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.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN