Saturday, November 20, 2004


Good TOD vs. Bad TOD

Transit oriented development (TOD), which seeks to place all new growth within walking distance of public transit, is one of the few new urbanist "buzzword" concepts that has successfully made the crossover to the more mainstream smart growth movement. The popularity of this concept can now be seen in the painfully bureaucratic state of Massachusetts, which now champions the idea that all future growth should be focused in TOD areas. Cheers TOD (40R).

However, though it is truly exciting to see that new urbanist terms and concepts are being utilized by mainstream planning entities, TOD actually has a history as dark and dastardly as the interstate highway system. Check it out.

TOD has been around for more than a half century and has played an essential role in incubating and nurturing the infectious American disease known as sprawl. You know, those gluttonous traffic/pollution/tax-raising/culture destroying developments that continue to cheapen and ravage the American landscape. TOD traces its origins back to when President Dwight Eisenhower decided in 1956 to fully fund a little program called the Federal Aid Highway Act. As a result, every highway rest-stop, every interstate Howard Johnson, and every highway exit that funnels onto collector roads laden with tacky big box store infested "power centers", is now indeed a TOD. It's just car-transit oriented development (please do not call this COD, as I am not attempting to further trivialize new urbanism), as opposed to the enlightened public transit oriented development. Think Bad TOD vs. Good TOD.

Bad TOD and all its culture homogenizing debauchery would be virtually non-existent if, while serving in World War II, Ike hadn't fallen so deeply in love with Hitler's Autobahn. Sure, the interstate highway system might be the greatest public works project in world history, but like the Autobahn that was used to help Hitler in his attempt to homogenize Europe, the US version has homogenized American culture. Thanks Ike. (I don't fully blame the guy, how could he possible anticipate what happened?)

The reason why I am pointing out what may seem like a re-hashed rumination on suburbia is that as of late, "TOD/new urbanism" and "smart growth" are terms that part of the development community have co-opted and used to sell their best laid development schemes. Thus, there needs to be some distinction between Bad TOD and Good TOD, because too many people seem happy to just throw Good TOD around all willy nilly, without actually understanding its intricacies.

BAD TOD - The redevelopment plan for a defunct Naval airbase in Weymouth, Massachusetts ( is being marketed and touted by the developer, Lennar Partners, as a TOD smart growth development. A local newspaper has gone as far as to call it a new urbanist community( Blasphemy. Though the plan is not the entirely car dependent TOD model of the last fifty years, its still not an effective TOD.

In a recent meeting a group of concerned urbanists analyzed the Weymouth redevelopment plan thoroughly. What was readily apparent to us was that though the plan maintains a healthy amount of protected open space (smart growth), the "TOD" portion of the plan is very weak. True, the site is very fortunate to be directly adjacent to a MBTA commuter rail stop, but the actual plan places a very small proportion of the total amount of housing/ commercial development within a comfortable walking distance of the actual transit stop (for comfortable walking distance think 1/4 to 1/2 mile), which makes this a hard sell for Good TOD. In fact, the majority of the development is located in suburban-esque pods on the other side of the base from the transit stop, where a "shuttle bus" is supposed to ferry people back and forth to the town center and transit station. Moreover, the transit stop and the edge of the naval base are located right next to a major south shore-Boston collector road corridor that already produces traffic nightmares.

Peter Calthorpe, CNU Charter Member, might call the entire plan a secondary neighborhood. That is, the portion of a good TOD neighborhood that is adjacent to the town center and all the primary uses of a Good TOD. Secondary neighborhoods are needed in TOD's, especially as they mature, but they need to serve as an equitable balance with the density needed to support the town center and the actual transit stop. In this case, the secondary neighborhood is the majority of the plan, and its too far away from the transit. It's like they have the right idea, but the wrong plan.

The plan simply does not achieve the required density. Moreover, in such a car dependent society where a large percentage of all car trips are less than 3 miles, most citizens in this development will most likely drive to the "town center" and to the transit stop. Hell, if you actually look at the plan you will see that there is plenty of parking for doing so. In fact, most of the town center is comprised of parking lots that are not shielded from the primary "A" streets. Ugh.

In conclusion, I agree that aspects of the plan certainly encourage smart growth. Certainly the planned development is lucky to have an existing transit stop, and the plan could actually be a lot worse. But overall the development is not a good TOD, and it is certainly not an example of new urbanism.

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