Is Rail That Important for Transit-Oriented Development?

It may take more than just plopping high density housing near rail to encourage people not to drive. Photo: Pedestrians in downtown Berkeley by Melanie Curry/Streesblog

It may be that TOD—transit-oriented development, which puts high density housing near transit to encourage people to travel by means other than by car—may be putting too much emphasis on the T. That is, the fact that people have a train station near at hand may not necessarily be what encourages them to use it. Other things—like whether they have access to free parking—seem to have more influence on car ownership and driving.

This is the conclusion reached by Dan Chatman of the University of California at Berkeley after surveying households near rail stations on the East Coast. Writing in the fall issue of Access magazine, Chatman says that planners who emphasize the closeness of rail transit to high-density housing may be missing other more important factors.

“Developing dense housing near rail stations with mixed land uses and better walkability is intended to encourage people to walk, bike, and take transit instead of driving,” writes Chatman. Studies show that households living near transit tend to use it more, but the reasons for that are not as obvious as one might think.

“Using transit more is not the same as driving less,” he writes.

And even if people in TODs do drive less than people elsewhere, we cannot be sure that transit is responsible. Easy access to a rail station might encourage people to walk rather than drive—but so too might wider sidewalks, narrower streets, and closer destinations. Denser places also tend to have worse traffic and fewer places to park.

Chatman used the results of his survey to look at what influences car ownership and commute mode, among other things. He found that the presence of a nearby rail station doesn’t have that much of an impact on whether people own cars or drive to work. What does make a difference is the number of parking spaces they have available to them, whether those are on the street or in garages or driveways.

He found that—surprise!—where there is plenty of free parking available, people tend to own more cars and drive more, and consequently use transit less.

“We generally think of parking usage as a measure of demand for driving,” Chatman told Streetsblog in a phone interview. “Where instead, parking supply ought to be thought of as a driver for driving. People do drive more if we give them free parking.”

Other things that also make more of a difference on car ownership and driving than rail, according to Chatman’s findings, are the number of nearby jobs, the number of nearby grocery stores, population density in the area, distance to downtown, and access to bus transit.

TOD is usually built near rail, because it’s considered more “permanent” than bus service, which can be easily changed or rerouted. But access to a good bus network may actually matter more if what you want to encourage people to drive less. Access to rail may encourage commute trips by train, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people will use the train for other trips. “Transit doesn’t carry as many trips as walking and biking,” said Chatman, especially for noncommute trips. Encouraging other kinds of travel, especially for things like grocery trips, may mean making a bike ride to a local grocery store safe and easy by building multiuse paths and encouraging grocery stores to locate in high-density residential districts.

An unintended consequence of concentrating TOD near rail is that it could encourage people to move farther away from dense areas. Rail, Chatman reminds us, was historically one of the biggest drivers of sprawl in the US.

“Current TOD policies might actually decrease overall density, because rail is good at serving long trips,” he said. “You get development near rail, and people move in and use it—but only for their commute.” Other trips are served by whatever mode is most convenient. If there’s lots of parking, that may mean by car.

Chatman found that new housing built near rail tends to have more parking than older housing, which reflects many current local zoning regulations requiring a minimum number of parking spots per unit—as opposed to older high-density housing that was built before those zoning laws were passed.

This is important when considering the impact of California policies like S.B. 375 (which required regions to adopt Sustainable Community Strategies) and S.B. 743 (which eliminates traffic congestion as an environmental impact under environmental law). Both of those recent laws place a lot of emphasis on the importance of high density housing near transit to get people to drive less. But if new transit-oriented development provides plenty of parking, all that regulation, encouragement, and arguing about environmental impacts may not produce the desired results.

“If access to rail is not a primary factor in reducing auto use, it could be a blessing,” writes Chatman, “not only because rail infrastructure is expensive, but also because the amount of available land near rail stations is limited.”

