“The Great Transit Oriented Development Swindle?” reads the headline in the Fog City Journal, one of the growing number of internet newspapers providing serious, professional web-based journalism as an alternative to declining print newspapers (and their often less than effective web sites).
The article does not directly answer the question in the headline, but certainly provides enough ammunition to what has become a commonly accepted mantra among planners and urban boosters. It reveals how transit oriented development (TOD) is often based upon fragile foundations that amount to an ideological swindle. It is important to recognize that the Fog City Journal is no right wing or libertarian organ. There is little market for that in the city of San Francisco. The leftish bent of the Fog City Journal, combined with author Marc Salomon’s unusually incisive (and footnoted) analysis makes this article noteworthy. It also seems clear that the author is a proponent of more transit service and funding, not less – even though he is highly skeptical about the current TOD craze.
Transit Oriented Development: The idea behind transit oriented development is that, in new, higher density developments, people use transit more and cars less. Transit oriented development has become a first principle of some, who seem to believe that cities can become vibrant in part by strangling new suburbs out of existence. Transit oriented development is at the very heart of the Obama Administration’s “livability agenda,” and is frequently cited admiringly by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
Eastern Neighborhoods: Salomon’s subject is San Francisco’s Eastern Neighborhoods, where transit oriented development is proposed. From the beginning Salomon identifies a fundamental problem: “Transit Oriented Development is predicated upon the notion that existing transit infrastructure is attractive enough such that residents of new units will take transit to work instead of drive. He continues: “The existing transit system, both regional and local, is not capable of handling existing demand.”
Salomon correctly notes that “San Francisco is not the regional employment center.” In fact, nearly 90% of employment in the San Francisco-San Jose area is not in downtown San Francisco. Indeed, Silicon Valley, not downtown San Francisco, has long been the largest employment center in the area and there are also major job concentrations in the suburban belt east of Oakland.
No Better Place for Transit Oriented Development: Yet, there are few places in the world better served by transit than the Eastern Neighborhood transit oriented development. The project is no more than a long walk from downtown San Francisco (Figure 1). Residents will be able to access frequent “Muni” bus services. The development would be well served by BART (the regional metro), midway between two stations, both of which access four routes. There are few places in the world where a non-transfer station serves that many routes. Salomon analyzes transit from the center of the development, the corner of Mission and 20th Streets.
Transit Oriented Development: Forcing Longer Commutes: Salomon’s concern starts with the recognition that these systems are already overcrowded. However there is more. Even with their heavy (and highly subsidized) loads, the virtually unparalleled level of transit service available from Mission and 20th cannot compete with the automobile. Salomon’s analysis shows that, on average, transit oriented development residents working at jobs at the 30 largest firms in the San Francisco Bay area would spend nearly 3.5 as much time traveling to work by transit than if they drove themselves. The best transit travel time would be more than double the auto travel time, while the worst would near five times (Figure 2).
Transit Oriented Development: Making Traffic Congestion Worse: Mirroring the research on the association between higher densities and greater traffic congestion, Salomon suggests that without substantial additional transit spending, transit oriented development “in San Francisco will most likely diminish transit reliability by increasing auto trips–the precise opposite of transit oriented development’s stated goals.” On this point, however, it is well to remember that no transit system has ever been seriously conceived, much less proposed or implemented that could provide competitive mobility between Mission and 20th and the dispersed employment throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. A transit system that reaches all of the dispersed employment in a modern American or European urban area at travel times competitive with the car could require annual expenditures that approach or even exceed the gross domestic product of the area.
Unaffordable Transit Oriented Development: But Salomon is not through. Insufficient transit service is only part of the problem. There is a fundamental problem with the thesis that “cities need to densify their urban cores to support greater densities of development.” But, he says, “this is predicated upon the assumption that housing in the urban core and periphery are fungible, that the core and periphery compete interchangeably for buyers.”
Unlike most urban advocates and the Secretary of Transportation, it is apparent that Salomon understands the first principle of “livability.” Livability requires affordability. In San Francisco suburb of Brentwood, for example, Salomon notes that the median house price is $298,000. Brentwood is located in eastern Contra Costa County, approximately 50 miles from downtown San Francisco. But there is no need to travel that far, since there is an abundance of jobs much closer.
This compares to a median price of $627,000 for an apartment/condominium near the proposed transit oriented development in San Francisco. Further, the house in Brentwood will be more than double the size of condo in the transit oriented development, as data from zillow.com indicates. Thus, the new home buyer will pay less than one-fourth the cost per square foot in Brentwood compared to the transit oriented development (Figure 3). The Brentwood household will also enjoy a backyard that would not come with a 23rd floor flat.
Lifestyles of the Few: None of this is to suggest that transit oriented development cannot be attractive. The mistake, however, is the outsized enthusiasm of its proponents. Like a Mini Cooper or sportscar, transit oriented development serves the needs and wants of a narrow niche market, but by no means anything close to the majority.
In order for transit oriented development to check sprawl, prospective home buyers would be expected to make the choice between purchasing a $300K unit in Brentwood or a unit costing twice that much in San Francisco. Further, in order to check motor vehicle commutes, the assumption would be that someone paying that urban location premium would more than double their commute time by taking transit.
Simply stated, many of the claims of transit oriented development proponents simply do not “pencil out.” TOD residents will have to drive, unless their jobs are within walking distance. Further, in the dynamic economy that has developed in US urban areas, few can assume that they will always work in the same place. Most importantly, however, very few suburbanites could afford the tony TODs. That’s not a problem, however, since most of them are probably not sorely tempted.
Photograph: Market Street Toward the Ferry Building, San Francisco
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”