Can Transportation-Oriented Development Save Our Cities?

That was the question last night at a forum held at the Beacon Institute’s Center for Environmental Innovovation and Education on Denning’s Point. The short answer, in my view, is No. The long answer is more ambiguous.

The evening was hosted by the Hudson Valley Smart Growth Alliance, in the form of Jolanda Jansen, a civil engineer and recent graduate of Pace law school. She opened the evening with a brief overview of the rebuilding efforts of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, which sustained massive damage in a February 2011 earthquake. While not TOD-specific, it was used as an example of how to approach rebuilding a city in the 21st century. TODs are certainly an attempt to reshape, renew, re-imagine and rebuild our cities.


The following speaker was Harvey Flad,  emeritus professor of Geology at Vassar College and co-author of the book Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in the City of Poughkeepsie. His talk ended up being the bulk of the evening, and focused on how Poughkeepsie developed into a vibrant, succcessful city, was then slowly enervated by technical and cultural forces that were changing the entire country. In a sorely misguided attempt to save the patient, urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s all but delivered the final death blow.


Which brings me to my short answer: Are not TODs just the latest quick fix version of urban renewal?


I’m not saying we haven’t learned anything from the mistakes of the past. There are now many flavors of urbanism and urban planning concepts–new urbanism, everyday urbanism, post urbanism, sustainable urbanism, smart growth,  complete streets, and TODS, to name a few. TODs may be seen as a corrective to many of the ills wrought by sprawl development patterns and overdependance on automobiles, and the core concepts guiding TODs are sound–higher residential densities; less reliance on cars, with more bikeable and walkable layouts and easy access to public transit; a mix of work, live, play, shop. Social justice issues are also now in the mix with some TOD planning.

So what’s  not to like? Well, there are pitfalls.  First, there is the issue of real estate developers and other interested parties co-opting the term and applying it to large development projects that happen to be near transit. This is often referred to as Transit-Adjacent Development, though not by the marketers for the developers proposing such projects.

What’s the difference between TADs and TODs? Well, one of the main objectives of TOD is to curtail the use of cars. In small to medium sized cities that have lost local transit options like trolleys or railroad spur lines, and don’t have an intercity bus or shuttle service, this objective can be extremely difficult to achieve. Once you lose the single occupancy vehicle reduction, many of the other objectives start to degrade.  For instance, how can you make bicycling and walking more attractive when auto traffic has been increased?

A second problem is  scale. Not just the scale of the actual build out—number and density of units, amount of commercial and retail space, parking requirements, demands on existing infrastructure–but the scale of the developers and agencies that undertake these projects. When you have 300 or 600 units going up, who collects those rents or sales? Does the money stay in the community? Does a mega transit agency really always have the best interest of a community as its bottom line? How does the relatively instant nature of these developments differ from the more organic growth of cities in the past? There are likely negatives as well as  positives to plopping down a fully realized plan into an existing city layout. Again, the top-down kind of planning that was a hallmark of the urban renewal era hasn’t changed all that much, even with the inclusion of a few public hearings and input sessions. The expression Too Big To Fail has become popular to describe the monolithic banking entities dominating our financial landscape. Perhaps many of our agencies and their best laid plans are Too Big To Succeed.

Finally, continuing with the idea of appropriate scale, we have the issues facing the world today, from climate change to our corrupt financial and political systems, from peak oil to our unhealthy food chain.  Yes, TODs in part are designed to address some of these shortcomings. But implementing the concepts often relies too heavily on these faulty foundations, and on a growth-oriented, GDP mindset. Like urban renewal, it perhaps does not take enough of a look at the possible futures we face, or a look further into the past, at the problems urban renewal itself was designed to address–the steady erosion of both the commercial and manufacturing bases of our cities.

Rebuilding local economies is the way forward.  As this work takes hold, TODs will (re-)emerge, creating a sense of place, a living scale neighborhood. But a plan superimposed over a city does not have much likelihood of true long-term success if the economic drivers are not in place. In this case, it’s not build it and they will come, it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Hudson Valley Green will look at these issues, along with local and national TOD examples, more closely in future posts.

One Response to Can Transportation-Oriented Development Save Our Cities?
  1. Kevin Newman
    November 29, 2011 | 3:02 pm

    transit ADJACENT development …
    here in Poughkeepsie that is EXACTLY what is happening/going to happen – Rinaldi blvd. runs north-south and goes into the
    train station – at the FAR end there has been a development project going on for many years now- the project got delayed for
    a number of years and became a toxic waste remediation project like Texaco-Chevron without the bldgs. – I think the
    project is back to the original development with restaurants (more) condos/townhouses etc. – one restaurant already opened
    but I dont know if this is part of the bigger project – however a shuttle bus would be needed from there to the transportation
    center (RR station) to provide the transit link as it is like a mile away – like Beacon’s Main Street from the Hudson line
    station without the hill

    and.. there is the actual MTA-City-of-Poughkeepsie ‘TOD’ – I think the old lumber yard property – about 1/2 mile away – will
    be the location of the the ‘D’ of this TOD – again a shuttle bus will be needed – the imediate area at the station is taken
    up by the parking garage etc.

    there is a 21st century solution though, which was not mentioned per se one which ONLY in Beacon (Fishkill and Hopewell Jct. as well) is feasible – the
    TRANSIT VILLAGE IE: put EVERYTHING in close proximity – walking distance to the road-rail transit hub

    transit ADJACENT is OLD SCOOL

    NEW SCHOOL – the transit villge – why take a bus from your condo unit to the RR station when you could WALK to the RR station instead?

    Southern Dutchess Interurban Rail Transit

    } The Vision {

    Enhance the Beacon Danbury line for clean burning,fuel efficient,DMU (self propelled light diesel) coaches and trails along the rail corridor

    The Dutchess county section of the virtually abandoned Beacon-Danbury line would be converted into the Trans Dutchess rail line

    Link the communities along the corridor between Beacon and Holmes (town of Pawling)

    work with Scenic Hudson to create connector trail along the rail corridor from the existing Klara Sauer trail,and Dennings Point, to the existing white trail in Madam Brett park – will be a part of the Southern Dutchess Rail Corridor Trail

    >> Beacon’s new TOD:
    * Matteawan Station transit village *
    the city of Beacon has 2 rail lines – the Hudson line and the Beacon-Danbury line which goes through a part of the downtown business district along Main Street – Beacon’s TOD would also be the upper Main Street re-vitalization – the area around the new station stop would be a restoration of the 19th century Matteawan village – the river area would remain as is – primarily for recreational use

    the new Trans Dutchess rail line (the former Beacon – Danbury branch line) to act as a feeder system to support the existing spine system – US Rail Car DMU rail vehicles (light diesel)

    the new rail line to be multipurpose: commuter > interurban > recreational > scenic-tourist

    Kevin Newman
    Trans Dutchess Ry. Association

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