“But focusing primarily on TODs to reduce greenhouse gases could be a great mistake,” he writes.

A better strategy would be to provide incentives for building smaller rental units with less on- and off-street parking in locations with better bus service and higher employment density. At the very least, TODs should be developed with less parking. If they are not, they will not reduce auto use.

Chatman discusses his results in the fall issue of Access, available online here. Other articles in the current issue, in addition to the one highlighted yesterday on Streetsblog about the benefits of bike-share systems, are a look at life-cycle impacts of TOD, a history of planning for freeways in the U.S., and suggestions about finding common ground when faced with seemingly insurmountable differences of opinion about what our cities should look like.

18 thoughts on Is Rail That Important for Transit-Oriented Development?

  1. I agree that housing density is key. If housing is sufficiently dense, it creates demand for services (grocery stores, etc.) and transit. But that doesn’t mean that, in redcuing zoning and other disincentives or prohibitions on dense housing, we shouldn’t start with or prioritize areas near rail stations.

    A good example of a region with low housing denstity, low walkability, and high dependence on private cars despite excellent rail transit to the city center is Long Island, NY. The LIRR is, by most measures, the busiest and one of the best commuter rail system in North America, and the geography of the island (flat and linear) suits it well to rail. Much of the LIRR system is electrified, with 24/7 service. But the pattern of both housing and commercial land use on the island is sprawling, and most of the people who take the train when they go into the city rely on cars for all of their travel within the confines of the island.

  2. your comments on office and retail are completely on-point. Both are much more distance sensitive when it comes to transit use. People will walk much further from their home to transit than they will from transit to work. As the article points out the other key is parking ratios. Development next to transit does not mean it is TOD which is why I originally coined the phrase transit-adjacent development in 1999.

  3. I highly doubt that the public will be in favor of them to begin with. They’ll just have to deal with it, especially once VMT becomes the defining mark, not LOS.

  4. The downside of that is that it would erode much of the potential revenue you could generate. Plus, there are many drivers who wouldn’t use it regularly, but would occasionally for special situations (eg not for daily commuting, but being late to an important meeting). Making the lane free to dedicated vanpools would be sensible though.

    It might also erode public tolerance of toll lanes, which is already thin.

  5. This study asks the wrong question. Density, transit availability, and less parking are all tightly correlated among each other. It really doesn’t matter which of them is most directly associated with less driving. What matters is how to get the package — which of the elements in the package are most popular, politically and in the marketplace. Rail is the most attractive, and makes people much more accepting of the other elements of the package.

  6. The transit-adjacent development link is exactly the problem I was talking about in my earlier comment. I use BART so I’m familiar with BART stations being a sea of parking yet being called TOD. They hired Peter Calthorpe himself for a transit-oriented Daily City BART station, with the caveat that fully half the site be dedicated to a monster parking garage!

    Sometimes I think that certain terms of art (“traffic-calming” is another one) should be trademarked, so that people can be sent cease-and-desist letters when they misuse them.

  7. This study is just more confirmation that what matters most from a land use standpoint near major rail stations/regional transit stations is high density jobs and other non-residential destinations (eg major retail centers, entertainment, hotels, educational institutions). Numerous studies have shown that people’s propensity to take transit to work or other key destinations is primarily driven by that destination’s proximity to transit much more so than it is to how close they live to the transit line/station. Our TOD policy priorities are all screwed up. We should not be using valuable close-in TOD land for housing (at least not primarily). If your job or school or shopping area is far from transit, forget it. People are plenty willing to walk, bike, bus or drive to transit from the home end of their trip. Making that connection on the other end is practically a non-starter.

  8. Is commuter rail oriented development amplified by auto-centric housing policy?

    Let’s use a localized example. We have a rail station out to North Hollywood, which is in a greater area that is very car-centric (the San Fernando Valley). Say some people live near the NoHo station to commute to a job in say, Downtown. Why not actually just live in Downtown or Hollywood?

