One of the places that planners have been talking a lot about in the past decade is Tysons Corner, VA. A Washington D.C. suburb known for having a big mall where world’s first Apple Store opened, Tysons Corner had also managed to attract a number of major office tenants, and was something of a regional center for Fairfax County. In the 2000’s, a deliberate decision was made to extend the DC Metro out to Tysons Corner and ‘retrofit’ its suburban character into a dense urban district.
The Tysons Corner experiment was supposed to be a harbinger for a trend in urban planning that would sweep the nation, the reclamation of suburban landscapes as newly urban nodes. I was eager to see it when I had the opportunity while visiting D.C. I took the Washington Metro Silver Line westward, past where it emerges from underground and runs alongside freeway right-of-way. The metro in the heart of the district makes frequent stops, but here, the train traveled for a long time without slowing, eventually rising up on a viaduct, and heading towards a cluster of towers and cranes. From above, I looked down at this burgeoning high density district and was crestfallen. This is it?
I was certainly dumb to have expected dramatic change just a few short years after the metro service had arrived. Yet hardly any of the supposed urban features of the new, transit-connected development were visible in the landscape—or even looked possible in the future. Office towers sat upon massive parking podiums, served by roads of six to eight lanes. There was little in the way of street level retail or sidewalk furniture. There were no protected bike lanes that I could see. There were cranes and development, but it all felt hostile to the human scale, design choices that might take decades to ameliorate.
At the intersection of public transit and land use, there is a lot of agreement about the desirable end product. Advocates and planners alike want to see the co-location of high quality transit and high intensity land use, whether their interest stems from a concern for the planet or for municipal finances. But there is considerable debate about how to arrive at that end goal, and as Tyson’s Corner illustrates, this has consequences in what form our cities take.
Should Transit Focus On Serving More People Now, Or More People In The Future?
The center of the discussion is the popular idea of “Transit Oriented Development” or TOD. The basic premise of TOD is the simple observation that development usually follows closely behind transportation investments. Obviously, this is not a new concept—cities have always been constrained in their growth by transportation. Minneapolis-St. Paul first developed around foot traffic, then around streetcars, and later around rings of interstate highways. But in recent decades, as some mid-sized American cities have begun to focus once again on public transportation, the concept of TOD specifically in the transit context has gotten a lot more attention and press. Because good public transportation can move large numbers of people much more efficiently than cars, and move them further, faster, than walking or biking, you can build far more densely around transit than you can around any other mode of transport. Density of uses means lower per capita carbon emissions, high property taxes per acre, and a lot of other benefits for cities and the people who live in them. In many growing American center cities, dense nodes of activity are the end goal and public transit is the method for achieving it. This formulation has been politically useful for getting transit projects built. In some places—most famously Singapore—the development of land adjacent to new transit investments has also played a crucial role in funding those investments.
This is what Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns has called the “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach, and criticized for being an inappropriate risk for the public sector (especially when the government isn’t also acting as a developer). He proposes the opposite approach, where planners continuously improve transit to places that are already developing in a transit-friendly direction.
Marohn’s proposal is, in one sense, ahistoric. But in the context of many American cities, I think the “build it and they will come” perspective is also at least sixty years too late. That’s because large American cities outside of the Sun Belt already have ample TOD. In MSP, much of the area surrounding both downtowns is TOD that was built around the initial streetcar network and is now served by the cities’ best bus service. But while Metro Transit’s buses are popular in this area of town, they don’t provide the quality of service that once sparked so much TOD. In cities like MSP, transit advocates and planners alike are fighting political battles simply restore the quality of service that once existed to areas that were originally built for it. That’s the basic concept behind Metro Transit’s aBRT upgrades. When allocating transit dollars, why focus on sparking new TOD, when already tens of thousands of people living in existing TOD are under-served?
That’s just the root of the problem with the current TOD approach. When transit is thought of simply as the means with which to spur TOD, it can have the perverse effect of devaluing transit as an end in and of itself. The success of a given transit project can come to be measured, not just by how many trips it serves, but also by how much development is spurred by the project. When this becomes true, it’s only natural that decisions are made to improve a project’s score in terms of TOD, even if some of those decisions may prove detrimental to other purposes of transit.
Stretch your mind and consider a hypothetical rail project in which decision-makers must choose between two different alignments, one which travels through an area of greenfield properties, and one which passes through an existing, bustling, former streetcar TOD neighborhood of two- to three-story multifamily and single-family homes on small lots.
Obviously the latter alignment will be far more useful and popular on day one of its operation. But a quarter century after cutting the ribbon, suppose that the greenfield properties are all developed as transit-oriented six-story mixed use, multi-family apartment blocks? If you’re looking at which transit project will spur the most development, relative to what currently exists, suddenly the option to route the train through open, uninhabited land, with its transformative potential, becomes the preferred option.
As many readers of this site certainly will have recognized, the “hypothetical” posed above is not just academic. Local leaders faced roughly similar choices when selecting the locally preferred alignment of MSP’s Southwest LRT project. The environmental documentation for this project is always a remarkable read. I find most astonishing of all how the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) dismisses the 3C-1 alignment’s development potential specifically because it would’ve caused disruptions for the dense communities along Nicollet Avenue without making much relative difference in land use.
[Editor’s note: you can read all about the SWLRT alignment decision here on streets.mn.]
That this is putting the cart before the horse. If one form of transit is already highly successful in an area, that’s a good sign that it is a strong candidate for even better transit, not a reason to make improvements elsewhere instead. Serving dense communities should be the goal of transit, and it wouldn’t matter if relative changes to land use were small, if the corridor was already dense to begin with. Transit is supposed to serve people, not land where hypothetically people might one day live.
The TOD Debate Is A Political Argument, Not A Technical One
People have been making that argument, especially on this site, for years, and I’m not going to re-litigate past arguments. But there’s an equally fundamental flaw underlying the DEIS analysis which has become much more salient recently.
The Southwest LRT documentation implicitly assumes that the land use intensity in the already-built, “high density” neighborhoods around Nicollet Avenue are immutable. Already built at a streetcar density, with little vacant land for development, the Southwest LRT planners saw no future in which the Nicollet Avenue corridor would change substantially even if its public transit was upgraded from a local bus to a subway. In other words, an existing TOD neighborhood would not respond to respond to more intense transit service with more intense TOD.
This assumption is almost comically absurd. New development does not require vacant land. There are many degrees of density higher than multi-family attached homes and small apartments. The idea that the urban characteristics of the Nicollet Corridor were frozen in amber and that disruptions to those characteristics that made the corridor more desirable were negative impacts was deeply baked into the Southwest LRT analysis, and similar features are present in the environmental documentation of many other transportation projects.
The key to understanding these plainly incorrect assumptions is to recognize that the DEIS was a political analysis, not a technical one. In recent decades, advocates for low density, car-preferred, “ownership society” land use have dominated the urban political arena. For example, throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the area adjacent to Nicollet Avenue was repeatedly downzoned. At the time the DEIS was submitted, the area was represented on the Minneapolis City Council by a supporter of the status quo. Given the political headwinds and historic precedent, the conclusions of the SWLRT’s environmental assessments were as understandable politically as they were obviously wrong technically.
Choosing Between Current Riders And Future Riders Is Increasingly A False Choice
There’s reason to reconsider this way of thinking. The Southwest 3A/3C debate is in the past, but the issue will arise again, and it increasingly merits a different perspective. The politics of urban land use have already undergone a massive shift in recent years. Months after the SWLRT DEIS was submitted, the area that would’ve been affected by the 3C alignment voted overwhelmingly for different political representation. In two successive elections, Minneapolis-St. Paul voters have increasingly backed candidates who have a more progressive, pro-density and pro-transit platform, and city staff in Minneapolis have responded with a proposed comprehensive plan that would break a decades-long stranglehold on “missing middle” density, especially along existing transit corridors. In the City of Lakes, anti-development neighborhood groups are already in the midst of an unprecedented losing streak.
These developments locally are not isolated, but part of a larger national political movement in favor of urbanism. Advocates and academics from the Bay Area to Boston have recognized the increasing damage wrought by restrictive land use policy which forces housing prices up, people out, and more emissions through the tailpipe. Increasingly politicians are responding.
What is this means is that transportation planners ought to respond as well by reconsidering the assumptions that underpin the idea that transit’s primary purpose is to spur greenfield development. The barriers that made it inconceivable that the Nicollet Avenue corridor would develop substantially if it were served by a subway were legal and political. Those barriers are increasingly under attack. No longer should transportation planners feel constrained by the crumbling consensus that preserved inner-city streetcar neighborhoods as lower density single-family enclaves.
Currently, two transit corridors have been formally studied and referred to the Met Council for consideration, and will hopefully put this changing landscape to the test. The Riverview Corridor in St. Paul and the Midtown Corridor in Minneapolis both offer routes that pass through existing neighborhoods, and alongside under-developed land that is already changing, even without transit. In the past, this fact might’ve been seen as an excuse to take transit dollars elsewhere. But in the current political context, it should be understood as precisely the opposite.
In the best example, continuing development boom eastward from Uptown along the Midtown trench is a massive signal to regional planners that the area will support transit. People want to live along the greenway and the private housing market is trying to respond. Expanding the METRO system down the Midtown trench will support the existing development and perhaps accelerate its spread down to Lake Street. But it will also encourage further development in the neighborhoods immediately beyond the trench, especially if the Minneapolis 2040 plan passes intact, allowing for small, wood-frame multi-family housing to be built without parking. The same is true for the Riverview area, where builders and buyers are discovering St. Paul’s West 7th neighborhood. In these developing neighborhoods, the need for high quality transit service is growing, not diminishing, as more people and activities locate there.
It may take a new generation of leaders, whether mayors, city council members, or county commissioners to get the process started on completing these inner-city links and rethinking the relationship between transit and development. But here’s hoping that transportation planners in the Twin Cities already see and are preparing to seize the opportunity to establish a new way of thinking around better transit and better neighborhoods. There’s no time like the present!