Transit Oriented Development Is the Key to Better Cities

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TOD report graphic


For years, city builders have called for Transit Adjacent development, piling density on top of subway stations and at transit nodes. Now the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy has introduced a far more sophisticated concept of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and a TOD standard to promote it.

TOD implies high quality, thoughtful planning and design of land use and built forms to support, facilitate and prioritize not only the use of transit, but the most basic modes of transport, walking and cycling.

This is a very different thing from what we are used to. It focuses on developing communities that push away from car-centric city forms, towards an efficient walking, cycling and transit city.

The TOD Standard sums up the new priorities for contemporary urban development. They reflect a fundamental shift from the old, unsustainable paradigm of car-oriented urbanism toward a new paradigm where urban forms and land uses are closely integrated with efficient, low-impact, and people-oriented urban travel modes: walking, cycling, and transit.

Eight Principles of Transit Oriented Development Standard

The 8 Principles of the TOD standard for designing better streets and better cities:

WALK | Develop neighborhoods that promote walking

CYCLE | Prioritize non-motorized transport networks

CONNECT | Create dense networks of streets and paths

TRANSIT | Locate development near high-quality public transport

MIX | Plan for mixed use

DENSIFY | Optimize density and transit capacity

COMPACT | Create regions with short commutes

SHIFT | Increase mobility by regulating parking and road use

Diagram showing a walkable city street

Walking and Cycling

The shift of emphasis to walking and cycling is significant but sensible; if you are going to get people to use transit instead of cars you have to make it easy for them to get around and do what they have to do. Usually one is dumped out of a subway station onto a narrow sidewalk; not with the TOD standard.

Walking is the most natural, affordable, healthy and clean mode of travel for short distances, and a necessary component of the vast majority of transit trips. As such, walking is a fundamental building block of sustainable transport. Walking is, or can be, the most enjoyable and productive way of getting around provided that paths and streets are populated and desired services and resources conveniently located. Walking also requires physical effort, and it is highly sensitive to environmental conditions. The key factors to making walking appealing form the basis for the three performance objectives under this principle: safety, activity and comfort.

Also given much greater importance than usual is CYCLE.

Cycling is an elegant, emission-free, healthy and affordable transport option that is highly efficient and consumes little space and few resources. It combines the convenience of door-to-door travel, the route and schedule flexibility of walking, and the range and speed of many local transit services.
Map of connected walking and cycling routes


To promote walking and cycling, the networks must CONNECT

Short and direct pedestrian and cycling routes require highly connected network of paths and streets around small, permeable blocks. This is primarily important for walking and for transit station accessibility, which can be easily discouraged by detours. A tight network of paths and streets offering multiple routes to many destinations can also make walking and cycling trips varied and enjoyable.
Diagram of public transportation benefits


The 4th Principle, TRANSIT, was the most interesting to me, as I live in Toronto where there is a huge battle going on between advocates of an expensive 3-stop subway extension and a 7 stop light rail system. Mayor Rob Ford says “People want subways, folks... subways, subways. They don’t want these damn streetcars blocking up our city!” He doesn't think much of cyclists either. “My heart bleeds for them when someone gets killed. But it’s their own fault at the end of the day.” He got his subway approved even though it costs a fortune and will take years to build.

The TOD standard drives a stake through the heart of his subway. The stations are too far apart for Transit oriented development to actually work.

The maximum recommended distance to the nearest high-capacity transit station for a transit- oriented development is defined as 1 kilometer, a 15- to 20- minute walk. Moreover, by building at higher densities closer to the transit station, a development can maximize the number of people and services that can easily be reached by a short walking distance.

Applying the principles of Transit Oriented Development, it becomes obvious that you want more stations, closer together, to promote development between them instead of a buried system that is designed to just move people downtown. Using TOD creates opportunities to really build something positive in the suburbs of Toronto. It makes the choice of subway over LRT just crazy.

Diagram of how to mix building and land use types

Balanced Mixed-Use Development

The standard then promotes MIX;

When there is a balanced mix of complementary uses and activities within a local area (e.g., a mix of residences, workplaces and local retail commerce), many daily trips can remain short and walkable. Diverse uses peaking at different times keep local streets animated and safe, encouraging walking and cycling activity, and fostering a vibrant human environment where people want to live. Inbound and outbound commuting trips are also more likely to be balanced, resulting in more efficient operations in the transit system.
Birds-eye rendering of a dense city layout


Transit-oriented density results in well-populated streets, ensuring that station areas are lively, active, vibrant and safe places where people want to live. Density delivers the customer base that supports a wide range of services and amenities and makes local commerce thrive.
Graphic showing two different city layouts


The basic organizational principle of dense urban development is compact development. In a compact city, or a compact district, the various activities and uses are conveniently located close together, minimizing the time and energy required to reach them and maximizing the potential for interaction.
Graphic showing how to shift traffic flow


And finally, probably most controversially, SHIFT.

When cities are shaped by the above seven principles, personal motor vehicles become largely unnecessary in day-to-day life. Walking, cycling and the use of high-capacity transit are easy and convenient, and can be supplemented by a variety of intermediary transit modes and rented vehicles that are much less space-intensive. Scarce and valuable urban space resources can be reclaimed from unnecessary roads and parking, and can be reallocated to more socially and economically productive uses.

This is a really powerful idea, a new way of analyzing development to promote walkable cities where you don't need or even want a car. Read it online or download a copy from the ITDP here.