way — invested in traveling to and from these far away suburbs.

BTL: Where is the best example of successful TOD in the country?

RC: Without question the best example in the last 20 years has been in northern Virginia. The Rosslyn-Ballston metro corridor in Arlington is just a textbook example of good planning. Some 35 years ago, planners put in place all the incentives needed to entice developers: tax breaks, expedited building permit reviews, supportive infrastructure like sidewalk networks, expanded trunk-line water capacity, enhancements of public grounds, park land improvements, bike lane networks, etcetera. But there were other factors at work as well. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area has had the most robust economy of any area in the country over the past three decades, far more employment gains than other metro areas. Its economy has also diversified, from largely government jobs to a panoply that includes high-tech and service industry firms.  You’ve got to have regional growth for big changes to happen around transit corridors. And they’ve had it.

But the DC area also managed to make sure that development got channeled along these rail transit corridors. Some of that success has to do with the fact that there are growth restrictions on building heights in Washington— no building can be higher than the Washington Monument. Here’s a city that is significantly built out and can’t have tall buildings. So as federal jobs started spilling beyond the District of Columbia a federal law mandated that all federal offices relocating outside Washington, DC had to be within the service jurisdiction of the WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) — more or less walking distance of a metro station. So it was pretty forceful federal legislation along with very proactive planning at the local level that just naturally brought the development to corridors like Rosslyn-Ballston.

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in northern Virginia not only increased the density in the corridor but intermixed land uses -- employment, housing, government, retail shopping, hotels, fitness centers, restaurants and night-time entertainment interspersed up and down that corridor.

BTL: And that helped draw private industry?

RC: Right. There’s a lot of private industry. Many high-tech industries located headquarters along that corridor. The area enjoys a diversified economy. WMATA also created the first joint development office of any transit agency in the U.S. and they were given resources to be very entrepreneurial and to actually purchase land early on in the design of the system. So they had a fairly extensive portfolio of land around some of the stations that they could either lease or sell, recapturing value. They practiced transit joint development more successfully than any other transit agency.

The other part of their success is that the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in northern Virginia very consciously not only increased the density in the corridor but intermixed land uses so you’ll find employment, housing, government, retail shopping, hotels, fitness centers, restaurants and night-time entertainment interspersed up and down that corridor.

BTL: Why was that important?

RC: What that means is transit stations are both origins and destinations for trips. People at peak hour are going both directions, so the trains are fairly full. That’s a very efficient arrangement. And that’s unlike a lot of transit systems where employment lies in one part of the region and housing in another, so trains are oversubscribed in one direction and half-empty in the other. So the key to success wasn’t just densification.  It was also the inter-mixing of land uses along the corridor.

One other key thing. Unlike here with BART where we put our trains in the medians of very busy freeways — like the Rockridge and Orinda stations and virtually everything up and down Highway 24 — a conscious decision was made to take the line off Interstate 66. Part of the Orange Line runs through I-66, but for stations in the heart of Arlington County, the decision was made to move the line off the freeway.  They incurred much higher costs to lay the rail line in the middle of this traditional set of urban centers.

So it’s not just thinking about transit as a mobility investment, but also as a tool to help create more sustainable, efficient urban forms. And what that often means is incurring higher up-front costs to build these systems. But if you do it well you get downstream benefits. In the case of these corridors, you’re finding a lot of employment centers and housing projects where 60 percent of tenants are taking the metro rail to work and back home. And that’s much higher than what we find here in the BART system and most places. So the Arlington corridor remains North America’s best example of TOD in the past three decades.

BTL: Is parking around transit centers another design failure?

RC: Unlike places like Copenhagen where a third of suburban rail users access stations by bicycle, in this country we’ve surrounded most of our transit stations, certainly those outside the central business districts, with massive parking lots. Activities lie too far from the station as a result and what remains is a deplorable walking environment for accessing transit.  And even beyond the parking lots there’s not typically good direct pedestrian connections, nor are there usually interesting places to drop off en route to the transit stop.

When you invite most transit users to drive to stations, you negate a lot of the environmental benefits of taking public transit. The typical park-and-ride access trip in the Bay Area is six to seven miles. The first two to three miles of that trip, when the engine is cold and the catalytic converter is less efficient, causes disproportionately high levels of hydrocarbon emissions and nitrogen oxides to be emitted.  Fuel consumption rates are also high. Once you’ve gone several miles to reach a station, you may have consumed three-quarters of the energy you would if you’d made a typical 10-mile commute trip. So, as long as cars are the dominant form of accessing stations, a lot of the environmental benefits of using transit are significantly offset.

Additionally, if we didn’t have to provide as much off-street parking close to transit, we might be able to reduce the cost of housing. We did a study of both the Bay Area and Portland that showed there was about 30 percent more parking than was needed in areas within a half-mile walking distance of a major rail stop. It’s partly because our standard building codes demand there be a certain number of parking spaces for so many units. So we tend to overbuild parking and that indirectly drives up the cost of housing — anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per unit in urban districts.

BTL: What sort of role can bus rapid transit (BRT) play in developing TODs? BRT is generally less expensive than a rail system, yet it hasn’t gained a lot of traction. Why?

RC: BRT has been very successful in a handful of places, such as Ottawa, Curitiba (Brazil), and even in Cleveland, Ohio, which is getting some development along its BRT line. But for the most part, the bus is stigmatized — what some call the Rodney Dangerfield of transportation since it gets no respect.  So that’s perhaps strike one. In addition, some buses spew tailpipe emissions and can be noisy, so they’re not considered as green. Strike two. And finally, buses are not considered a permanent investment. Unlike a rail system, developers realize bus routes can change. 

BTL: Yet there are cities where BRT has been a success.

RC: Yes, where you have a dedicated right-of-way and a guideway system, and when bus service begins to mimic the speed of rail and becomes time competitive with the private car, then BRT can start leveraging development. And that’s what happened to some degree in Ottawa where they have a wonderful dedicated busway network, as well as in Curitiba. But the vast majority of cases where we’ve seen BRT built, that hasn’t happened and it’s usually because land use integration and TOD were not integral parts of the early strategic planning process. BRT was simply envisaged as an investment to relieve congestion. To save money, BRT is usually in the medians of busy thoroughfares, creating a poor pedestrian access environment. So it’s all been about quickly building these systems as cheaply as possible.  Urban development has been an afterthought.

Even Bogota, Colombia’s TransMilenio, considered the gold standard of BRT, is a wonderful system from an operational perspective, but hardly anything has happened around the stations.  This is partly because the system was located in the median of very busy roads. Plus, designers sited stations in some marginal, depressed urban districts, so few people want to hang around stations.  Also, access to the stations is via humongous steel skywalks. They’re deafening during peak periods, with noise levels seemingly like being inside of a steel drum. So station environs have none of the natural amenities of a European-style, walkable neighborhood with cafes and civic squares.

The vast majority of BRTs can be characterized in that way. They have largely been mobility-driven projects. Little attention has been given to livability, place-making, and the potential role of BRT in shaping the growth of the city. That has not been their over-riding objective. More and more BRT systems worldwide are now trying to figure out how to retrofit station environments however this is difficult.  If you plan for TOD early in the planning process, results will be more favorable.

BTL: So why is Ottawa such a success story?

RC: Ottawa’s BRT system is just like any well-designed rail system, securing a dedicated right-of-way and targeting high-rise development within a three-minute walk of most stations.  Moreover, the system was built with a long-term land-use vision on whether to grow, supported by inclusive zoning, public improvements, streetscape enhancements, lighting upgrades, curbs, gutters and sidewalks, and the siting of pocket parks, civic squares and government buildings near stations. The BRT stations look like any rail stations. They’re temperature controlled and have full passenger information. Stations were placed in promising real-estate settings and featured an urban design that blends into the fabric of surrounding areas. 

BTL: There are plans for a BRT system here in the East Bay running from San Leandro to Oakland. How will it compare?

RC: This is “BRT lite.” Buses with colorful logos run in a striped-off lane and stop at spruced-up benches, however they still have to stop at traffic lights. They do have Next Bus, which informs passengers when the next bus will arrive, but its effect on ridership is pretty marginal. What really radically transforms bus transit is an exclusive, dedicated lane that no other vehicles can move into, significant signal prioritization so buses do not have to stop a lot, and grade-separation at busy interchanges. Only then does it become comparable to a BART-like metro system or somewhat time competitive to the private car. And we don’t have anything close to that in the East Bay.

BTL: What are you working on now in these areas?

RC: I am working now to address these issues in China, India and other places that are rapidly urbanizing. It’s estimated that about 90 percent of the urban population growth, some two billion people in the next 20 years, is going to be in the Global South. Developing countries, like India and China, are aggressively building new rail and BRT systems. And the opportunity is there to significantly promote TOD on a grand scale.

My book, The Transit Metropolis, was translated into Chinese a few years ago.  Planners seem to be reading the book because TOD principles have gained currency there.  I’ve been invited to many conferences on TODs, particularly in China, where I get to interact with planning directors and vice-mayors of cities that are responsible for major BRT projects. I’m often asked to provide global examples and success stories of transit and land-use integration.  And they kind of politely listen, but I can never tell whether they’re really serious about doing this or if they still want to follow an American pattern of auto-oriented development just because that was the American model and it is equated with economic success. So I question whether they associate European-style walkable places with a modern image of the city.

And of course in places like China and India, what trumps everything is economic growth and expansion. Anything that could drive up the cost of development — and anything that promotes sustainability drives up near-term costs — could make them less competitive in the eyes of party officials. So even though they talk about it, they’re not pursuing sustainable urban planning as much as one would hope. But I work in those parts of the world because if you can get some successful examples on the ground and build some momentum, it can indeed usher in big change.

I try to push the point that that yes, in the near term it can be more expensive building denser, pedestrian-friendly development near rail stations than building on greenfield sites on the periphery. But if you do it well and create not only a mobility system that moves people and goods but also create high-quality urbanism, this helps make cities that are more attractive and more globally competitive. It becomes a lot easier to attract and recruit high-skilled, knowledge-based workers who are looking for this quality of urbanism, coupled with world-class transit. 

So it’s not just about sustainability, it’s about economic development and economic competitiveness. And I try to show some examples of where that’s been the case. Like Seoul, Korea, where they removed an elevated freeway and replaced it with a greenway, built bus rapid transit, reduced road capacity and put a lot of emphasis on parks, civic spaces and landscape enhancements. And it’s proven a very successful development strategy without sacrificing the ability to move quickly and effectively about the city.