Katherine Kersten: TOD and the Rest of the Stories

Note: This was originally written as a commentary for the Star Tribune. 

I agree with Katherine Kersten on Transit-Oriented Development. It does have it’s share of  problems. But she left out the rest of the stories.

The first is that what we’re doing today with suburbs and Car-Oriented Development may very well be worse and, not sustainable in the long term. Our suburbs require about 7 to 40 times as much roadway and parking per capita as more dense development typically found in traditional urban cities or pre-20th-century small towns. The problem, as Charles Marohn at Strong Towns lays out, is that we’re not taking in enough tax revenue to pay for the upkeep and replacement of all of these roads.

We’re falling behind on routine road maintenance and have a quite large bill coming due as the huge number of roads built over the past 50 years to support our suburbs start to need replacement. At some point in the next decade or so we won’t be able to ignore this anymore and the bill will likely require an increase in the gas tax of about $2 per gallon, in today’s dollars. And increasing amounts after that.

Katherine talks about Portland’s roads falling apart, but our story is no better (possibly worse). And her solution? Ignore our deteriorating roadways and bridges? Raise the gas tax? A bit of both?

Another story she doesn’t tell is that no city in the world has ever built it’s way out of automobile congestion. The amount of space needed for each of us to drive and park our cars is enormous compared to walking, bicycling, or transit. With that 24% population increase that Katherine notes, we’re on track to be like Los Angeles with similar drive times, congestion frustration, and pollution. Is that what Katherine really wants for our Twin Cities?

She laments that the tax dollars to pay for TOD will come from others. She ignores the story of how over 50% of the costs of our roads are paid for, not by the people who use them, but instead, by others. Taxpayers (including renters) who walk, ride a bicycle, and take transit help to pay for roads in the suburbs. Talk about subsidies.

Kersten notes that transit ridership in Portland decreased from 2008 to 2013, but leaves out the story of how, during this same period, unemployment there more than doubled from 5.2% to 11.6%. Could many of those who lost their jobs have been transit users? At the same time, walking, a key goal of TOD, increased from 4% to 7%.

There’s also the story of how development that supports walking, bicycling, and transit decreases traffic on all of our roadways. Does she really want 24% more cars on our already congested roads from that 24% increase in population she predicts?

Finally, Kersten leaves out the story of people’s lives. We now have the lowest life expectancy in the developed world. Our high traffic deaths and poor health are two leading contributors.

Active transportation such as walking and bicycling is a core element of TOD and is one key to reducing the lack of activity and obesity that underlie our poor health.

Our traffic engineers have given us the second most dangerous road system in the developed world. We are two to four times as likely to be killed by a driver here as someone in Europe. Only Greece, a country where you are still as likely to find a hole in the floor as a toilet, has a more dangerous road system. Fortunately our traffic engineers don’t design bathrooms.

Is increased congestion, high traffic fatalities, and low life expectancy the legacy that Katherine wants us to leave to our children?

Transit Oriented Development is far from a panacea, but it, or elements of it, may be good tools we can use to avoid some of the problems we’re facing as a metro area.

And Katherine, I don’t like being at the dentist, but I do enjoy pedaling there on my bicycle—a quite enjoyable two miles along a wonderful bike path in suburban Shoreview. Enjoying a bicycle ride isn’t just for vacations anymore.

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7 Responses to Katherine Kersten: TOD and the Rest of the Stories

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 3, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    Might as well beat your head against a brick wall, but well done.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell February 4, 2014 at 7:44 am #

      Nah, kind of like playing pong. 🙂

  2. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel M Hood February 4, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    Her debates are more mirrored in a perception of culture than anything fiscally-based.

  3. Monica Millsap Rasmussen
    Monica Millsap Rasmussen February 4, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    I chose the location where I lived based on my ability to walk and take the bus to most of what I do in the day-work, shop, medical appointments. It’s centrally located, so bus times to either downtown were convenient. This is the opposite of what my professional peer group chooses when they find new housing. They look at school systems, yards, larger housing, and where others who appear to be like them are living.

    I have heard history stories about University Avenue and how it has changed over the decades, becoming more stable as businesses like Mai Village moved in Frogtown, encouraging other similar businesses to move in and stabilize the area. I would like to think that the musicians who made Midway home during the heyday of St Paul Music Club also helped stabilize the area. This took years and some of what happened (for the better) along University could be built upon. Yet, to me, it seems like a fast track of development is the goal, without regard to what current residents and businesses already like about their neighborhood.

    I question the scale of the development projects prior to realizing what the market will actually bear and what type of housing people actually want relative to their location and what type of location and building to businesses want in order to be viable for the long term. It would be nice if people on the TOD side and people on the Katherine Kersten side would both talk to each other and meet somewhere in the middle, where I suspect many of the residents actually are.

  4. Kasia McMahon
    Kasia February 4, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I think the miracles promised by “TOD” are overblown–especially if projects end up being more about the “D” than “T” which does nothing to reduce our dependency on cars. I also think that telling people that homes with slightly larger lots are a thing of the past because urban density is the only environmentally responsible way to live (Kersten’s interpretation of the Met council’s plan) is both frightening to people like Kersten and not a productive way of making urban living attractive.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell February 5, 2014 at 8:47 am #

      Kasia, excellent points. Reality, I think, is somewhere in the middle. There is a place for both urban density and less dense individual lots (and I don’t think TOD, as I’ve seen it, is necessarily a good model for urban density). There is also a place for suburban/exurban/outstate density. I think one problem is that we’ve got so many subsidies flying around, many in circles within others, that we end up with lopsided results that require more subsidies to correct.

  5. Matthias Leyrer
    Matthias February 6, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    The original article was legitimately painful to read.

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