The Public Mis-Education of Transit Oriented Development

John Renne's picture

In 2004, voters in Denver approved the FasTracks ballot to build a regional rapid transit system. Now that planning is underway to construct about 120 miles of new rail and 60 new train stations, planners are beginning to focus on transit-oriented development (TOD) around many of these new stations. While much excitment exists in Denver for creating one of the top 21st century cities, some fears for TOD are unfounded. Mr. Ferguson's "Four Fallacies of 'transit-oriented development'", published May 13, 2008 in the Rocky Mountain News is typical of a common mis-education about TOD. What Mr. Ferguson does not realize is that TODs can help protect the rural and suburban nature of communities surrounding Denver. He proposes four tenets about why TODs are bad for the future. Below, I address each of these.

Tenet # 1 - TODs do nothing to curb sprawl

TOD is not the silver bullet, but it's part of the solution. Let me give an analogy. A person that weighs 300 lbs. and is on the verge of a heart attack cannot solve their problems with just taking a few magic pills. They must change their lifestyle by exercising and a change in diet. Our cities are unhealthy. Transit and TOD are just part of the solution. Many books and articles are available on this topic. Reconnecting America, Smart Growth America, and the Urban Land Institute provide excellent resources. These groups are also active in educating communities about the benefits of TOD.

Tenet # 2 - TODs are not the wave of the future

Emerging Trends in Real Estate, published jointly by the Urban Land Institute and PriceWaterhouseCoopers rated TOD (mixed use, walkable, and transit served neighborhoods) as the top real estate prospect for the future for the past 5 years because TODs appreciate faster in up-markets and hold value better in down-markets. The statistics show this to be the case in Denver an across the United States. National Public Radio just did a big story on how home prices are falling fastest in suburbs while home prices near central cities and near transit lines are holding their value or appreciating during this down-cycle. They also did another story about how many Americans are turning to transit during this fuel crunch; buses and trains are full and demand for transit is growing.

The demand to live in TODs in the United States far outweighs the supply. My research has found that the demand for TOD is about 30 percent of the overall population but the current supply is less than 2 percent. With increasing gas prices, you can begin to understand why people would want to live closer to train stations, so they can walk, bike, and use transit as an alternative to driving.

Tenet # 3 - Nonpolluting electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles will make TOD unnecessary in the future

Even if cars could run on air with no negative by-products, TODs are still needed because of traffic. Remember, FasTracks was passed in 2004 by the majority of Denver voters because traffic is so bad. Environmentally sensitive cars will do nothing to ease traffic, especially considering Denver will grow by from 2.6 million people to 3.9 million people by 2030. Moreover, seniors over age 60 will more than double, comprising 25 percent of the overall population. If TODs are not built, we can expect complete gridlock across Denver. European-style developments (ie. TODs) are needed around Denver's train stations, otherwise, people will be sitting in traffic with the 1.3 million new people that are coming to Denver. Also, what are people going to do when they get the age that they can no longer drive? Many studies show that the isolation of seniors in car-dependent neighborhoods is a big problem and will only worsen in the future. AARP is now promoting TOD as a needed alternative so that seniors can have mobility options as they age. TODs encourage a healthier lifestyle by allowing for residents to get more active transport (ie. walking and biking) in their daily routine. Studies show this to be part of the reason that Europeans live longer and spend less on health care per capita than Americans.

Tenet # 4 – Low-density needs to be protected because of the strong community it creates

If citizens want to preserve the rural nature of communities outside Denver and the suburban communities around Denver, they should advocate for TODs. If they do not support development near transit, then where will it go? The suburbs and rural communities will become denser and communities will lose the character that they are trying to protect.

TOD is part of a growth management strategy that can be summarized as:

1. Funnel new growth near transit
2. Enact policies that prevent density in the low-density suburbs and rural communities.

Growth is going to happen. The question is where do we want the 1.3 million new people to go. They can continue to clog the already congested streets and highways or they can be directed to new developments that will get them out of their cars. This will benefit suburbanites when they get in their car and get on the highway.

John L. Renne is an assistant professor and associate director of the University of New Orleans Transportation Center.

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