Why Transit is Driving a New American Dream

If you build it (around public transportation), they will come.

Denver Union Station Train Hall. Photo © Magda Biernat

Across the country, urban designers are reimagining the way that cities are made by focusing on public transit as the catalyst for growth. As cities face unprecedented challenges — from climate change to population and demographic shifts — transit holds the key to creating connected places that unlock social and economic opportunity. We asked four designers at SOM to explain the concept of transit-oriented development, or TOD, and why it’s becoming the new American paradigm for building sustainable cities.

What is transit-oriented development?

Kristopher Takács: In simple terms, transit-oriented development is the antidote to car-oriented development, which was the pattern of most North American city development over the 20th century.

You might hear it called “smart growth,” and other times, you might hear it referred to as “traditional urban design,” but really, it’s development that is not contingent on mobility by means of the car — whether that’s on foot, or by tram, or on commuter rail, or subway, or bicycle, or a combination of all of the above.

Roger Weber: It’s about maximizing what people can do within a short walk of a transit station. A phrase that often gets used is “putting people before cars.” At the heart of any strong transit-oriented development is prioritizing the pedestrian.

SOM’s master plan for Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station Precinct will realize the long-awaited vision of a mixed-use urban district, with a vibrant transportation hub at its core. A new pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Schuylkill River will knit together the Center City and University City neighborhoods. Image © Amtrak

How does TOD change the way we think about urban design?

Roger: TOD is a fundamental shift in the way that we think about the role of rail, or other kinds of transit — not just as a way for people to get around their communities, but rather as a framework around which we can organize community, generally. For a long time, we built cities in a way that was orchestrated around how — and how fast — an automobile could move you around.

Jennifer Pehr: It goes back to the idea of Euclidean zoning — the separation of land uses that was only made possible with a car. One critical aspect to transit-oriented development is this overlay. It’s like going back to how cities once were designed. Now we have to re-engineer them back to a mixing of uses, a form of development that occurs much more successfully with density.

“We’re thinking about the most appropriate, sustainable, and desirable ways that we can live and develop in the 21st century.”

Roger: I want to emphasize that TOD isn’t about looking backward. This is really a forward thinking, 21st-century concept that’s built upon the bones of a form of development that’s existed for centuries. We’re thinking about the most appropriate, sustainable, and desirable ways that we can live and develop in the 21st century.

Kristopher: Going back to the future.

Roger: Exactly.

Kristopher: If the last century was about segregating uses, and building cities that were about different functions kind of working together, now in the 21st century the recurring theme is connectivity. It’s about reconnecting detached places and making new connections in areas that had never been part of one integrated organism. We’re thinking about all of the things that make a city work well for the people it serves, and also creating a place of value that can be competitive economically.

Aerial view of SOM’s proposed redevelopment of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station District. Image © Amtrak

How do you create a “place of value”?

Kristopher: For a transit-oriented development to really live up to its promise, it needs to be both a door to the transit system and a destination unto itself. If you look at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, for example—where we’re doing a 200-acre plan around that transit hub—it’s one of the most compelling places to make a connection between regional rail, or high speed rail, or inter-city rail. There’s a subway and a trolley, and it’s at the confluence of bike and pedestrian paths. But there’s no “there” there around it. So, the question is, how do you use planning and urban design to bring the station to the city, and the city to the station? Once you do that, then you make the place itself so attractive that when people get off the train, they’ve already arrived at where they’re going.

The master plan for Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station harnesses the potential of the existing transit hub to drive development and connect the surrounding district. Image © Amtrak

Jennifer: Grand Central Station in New York is one of the best examples of that. The majority of people who visit are not going there for transit. They’re going there for shopping, or for food, or for some other amenity that’s provided in the train hall itself or in one of the adjacent developments. It’s an example of exactly what we’re doing at 30th Street Station — creating a portal for regional and local transportation that’s also a destination in its own right. And I think that’s a critical aspect of TOD—it can’t be one or the other. To be truly successful, it needs to be both.

Roger: It just makes logical sense that you would want the intersection of so many different ways of connecting into the rest of the city to also be a place where people gather and enjoy themselves.

Does TOD address a uniquely American problem? Or does this concept have applications around the world?

Gunnar Hand: In the 20th century, America did a great job of selling the American dream to the rest of the world. TOD is a uniquely North American concept because we are the ones who invented suburban sprawl. So we have to figure out a way that TOD is one part of many strategies that we need to heal some of the wounds of the past.

I think it’s important in America to really develop and progress what the concept means here, so that we can perhaps create a new definition of urban development and showcase it to the rest of the world in the 21st century. That’s where SOM’s city planning practice has the greatest opportunity, because in no place in the world is the deck stacked against us quite like in America — whether it’s suburbanization, our car culture, and even federal incentives and regulations — to the point where you need to find very unique design solutions to create projects of lasting value.

“We have a civic responsibility to be designing places that use much fewer resources than before.”

Jennifer: Facing issues of climate change and resiliency, we need to be building places that are more sustainable, more efficient, and more aware of the use of resources. The 20th-century paradigm of development is both natural-resource-intensive and land-intensive. We have a civic responsibility to be designing places that use much fewer resources than before. Yes, transit-oriented design might be more of a North American issue, but in America, we do lead a lot of the ideas of the way cities should look. Hopefully we can export better and more responsible ideas of development — because the impact of climate change is going to be felt the most in cities, and on coasts.

