Think where, not what, for best results with TOD (BRT or otherwise)

Transit oriented, but...
North America’s largest BRT system somehow isn’t a poster child for TOD.

1. Transit belongs on streets, with the people.

A recent ITDP report made a big splash about transit oriented development, some of which has happened along busways. Some media outlets, e.g., Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities correctly reported the report’s amply demonstrated finding, explained over 56 pages, that good TOD outcomes depend on a lot of “necessary but, in and of themselves, insufficient” pro-development policy factors: comprehensive plans, small area plans, capital investment plans, housing investment, institutional support, a favorable regional economy, and a favorable sub-regional economy.

That last factor is presented curiously absent any discussion of the micro-level geography of the land immediately adjacent to the transit line. Together, though, these factors essentially boils down to the old real-estate adage of “location, location, location” — and seem to explain much of the difference between the different case studies’ different TOD outcomes. In fact, just the urban pattern along the route appears to perfectly* correlate** with the observed TOD outcome via their odd metric of “dollars of development per dollar of transit investment” (see this spreadsheet for details).

The best mass transit alignments go where the mass of people are: connecting a downtown to a strong and promising midtown, along an established mixed-use urban street level corridor. Transit ROWs in highways, freight RR corridors, etc., almost universally perform poorly at generating TOD.

* The one exception is Phoenix, which has weathered an economic depression since its light-rail opened.

** This thesis could be empirically tested through GIS analysis, as well (looking at block sizes, parcel sizes, or land use mix adjacent to the transit lines), but I’ll leave that to someone else. Aggregating data from that many cities takes more time and computing power than I can spare now.

2. The report’s fundamental flaw, and what it didn’t say (regardless of what you’ve heard).

Okay, now a pointed criticism of the report and subsequent reporting. Sadly, many other media outlets fell for a much more simplistic reading of the report, zeroing in solely on the report’s unsubstantiated, and actually never clearly stated, claim that buses are a superior value to trains in spurring TOD. The “dollars of development per dollar of transit investment” metric relies entirely on hearsay for both its numerator and denominator, rendering it useless. The footnotes mention an attempt to standardize the cost figure (denominator), but not the numerator, and ultimately local transit agencies got to define both figures as they pleased.

Euclid at PlayHouse Square
Besides hospitals, much of the purported TOD along the HealthLine consists of major investments in downtown, where rail transit is also available, and substantial capital improvements at Cleveland State University just outside downtown.

This results in a table that compares the incomparable. Many headlines have focused on how the Cleveland HealthLine handily bests all contenders on that particular chart. I haven’t found an updated breakdown of the “$5.8 billion in TOD” since the initial 2009 Plain Dealer tabulation (yet the figure keeps growing), but half of what the PD counted consisted of hospital, university, and museum buildings that were completed or planned before the HealthLine opened. In the PD’s reckoning, over $1B of the purported TOD benefit of the HealthLine stems from major expansion projects just at the Cleveland Clinic, which certainly would have happened regardless of transit. Correlation is not causation, and transit advocates of any stripe don’t do themselves any favors by ignoring this most basic rule of social science.

parking deck
Pretty uninspiring to call this BRT-OD. The BRT runs in a trench just to the left.

East Liberty is an equally puzzling case study to profile: much of the development “credited” to the BRT happened decades after the BRT opened, some is auto-oriented to traffic sewers running through the neighborhood, and much of it exists just because the old streetcar hub of East Liberty was the only reasonably flat site for big-box retail in the middle of Pittsburgh’s hilly East End. And Pittsburgh was careful to build equally isolated rapid transit lines to the west (BRT) and south (LRT) sides, neither of which spurred any TOD because they didn’t reach promising “midtown” nodes. (Neither did the East Busway, really, until the Oakland-Shadyside midtown spread north to touch said busway.)

The same chart also most definitely does not deem BRT a better investment than rail, as the Portland & Seattle streetcars do very well on the same chart. The report also clearly states that transit service quality, as judged by their “BRT Standard,” seems to have little to do with the quantity of TOD spurred. And yes, I consider myself relatively mode-agnostic, and curious enough about BRT to specifically travel to Ottawa, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to take the BRT photos above.

