The Crucial Ingredient for Transit-Oriented Development: Political Will

Urban Scale has interesting case studies of successful transit-oriented development around the country, listing Washington DC, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Cleveland as the (perhaps surprising) leaders. The article concludes that the “4 key ingredients” for successful transit oriented development (TOD) are:

  • TOD Ingredient #1: Connect dense employment centers
  • TOD Ingredient #2: Regional collaboration
  • TOD Ingredient #3: Proactive planning and public policies to encourage TOD
  • TOD Ingredient #4: Public-private partnerships for joint development

Two interesting findings from this list: first, the quality of the transit system matters less than the commitment by the local or regional government to TOD.  In fact, Cleveland did TOD with bus rapid transit, which is a great example of how lower-cost (but still nice) bus service can bring many if not most of the benefits of rail.  Second, related to the first, you need a strong commitment from government leaders that results in government intervention to make the TOD happen.  In these examples, small public investments have unlocked billions of private dollars.

The article points out that some of these cities are in conservative areas and concludes that politics doesn’t matter.  But notice no traditionally liberal California cities are on the list.  Politics does matter, but it’s not the traditional blue/red divide.  It’s the politics of local land use.  Where residents fear neighborhood development and have a disproportionate influence on local decision-making, TOD will not happen.

California exemplifies this dynamic.  The state’s land use decisions are decentralized and empower the few at the expense of the many.  With that structure in place, local leaders are unlikely to green-light the government interventions necessary to see TOD take hold, with its attendant economic benefits.  Interventions like downtown planning for infill, public-private partnership development, and new infrastructure investments rarely happen.

To be sure, a number of California cities have taken the lead to make TOD happen.  But the state is pitifully behind other metropolitan regions in making the most of our great urban spaces and transit infrastructure.  And given the fast-growing population and beauty of the state at risk, it’s a situation that we need to remedy.


One thought on “The Crucial Ingredient for Transit-Oriented Development: Political Will

  1. Ethan-

    Thanks for featuring my blog post. Good point about some of the opportunities for TOD in California. It will be really interesting to watch the LA metro area in particular over the next decade or two as they expand their rail network…huge potential for more TOD there.

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