Changing Housing Politics Means Changes For Transit Planning

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.

A map of transit-oriented development in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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]

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.

Excerpted from page 5-20 of the SWLRT’s DEIS Chapter 5: Environmental Effects

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.

Midtown Greenway

The Midtown greenway is lined by TOD just waiting for transit. Why should the order of transit and development matter?

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!

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

16 thoughts on “Changing Housing Politics Means Changes For Transit Planning

  1. Karen Sandness

    Yes, that has been my main objection to the routing of the Southwest LRT. It should go where there are already transit-oriented riders or transit-friendly development, such as down the Greenway (instead of the Kenilworth route, where very few people live), to Excelsior-Grand, to downtown Hopkins (so far so good), and then, instead of heading into the suburban jungle of Eden Prairie (Who ever moved to Eden Prairie with the thought, “I’d love to ride the bus”?) continuing on to the next transit-friendly community, Excelsior, or maybe Wayzata. Or maybe both.

    People choose to move to car-dependent areas. Let them be car-oriented until the disadvantages become insurmountable. In the meantime, let’s give the transit-oriented neighborhoods a break.

    1. Lou Miranda

      I like your idea of going to Excelsior and Wayzata. The Como-Harriet streetcar (or extension/connection thereof) used to go along 44th St. S. into Morningside Edina, to the Blake School in Hopkins, into downtown Hopkins, and then on to Excelsior.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I’m not sure where it fits in this discussion, but if you’re looking for TOD in Northern Virginia, look around the Courthouse, Clarendon and Ballston stations along the orange line. Of course, that line has been there for decades now.

    When I think of Tysons Corner, I think “unpleasant traffic” but it’s been many years since I’ve been out there.

    1. Michael Roden

      I agree, and I think the reason that this TOD spine (which is really fun to look at from an airplane) is successful is because it is traditional development that was converted to suburban sprawl and then converted back. It’s much harder (I’d say impossible) to convert suburban sprawl to traditional development without tearing everything out and starting over.

    2. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      I still drive to work there every day. Unpleasant traffic remains, I get to work before 6:30 to avoid it. Also there remains, not being able to conveniently walk from work to any restaurants if I don’t bring a lunch; paying $12 a day for parking; not being able to bike due to safety risks; no bus going there from anywhere near my house; and not being able to take the subway line they ran out there due to poor connectivity with the rest of the network.

      I really want to impress upon people how much Tyson’s is the complete opposite of what a dense urban environment should be. Minneapolis and surroundings has over a hundred square miles of neatly gridded streets amenable to densification. Why would you ever try to build a new dense urban area outside of that, sui generis.

  3. Lou Miranda

    Good article. As for the eventual path for the SWLRT Green Line Extension, I wonder if some of the thinking was that most of the increased density (minus Kenilworth area) would be in areas that are currently industrial and thus would have little to no pushback from nearby residential areas. The path through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, & Minnetonka is almost all industrial (and relatively low-value land).

    It’s curious that you call this “greenfield” development, when clearly there are existing industrial & commercial buildings (and parking lots). No farms in this corridor. Maybe you just mean low-density or non-residential?

    In the end, perhaps we need some of both. Building transit where there’s already density will create more density and more tax base and serve many current and future residents, though development will be more expensive than in more suburban industrial or farm areas. On that note, perhaps putting transit where there’s low density, low value land will enable more affordable housing than knocking down dense buildings and putting up taller ones in urban areas?

  4. Korh

    Might just be me but I kinda think that a mix of both using excising former streetcar TOD neighborhood and places for future development. Although with the fact that most US transit projects take a longer amount of time then the rest of the world, one silver lining for projects that depend on future developments is if the transit planers get the stations and ROW ironed out as soon as possible, pre-development in anticipation for the line can begin before the line starts construction. haven’t seen much along the SWLRT route unfortunately (best I’ve seen recently is in Hopkins with the artery/Moline) might of seen a little more if the hole route debacle happened and got settled a lot sooner (although we might get to see a little more pre-development for swlrt if/when it gets delayed yet again)

  5. Dave Carlson

    Just some random observations about the SW LRT route… I concur that the Midtown Greenway-Nicollet Avenue route would have made more sense and serve more people than the Kenilworth Corridor, but it seems the higher costs were a major factor and it probably would have been a separate LRT line instead of an “extension” of the green line from the current end point at Target Field station. Since about half the alignment of SW LRT is on Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority land, acquisition costs have been kept down. Can you imagine how much more than the current $2B price tag it would be to have to acquire that much more new land or work within existing roadway right-of-ways? Already St. Louis Park is developing a lot of housing and retail adjacent to the planned station areas, and the multitude of large employers in Opus and the Golden Triangle and Eden Prairie would benefit from reverse commuting as well, so I think the SW LRT could be a big success… if it doesn’t get scuttled. I don’t think the article adequately addressed the suburban employment access benefits, or the political ramifications of much higher construction costs.