3. Counting hospital spending is particularly disingenuous

Cleveland doesn’t even lay claim to the largest transit-adjacent medical investment in the country. New Orleans has $2B in new replacement hospitals under construction vaguely near a streetcar line, and Dallas also has $2B in new hospitals under construction next to a circa-2000 commuter rail station. I certainly applaud efforts to ensure that hospitals — which are major job centers in almost all metros — are not just accessible by, but oriented to, transit. However, hospitals have spent a lot on development just about everywhere: hospital spending almost doubled over the 2000s.

(Speaking of midtowns, IDA’s new Defining Downtowns report does a nice job of showing how midtown areas, often surrounding medical facilities, are often almost adjacent to their respective downtowns.)

4. But if you’re really gung-ho on BRT, I’ve got a Magic Road to sell you…

It turns out that there’s an even bigger champion in the BRT TOD sweepstakes that didn’t get mentioned in the ITDP report. A major U.S. city built a magical BRT Bronze busway that subsequently spurred the adjacent development of:

  • 5,000 new market-rate apartments
  • 4.5 million square feet of new office
  • 1.2 million square feet of new retail
  • 2,000 new hotel rooms
  • $575 million in new cultural facilities for museums and performing arts
  • $1.3 billion in new public parks & recreational facilities
  • …plus a giant $4 billion new mixed-use development right outside one terminus
  • …and other new infrastructure improvements that I’m not including here, including a monstrous convention center annex (with another one just proposed! Obviously another fruit of BRT TOD) and new lakefront enhancements
  • All of which total $226.74 in corridor “TOD investment per dollar of transit investment,” or twice the amount that the “champion” Cleveland HealthLine supposedly generated

This magical $43 million busway is so magical, in fact, that the city’s leaders slyly smile and guffaw whenever they call it The Magic Road. There’s one minor detail: the McCormick Place Busway is not even open to the public. Only buses for visiting conventioneers, not buses for transit, can travel upon it. Never fear, for evidently the BRT-TOD magic is so powerful that even a closed busway can still manage to single-handedly spawn a resurgence in Chicago’s Loop.* After all, that’s exactly what the HealthLine did, right?

McCormick Place Busway Northern Entrance at Lower Randolph Street Under Millenium Park

* The Loop’s recent growth was quantified by the local BID, with areas multiplied by average sales prices found in the report to quantify total investment. I took care to not double-count Lakeshore East, and to not count investment in the West Loop or River North. And yes, I did do a cursory evaluation of the ITDP BRT Standard with regard to the MPEA busway, which does have one very nice station and lots of scheduled service during conventions.

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4 thoughts on “Think where, not what, for best results with TOD (BRT or otherwise)

  1. I think the most valuable takeaway from the report is the importance of economic, and policy support for TOD performance. I also thought evaluating the various corridors through the BRT standard filter was useful as well. Your point about Cleveland and the medical-related development is right on, and exposes ITDP’s failure to perform objective analysis on the development data rather than simply asking the local transit agency “how much development did you get?” and plugging it in the table.

    On your main point about siting transit projects, it’s probably a solid guideline, but I wouldn’t call it an axiom. Focusing transit on the street probably does lead to distinct development advantages, but restricting transit projects to urban streets also tends to reduce the speed (rapid in rapid transit) and usefulness of the transit service, which has its own set of impacts. There are also plenty of examples of rapid transit lines built along active or former railroad rights-of-way that have produced good TOD results as well. Silver Spring and Charlotte’s Lynx Blue Line both come to mind.

    It’s my contention that in the post 2001 modern streetcar development era, the almost complete focus on TOD ROI has nearly blinded policy makers and civic leaders into believing that that streetcars are the answer and everyone must have one or else they’ll be left behind. Though it provides some very useful points, I wonder if the ITDP report doesn’t simply come off in the end as an attempt to one-up the streetcar enthusiasts in the battle for the hearts and minds of US policy makers.

  2. A few grade-separated alignments exist that run parallel to and within the walkshed of an arterial: the proposed Virginia Beach light rail, Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway, and the PECO corridor through King of Prussia come to mind. These offer the best of both worlds, but are relatively rare.

    Silver Spring is an example of a different type of corridor: a former commuter rail alignment upgraded to rapid transit. These are rare in Sunbelt cities, but often do well as TOD: e.g., MBTA’s red and green line extensions to the northwest, Riverside branch, or proposed Fairmount Branch rapid transit.

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