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TODs Don’t Work, Says L.A. Times

Jul 5


The Los Angeles Times takes a hard look at transit-oriented developments (TODs) and concludes that they don’t change people’s travel habits. Local officials say TODs will revitalize neighborhoods without adding to congestion, but the Times finds that “there is little research to back up the rosy predictions.”

The paper cites one study that “showed that transit-based development successfully weaned relatively few residents from their cars.” Two reporters from the paper itself spent two months interviewing TOD residents and reached the same conclusion: “only a small fraction of residents shunned their cars during morning rush hour.”

I emailed one of the reporters to find out what study they were referring to. They were kind enough to send me the paper, which was by Robert Cervero of U.C. Berkeley and two planning professors from Cal State in Pomona.

The study found that TOD residents are five times more likely to use transit than other people in the same city. But the researchers concluded this was mostly due to “self selection,” that is, that people who want to use transit choose to live in TODs. Just the fact that someone lives in a TOD does not make them use transit significantly more than they would otherwise.

The study found the smallest bump in transit ridership in Los Angeles, with the largest being for TODs along the BART line in the east San Francisco Bay Area. San Diego TODs did not do very well either.

The study correctly notes that there is nothing wrong with building transit-oriented developments to attract people who want to ride transit and to give them more opportunities to do so. Of course, no one objects to transit-oriented developments per se.

The objections are to the huge subsidies that cities are giving to these developments. As mentioned previously in the Antiplanner, transit is not necessarily more energy efficient than driving, nor does it necessarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So why should cities give hundreds of millions in subsidies to a tiny group of people who are willing to use transit?

Nor should cities willfully drive up housing costs to discourage people from living in their choice of housing so that people will live in transit-oriented developments instead. As the Times found, this is the least likely way to reduce congestion; if most people living in TODs still drive, concentrating them in a small area will only add to congestion.

Another “subsidy” that I suspect cities offer to TOD developers is a streamlined approval process. A developer who wants to subdivide a greenfield and build new housing may have to wait years to get all the approvals. But a developer willing to build a high-density TOD in an existing neighborhood may find planners rolling out the red carpet.

In any case, it is good to see a major newspaper take a skeptical look at one of the latest planning fads.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner