This is part one of a two-part series on the importance of “transit oriented development” in building economically vibrant places for people.
Land use is the flip side of transit. They have a longer history together than peanut butter and chocolate, or even peanut butter and jelly.
Transportation technology determines how land will be used, but land use also determines how extensively and effectively transportation can be used. For this reason, to get the most out of transit, it is crucial to get land use right, and the best way to do this is through “transit oriented development” (TOD).
TOD is “not just intense land use,” said Tracy Hadden Loh of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. It is “creating a walkable urban place that is dense and has a mix of uses.”
Loh was speaking at the recent Transit-oriented Development Forum: Catalyzing Development at Metropolitan Washington’s Metro Stations, presented by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). The forum’s many participants represented local governments from all over the D.C. region, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia.
Done properly, TOD reduces sprawl, decreases traffic, improves the quality of life for significant numbers of people, and has huge economic benefits. In places where the population is growing (which is in most urban areas on most of the globe), TOD is the only way to prevent massive traffic jams resulting in endless, untenable investments in new and wider roads.
For instance, in Virginia, Interstate 66 is undergoing a $3 billion expansion project. The area will “gain about five or six years of traffic improvement, then we’ll be right back” where we were, predicted Terry Clower, a public-policy professor at director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
Sprawl has additional hidden costs, such as longer water and sewer lines, Clower noted. And more fire stations, for instance, are needed in sprawling regions.
“I fully appreciate” that a fire truck designed for high rises “is a lot more expensive,” said Clower, “but nowhere near five or six additional fire stations.” Money saved can then be used on a variety of other programs, such as education or improved infrastructure. “We have to think differently for an economically and environmentally sustainable future.”
TOD for the new millennium
Fortunately, the car-centric mentality is changing, especially among young people. Derrick Davis, the COG board’s vice chairman, illustrated this with a story about the kids next door to his suburban home. Raised in a place where driving is the sole means of transportation beyond the front yard – yet also near a large urban area – one of the kids exclaimed, “When I grow up, I don’t want a car. I just want to live where Metro can take us everywhere.” This is a significantly representative voice of the Millennials – and of the generation that follows them – of the potential change for a new era.
Yet without proper TOD, which is rare in the United States, we will all be forced to fall back on the car-centered model of the last 50 years (even if these might be self-driving cars).
Washington, D.C., is off to a strong start at changing the paradigm, with the second-largest concentration of TOD in the nation, according to a George Washington University study presented by Loh. TOD encompasses “only 1.1 percent of the region’s total land area and only 4.4 percent of the population, but 30 percent of our region’s jobs,” she said. Indeed, only recently have developers begun to understand the full value of TOD and actively seek such development.
Loh described the advantages of walkable urban communities. Such communities, when deemed regionally significant, have, on average, a 72 percent rent-per-square-foot premium over regionally-significant drivable suburban areas.
Even more important, nationwide, the top six urban areas for walkable urbanism have a GDP per capita of $72,110 while the bottom seven have only $48,314 – comparable to the difference between Germany and Latvia.
A modern economy means a walkable economy, which means TOD and good public transit.
Yet achieving this is difficult. Even in the D.C. region, the pace of job growth has been larger in the last four years in suburban car-oriented areas than in TOD centers, Loh said. Problems with the aging Metrorail system, which is increasingly subject to delays even as fares rise, may be one cause. Yet Loh gave as a primary reason the scarcity of TOD. Even in a metro region doing so much right, not enough is being done to create the walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods needed.
Regional patterns are key
Better transit will support better TOD, but the region’s layout presents problems. As in a traditional city, many of the jobs are in the urban core, which means full trains are going into the city in the morning and coming out in the afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true; empty trains are leaving the city in the morning and returning later in the day.
This means lost revenue. If jobs were plentiful in TODs near the suburban Metrorail stations, trains would be full each way, meaning more revenue collected. Currently, the cost of running nearly empty trains is one factor making the system unsustainable.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley joins DHCD Secretary Ray Skinner at the New Carrollton Metro station in Price George’s County.
Another problem, seemingly unique to the D.C. region, is the east-west split, which has been documented as long ago as a 1999 Brookings report. The wealthier western part of the region, including much of the core city, as well as Maryland’s Montgomery County and Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax, contains plentiful jobs. Yet the eastern region, including Southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County in Maryland, has many residents but few jobs. This means crowded trains and buses going west in the morning, but empty vehicles returning east, with the situation flipped later in the day. Balanced growth has long been discussed, but little has been done.
This problem, however, might be less unique to the D.C. region than it first appears, as most cities have large concentrations of wealth and poverty, just with different layouts. Every metro region should think through how a better balance of jobs and housing could lead to improved transit, with less overcrowding one way resulting in the need for additional vehicles that then run empty the other way.
The impact of unbalanced regional planning is palpable for D.C.’s Metrorail, which currently needs an annual subsidy of nearly $250 million. But by 2040, this will increase to $500 million unless land use changes, according to Shyam Kannan, WMATA managing director of planning.
Trains stopping at the dense, walkable, mixed-use Silver Spring station have 12,000 weekday passenger entries, bringing in $39,500 of revenue, while trains stopping at Deanwood have 1,300 weekday passenger entries, generating $3,300 in fares. Yet for both, the cost is the same to run trains and the attendant station.
This problem is fixable, but takes intelligent planning, financing, and patience. If just Prince George’s County, Maryland can develop its stations as planned, Metrorail can have an annual operating surplus of $250 million, Kannan said. Of course, improvements throughout the region lead to an even better financial picture.
Creating walkable neighborhoods for a mix of incomes
To remain viable, then, Metrorail needs balanced jobs and residences, as well as walkability, at most if not all of its stations. Since passengers prefer to walk when possible, design around Metro stations needs to provide access for as many passengers as possible. Otherwise, “a lot of people will drive a half mile if the barriers to walking are too high,” explained Nina Albert, WMATA’s real estate and parking director. Indeed, once in a car, many will choose to drive all the way to their destination.
Currently, the Dupont Circle station has a walkshed that allows walkable access for 79 percent of passengers within a half-mile radius, according to Kannan. Other stations, though, are basically situated within giant parking lots, seas of concrete. Thus, Southern Avenue station, for instance, has only a 24 percent walkshed. Such places need to be utterly rethought and redeveloped through every square foot.
Other places may have solid basic design but need flaws repaired. One problem is where an otherwise walkable route is cut off, for instance by a major highway, dramatically decreasing the walkshed. Planners need to figure out the best ways to repair such gaps.
Other changes, such as adding sidewalks and bike lanes, or making them safer and more attractive, would be useful in just about every TOD area.
TOD regions should also be constructed to serve all classes of people. Part of getting the balance right is having affordable, or workforce, housing. This not only allows more people to locate close to work, but equalizes the number of commuters in contrary directions.
Furthermore, people with lower incomes tend to use public transit most, when given the opportunity. In the D.C. region, TOD neighborhoods help address equity issues by providing plenty of housing near transit, lowering transport costs 14 percent for moderate income households, according to Loh. Yet this is offset by the higher cost of these units. Fortunately, many of the buildings in TOD areas also provide moderate-income housing, often due to local regulations. In addition, two to three times more jobs are available from these neighborhoods, giving individuals flexibility to change should their current job prove unsatisfactory.
Across the United States, it should come as no surprise that the most walkable urban areas have the highest equity levels, starting with New York City and Washington, D.C. These areas also generate the greatest economic benefits.