What is TOD?

Transit Oriented Development is becoming increasingly popular, but what is it really? TOD is a concept that is only a few years old. It is still being defined while simultaneously being corrupted in practice. A paper by Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler, “Transit Oriented Development: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality” tries to bring some coherency to the concept. Most of what follows is taken from that paper.

Places and Nodes

A theme that is evident throughout the history of transit is the distinction between places and nodes. The role of transit in creating a link between individual places and the broader region means that transit-oriented development, unlike other forms of development, should explicitly perform a dual function as both a node within a larger regional or metropolitan system and a good place in its own right. Station areas must provide access to transportation services and in many cases function as regional trip destinations, but the same areas must also serve as trip origins and, ideally, as coherent neighborhoods that do more than simply serve the station.

Contrast this relationship with that of freeway nodes, where nodes are the antithesis of places — essentially "no-man's lands" with the poorest access on the network.

Evolution to TOD

Transit and development have a convoluted history. At first, in the streetcar suburbs at the turn of the last century, the streetcar lines and their adjacent residential communities typically evolved in a setting that no longer exists today. A single owner would build transit to add value to the residential development by providing a link between jobs in an urban center and housing at the periphery of a city. These places would be more aptly described as "Development-Oriented Transit" since transit was built to serve their development rather than vice-versa.

Then the long period of decline in transit ensued, with the loss of rail systems which were essential to the linkage between transit and land-use. With the exception of some of the commuter suburbs around older cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, which continued to function reasonably well as transit-based communities, most transit became a last resort rather than a reliable transportation option tied to development.

After World War II a new generation of transit systems was planned and built. The BART system in the San Francisco Bay Area, MARTA in Atlanta, and Metro in the Washington, D.C. area were opened in the 1970s. These systems were designed explicitly to work with the automobile, with the assumption that most people would drive to suburban stations rather than walking, biking, or riding feeder-bus systems. In this case, these systems were viewed as primarily serving a regional purpose, and the stations were considered nodes within this larger system, with little regard for the local place where each station was located. This form could be called “Auto-Oriented Transit”.

Today we are getting what might be called “Transit-Related Development", where transit agencies and the federal government see large-scale real estate development on transit agency owned property as a way to "capture" some of the value created by high intensity access. This "joint development" approach has been used successfully in some locations, but simply generating a bit of revenue for the operating agency only begins to tap the potential of the relationship between transit and development. In other words, the "highest and best use" in financial terms is not always the best in transit or neighborhood terms.

Recently, interest in TOD has broadened beyond the possibility of financial return. Increasing evidence now exists that transit-oriented development can yield many more benefits than merely increased land value. The last decade saw subtle but promising shifts in the landscape of transit and development, with the convergence of a number of trends: growing transit ridership, increased investment in transit, frustration with congestion and sprawl, the smart growth and new urbanism movements, and a generally greater recognition of the advantages of linking development and transit. We are beginning to glimpse the full range of benefits that could be achieved with “Transit-Oriented Development”.

Defining Transit-Oriented Development

With the above as background, we can state some TOD performance criteria that will allow us to judge the quality of projects and to think clearly about the tradeoffs that must be made when pursuing a project:

1. Location Efficiency. Reduced auto dependency will result from an effective blending of convenient and efficient transportation links (node functions) with enhancements of the ability to carry out most everyday tasks close to home (place functions).

Location efficiency requires neighborhoods that provide high-quality transit, a mix of uses, and pedestrian-friendly design. Proximity to transit is just one of several key variables that determine the location efficiency of a neighborhood. Other critical factors include net residential density, transit frequency and quality, access to community amenities, and a good quality pedestrian environment.

2. Value Recapture. The location efficient mortgage is one way of capturing the value from reduced automobile dependence, by allowing families who can spend less on transportation to spend more on housing.

Extracting the excess investment in parking is another way of capturing value for the community. Parking is a significant but generally unrecognized component of high spending on transportation. Reducing parking requirements can have a significant impact on building costs, especially housing. Empirical research that has found that the average increase in the price of a housing unit with a parking space in San Francisco was $39,000 to $46,000 (Jia and Wachs 1997).

One way of accommodating cars while reducing the parking excess is to "unbundle" parking from housing and other building uses, to create a separate market for parking. This mechanism lets those who don’t value parking to spend their money on other things.

Savings from reduced parking costs (whether in residential units or other development) can be captured by households, developers, and local governments. They can be invested in assets, like housing, that appreciate in value over time and allow for individual household wealth accumulation.

3. Livability. Livability is subjective and defies easy definition. No definition can be completely objective. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrive at a definition of livability that is based on collective subjectivity rather than the values of a particular individual. Measures of livability that relate directly or indirectly to transit-oriented development include:

  • Improved air quality and gasoline consumption.
  • Increased mobility choices (pedestrian friendliness, friendliness, access to public transportation).
  • Decreased congestion/commute burden.
  • Improved access to retail, services, recreational, and cultural opportunities (including opportunities for youth to get involved in extra-curricular activities within the neighborhood).
  • Improved access to public spaces, including parks and plazas.
  • Better health and public safety (pollution-related illnesses, traffic accidents).
  • Better economic health (income, employment).

4. Financial Return. Planning for TOD projects requires understanding what type of return each of the public and private participants expects and ensuring that certain return thresholds can be met. But, while this means that TOD projects must be responsive to the discipline of market and financial realities, it does not mean that all development at transit-oriented locations should always strive to achieve the "highest and best" use for the site.

5. Choice. TOD is about expanding rather than circumscribing options. It is current patterns of suburban development that leaves few options for residents in terms of housing type or mode of transportation, not TOD.

Although a certain minimum overall density is certainly a prerequisite for making TOD work, it is not true that TOD will necessarily require everyone to live at higher densities than they already do. In many parts of the country, notably in California, there has been a proliferation of medium-density housing (apartments, condominiums, townhouses) that is not connected to transit and that incorporates none of the mixed- use or internal mobility of TOD. These projects function as high-density auto-oriented suburbs, with all of the disadvantages of density and none of the advantages of choices that TOD can offer.

Enhanced choice may entail:

  • A diversity of housing types that reflects the regional mix of incomes and family structures.
  • A greater range of affordable housing options.
  • A diversity of retail types. Diversity will necessarily be limited by the market area and the particular desires of the residents; however, this outcome could be measured in terms of how well the retail mix meets the needs and desires of the residents as they themselves define them.
  • A balance of transportation choices.

6. Efficient Regional Land-use Patterns. Transit-oriented development can foster much more efficient patterns and cut down on traffic generation. The fact that this development is concentrated around a transit station means that it consumes less land, generates less traffic, contributes much less to congestion and air pollution than more typical suburban development.

When a significant number of origins and destinations in the region are well-linked to a station, transit becomes a much more viable option. At the same time, transit-oriented development is one of the most important tools for creating more efficient regional land-use patterns. The more growth that can be accommodated in station areas, the less sprawl there will be.


The Belzer-Autler paper is available on the website of the South Florida Community Development Coalition (HTML).

Another (shorter) discussion of TOD is by Jeffrey Tumlin and Adam Millard Ball, "How to Make Transit-Oriented Development Work Number one: Put the transit back." May 2003.
Choose PDF file:
138Kb APA website version (converted from html), somewhat abbreviated text with small pictures, or,
2.8Mb download from Reconnecting America website, published format from Planning May 2003, in high resolution. Beautiful graphics and helpful sidebars.