Gunnar: We have to also start thinking about how these projects could become the norm rather than the exception. The vast majority of development today still happens in a suburban pattern. And although some people would say we have reached a tipping point, I would disagree completely. I think that the sheer inertia of the development community doing business as usual prevents them from taking the risks necessary to do these more complicated projects.

Roger: The jury is maybe still out on what the current and future generations are going to be looking for, but I think what is very clear is that millennials are expressing tastes that are very different from what their parents or grandparents espoused. At the same time, we’re seeing a demographic shift in the country, where young people, old people, large swaths of the population are demanding that they want their voices heard. And that’s not just a political ambition — that’s an ambition for every aspect of their lives. That’s where our role as urban designers becomes very important. Because we are, probably more than anyone else, responsible for shaping those opportunities.

“At the end of the day, you want to create a place of beauty and meaning.”

What does it take to accomplish TOD projects?

Kristopher: There are a lot of cards stacked against doing great city building in the areas that are adjacent to rail yards and transportation rights-of-way. In order to move the needle, you need to have a tremendous amount of cooperation from cities, from the land owners, and from the transportation authorities. You need to create a recipe that they’re all going to get value out of for cooperating.

Roger: TOD is intrinsically multidisciplinary. You’re bringing together a really wide range of public and private constituencies, of residents, of potential residents, of interested stakeholders of all types, and you’re asking them to work together and unite behind a common vision. Often that vision has to have a transformational potential to catalyze the neighborhood, to generate excitement, and to communicate if it is appropriately sensitive to the qualities of existing communities. At the end of the day, you want to create a place of beauty and meaning.

New public spaces will enliven the area surrounding Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Image © Amtrak

Jennifer: These are really complicated projects, and for them to be successful requires partnering with organizations that developers or city agencies might not otherwise partner with. It’s a complicated orchestration on the relationship side as much as it is on the planning side.

Roger: The reality in the United States is that we have an awful lot of transit that is underperforming, and that has a lot to do with the development around it. When people say that they don’t take transit, overwhelmingly the reason is that it takes people too long to get where they want to go.

We want to work with the assets that are already there, but in a way that rethinks land use, zoning, parking requirements, and other factors that drive development. We need to think of transit as an anchor for community. If we do that, we will dramatically improve the return on investment in transit.

“How do you connect an economically disadvantaged neighborhood with businesses if you don’t have great bus service or good subway service?”

Transit-oriented development can transform existing communities — but in doing so, does it risk contributing to gentrification?

Kristopher: Increasingly, even in places like Washington, D.C., now we’re thinking about inter-mobility inside the city. How do you connect an economically disadvantaged neighborhood with businesses if you don’t have great bus service or good subway service? You have to invest in the infrastructure. And that has to do with great policy. Transit-oriented development, from an urban designer’s perspective, is part of that story.

As responsible planners, we try to elevate those conversations ourselves as best as we can, both with the people who are establishing the ground rules, which typically are the cities, and also our clients, who are typically developers.

How do we make a place that is not a one-liner? A place that really serves a broader community, and a balanced place that will grow and be sustainable economically, culturally, over time? What is the role of affordable housing in that solution? These are tough questions, and the recipe is different in every single project. But, a good, responsible urban planner will make that part of his or her mission.

Roger: I think it’s very important that we pay close attention to history. As a planner, you’re in a position of great responsibility. And your responsibility is not just to the map that you’re drawing — it’s to the communities that you’re serving.

Jennifer: That point should be highlighted and plastered on everything.

Construction is booming around Denver Union Station, where new buildings and public spaces will form a connected downtown district. Photo © Magda Biernat

How do you know when a design is successful?

Kristopher: What makes an excellent design is its transformative power. And if you look at places like Denver Union Station, you can assess success in terms of the number of people whose lives it touches, those people who live in this neighborhood and those who pass through it. You look at the aspirations of the place: how does it look? What’s the investment in materials, in landscape, in the public realm, in the amenities that are offered? You can look at it simply in terms of return on investment, from an economic perspective: what kind of catalytic capital investments does a public sector contribution invoke from the private side? In all of those ways, it’s really about making people’s lives better.

A satellite view captures the Denver Union Station project site before construction.
The vision for Denver Union Station’s 40-acre project site combines transit with urban density. Image © SOM

Roger: I think one of the great assets of some of the TOD projects that SOM has administered, at least in the last several years, is that at full buildout, they are really beautiful places. They’re places that people want to be. They’re home to great art and great architecture. They have great streetscapes. They have a range of activities, a mix of things for people to do at all times of day and night. These projects have to be pieced together just as effectively, if not more effectively, than any piece of architecture that we do anywhere in the world.

Image © Valerie Tang | SOM

Jennifer: I don’t think we can underscore enough how important it is to have a diverse number of voices in these projects. I think there’s a great deal of failure when people are left out of conversations at various levels, and an enormous amount of success when diverse groups are brought in—communities, governments, developers, designers—people whose voices you may not have assumed would be at the table. Not to say that any of that is very easy. But if we look back on successful projects, there’s often some very interesting and unique element of diverse consensus in the group.

Kristopher: At the end of the day, it’s about finding a means to make the most out of a city-making opportunity. Transit-oriented urbanism is increasingly the right thing to do, if you find the right place and bring together the right people. Each opportunity is different, but what they all share in common is that they need to be designed. What we bring to the table is that we are the designers who can connect the people who can make a connected place.

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