    If you were getting say, a single family home in NoHo vs an apartment closer to your work, then living in NoHo would make sense, if you wanted a SFH. Thus the original streetcar suburbs. And some people may prefer to live in NoHo for whatever reason. But why live in NoHo if you’re getting the same thing you would in DTLA? I imagine most would prefer to cut out that initial rail trip out of their commute, if they’re going to live in an apartment either way.

    The real problem is not enough low-cost housing is being built in the place that most people would rather live, in say, downtown. Government policies like parking requirements and minimum unit sizes (must average 750+ sq ft in DTLA) make lower-cost housing difficult, if not impossible. It seems like the housing development is not driven by people’s choices and wants, so much as where denser housing is being allowed.

    Relatedly, public officials and much of the public think that “no one” (i.e. people exactly like themselves) will “really” rely on bikes, buses, walking and the occasional cab to get around, and that only rail (or driverless cars) can hope to replace cars. So they’re receptive to relaxing auto-centric laws near rail stations, but not elsewhere.

    Here’s another compelling explanation of the success of TODs:
    ” In
    So Cal, you don’t get density without a political fight, and even the
    largest developers generally can’t win that fight on their own. Having a
    rail component means you get a big slush fund of money to dispense
    favors, and the unions and engineering firms will lobby on your behalf.” (From the Facebook Shoup group)

  9. Tolling the lane can make a lane about as good as an exclusive lane, without reducing road capacity for drivers. But the non-toll lane users may seethe with envy…

  10. All the factors that this article mentions are also important, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore rail.

    People still have to get to work, and most of them will drive to work if they don’t have convenient transit. All the commuters in cars will make the entire region more auto-dependent, since they are likely to stop and do shopping on the way to or from work and they will choose stores that accommodate their cars.

    The idea that rail generates sprawl makes no sense at all. It depends on where the rail is built. Build rail that extends to undeveloped land, and it will generate sprawl there. Build rail in already developed areas, and it will not generate more sprawl; instead, it will create walkable areas within existing sprawl and make it more pedestrian friendly.

  11. Which arguably won’t do very much, especially for VMT. The real benefit is from having more commercial and retail clustered around rail as it makes it much easier for people to make their longest trip by transit. Additionally, the clustering makes it much easier to completely eliminate trips to different stores and offices that are scattered about a general area but require driving to reach each separate one.

  12. Rail is important, but not crucial, as seen by this study. A TOD region can be greatly expanded by using busways and bikeways that connect to the train station. When done right, both of those alternatives will provide access that is just as effective and appealing as driving.

    Also critical is getting the planning done correctly. Many projects, such as Montclair’s Arrow Station, end up being nothing more than transit-adjacent development because of poor execution of the concept of alternative connectivity. People will almost always go for the easiest option. If it’s driving, that’s what they’ll do.

  13. Buses are actually a great way to provide cost-effective TOD and extend a district out much farther from rail stations. The problem is that almost no buses are properly planned for from the beginning, which is what is required. There’s a superb example in Almere, NL, and many other cities that take the time to build busways that are unencumbered by cars. With such a network as a feeder to rail, bus transit is a much easier choice for people as it will not have some of the usual issues.

  14. ≈ This is interesting, but is it really studying TOD? Tons of parking near rail is pretty much the opposite of TOD. Of course, many projects have been called TOD simply due to the presence of transit, but that is in error.

  15. Yes, rail is important.

    Buses really don’t get you ANY TOD. And his research still shows that. Buses (a.k.a. diesel-belching road vehicles which wait behind cars) are useless for TOD.

    But sidewalks come first. Sidewalks are most important. Walking is primary; people walk to get on the bus or the train and they just plain walk. Obstacles to walking make people drive. Biking is similar, and might be called the “walking extender”.
    And the amount of parking, and the price of parking, matters a lot — it may be second-most-important.
    Rail probably comes *third*.

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