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Density In Question

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[This is the second in what we hope is a large series of expert blogs on TOD highlighting work and research that experts are doing in the field.  Today's post is by Sam Newberg, an urbanist based in Minneapolis. He can be found at www.joe-urban.com.]

A crucial question I have of our transit systems is whether we are planning for enough density around station areas. If we are to accommodate the type of housing units demanded in the coming decades (more attached housing), and make a dent in our carbon footprint, our transit station areas are going to need to accommodate more density.

I’ve been to a lot of cities that boast great transit systems, and starting with a visit to London in the mid-1990s, I have come to understand the key to a good transit system is substantial density around transit stations. What I have learned is good TOD requires upwards of 10,000 housing units and substantial office and retail use within a half mile of station areas, not sprinkling in a “couple-hundred here, thousand there,” as is the approach we are taking with all too many of our newer TODs.

Granted, some recent TODs like Mockingbird Station, Englewood and Orenco are quite popular. But we need a bit more density, or we’ll sell ourselves short. We’re all familiar with the “bulls-eye” approach to density around the five train stations along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. But it really works, and deserves imitation. There, density has boosted demand for retail and other services within each transit village. The corridor also boasts very high ridership and modal splits, and that Arlington County gets a disproportionate amount of their real estate taxes from the intense uses along the corridor is a positive outcome of good land use policy.

If we are to build truly smarter cities and meet forecast housing demand, we need to build TODs like those found in our older and popular cities. One must ask if we have the political will and appropriate tools to do it, but we must create denser, more self-sustaining transit villages and greener cities.