    1. Monte Castleman

      People seem to act like there’d be no downside to picking Uptown, and I have a feeling our grandchildren will still be arguing about this decision. But there’s always trade-offs when picking one route over another. We expect light rail to act like everything to everyone and it can’t. If we have it act like a streetcar or local bus and have stops so close together you can see one stop from another (like parts of the Green Line), more people will ride it because there’s a stop near by but less people will ride it because it’s so slow. If we have it act like commuter rail and put it in the middle of a freeway, more people will ride it because it’s a convenient way to get downtown, and less will ride it because of how inconvenient the intermediate stops are.

      I don”t doubt that some suburbanites want to go to Happy Hour in Uptown after work, and that the bars are full of them. But compare the number of people in uptown bars to the number of people on the freeways that just want to get out of the city as fast as possible and get home to their family in Eden Prairie. So you have

      A) How many more people will ride it if it goes through the dense uptown area because it goes through

      B) How many fewer people will ride it if it takes a long, slow detour through uptown, and then forces a transfer if you want to go to the U of M, Midway, or Downtown St. Paul.

      Add to this

      C) There are proposals for streetcar on both Nicollet and the Greenway, that would wind up serving more area with rail in the long run.

      There are quite a few people that will absolutely refuse to ride any public bus for any reason. Even if you put on wifi and reading lights like a coach, or try to purport it to be equal to light rail by branding it the same on maps, but would ride light rail. So many that it was considered feasible to take away a general purpose lane on I-35W north of 46th if light rail to Burnsville was built. But that would have been extremely fast. There’s a limit to rail bias and having Southwest take two long torturous detours instead of one (through the Golden Triangle) could have been the tipping point.

      1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm

        That’s a measured and nuanced take on SWLRT routing. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with you. The success of aBRT can let us have what we’ve committed to on SWLRT for better or worse and still provide better service to dense neighborhoods.

        Now we just need to decide once and for all whether we want to keep playing chicken with the FTA to have streetcars or to just go all in on aBRT and start taking our transit destiny into our own hands.

  6. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I’m increasingly convinced the 3C alternative was intentionally sabotaged during the SWLRT Locally Preferred Alternative seeking process.
    1. It was a tunnel under Nicollet but with open-air stations basically in giant caissons in the middle of the street.
    2. There wasn’t serious consideration of other ROWs that may have been more feasible, such as Blaisdell, Lyndale, Hennepin, or even the 35W corridor which is currently being reconstructed.
    3. There were groups such as TLC that were equitywashing the impacts of stations like Penn Ave south of 394 as some big gain for racially concentrated areas of poverty in North, but never considering the transit potential for RCAPs on the Southside (West Phillips, etc).
    4. There were ridiculously high ridership assumptions for stations such as 21st St in Kenwood versus unbelievably low ridership assumptions for stations like Henn-Lake or Lyn-Lake.
    5. Interlining with Green Line was used to sell 3A and discredit 3C (though 3C-Alt2 was created later on). Interlining is great, but come on we can imagine a future with more than four LRT lines operating as two METRO services on one east-west LRT funnel through downtown.

    And now we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on tunnels through Kenilworth, walls next to freight railroads, and viaducts over marshes and freeway interchanges in third ring suburbs. EVERYTHING IS FINE.

  7. Andy E

    I am of the opinion that after the West 7th line in St Paul the next priority should be a LRT from Hopkins to St Paul. The path would be Excelsior – Lake/Greenway – Lake (East of 55) – Cretin – Summit/Grand – St Paul.

    Such a line would be a major East-West connector of multiple universities, dense and low income neighborhoods, hospitals, and job centers. It would also greatly expand the overall reach of the LRT network by providing a cross connection between the Blue and Green lines well south of downtown, as well as a direct connection to the A Line from Lake and Grand.

  8. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The glaring poster child stinker is the proposed half-billion dollar Gold Line, a “courtesy” to real estate and development interests, not a response to transit needs.

  9. SSP

    A very good post, but I want to make another complicating point about TOD. The author notes:

    “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. ”

    Not so much, unless you are headed for the downtown (the historic central focus of the streetcar system), or the U campus, which has its own express network of buses.

    That’s because the old streetcar system was centered on downtown, where the jobs were. Today, the jobs (particularly for well educated college grads) are all over the metro area. Even if you work downtown your job could move to Eagan, Edina, Burnsville, Plymouth on little notice. So even if you live in a walkable TOD node, you can’t rely on transit to get you to work and match your daily transportation constraints.

    To my thinking, that is a huge challenge of TOD, and its promise of eliminating cars so residents don’t have to live in a landscape with so much space dedicated to storing autos and renters can afford to pay more rent because they don’t have the expense of owning a car.

    Part of the answer is creating commercial space and associated jobs at the TOD nodes not just housing, retail and services. But its not the whole answer.

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