As planners, it is not simply the task at hand to look at the problems of the day and find solutions for them. We must be able to look into the future, and see what the world will look like in 10, 15, or 50 years from now. As many of the world’s cities and countries face an uncertain economic future, we must try to find what is necessary for the needs of tomorrow. Currently, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to grow 75% by the year 2050 (Hustwit, 2011). Cities worldwide are increasing in population, and with that planners must be focused on the movement of people from place to place. That challenge continues to grow as the new generation of young “Millennials” are rejecting the dreams of their parents of two cars in every garage and a nice, quiet house in the suburbs. Today, more and more young adults are moving back into city centers, getting their drivers licenses later in life (if at all), and if they do, they are driving much less (Lowy, 2012).

While some cities will continue to grow, others struggle to form a new identity in modern time. 20th century America saw the rise of cities that became the showcases for the industrial revolution and throughout the Midwest people flocked there for work and opportunity. Today, many of the places that were once the industrial capitals of middle America are shadows of their former selves, existing in a part of the world now called the “Rust Belt”.

The term “Rust Belt” was first used in 1983, and is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “the northeastern and midwestern states of the United States in which heavy industry has declined —called also rust bowl” (2008). In comparing Detroit, MI with Rochester, NY Roberta Gratz notes that while the economies were once more diversified, many of them became company towns dominated by not just single industry, but a single company (or short list of companies) as well (2012). Even Detroit who was once home to a slew of domestic automakers, slowly watched all but three shut their doors permanently. Their unwillingness and inability to diversify their economies meant that once their industrial flame went out, there would be nothing to keep these places vibrant and attractive. In their wake, the companies who went out of business, slowed their production to a crawl, or moved on to other locations left behind old factories, water towers and railroad yards that have fallen into disrepair and have rusted away – creating the Rust Belt of the United States.

For the purposes of this paper I will define Rust Belt cities as: Parts of the United States that relied heavily on manufacturing as a means of economic growth during the 20th century and no longer have the manufacturing strength that they once did. Typically located in the Midwest, but it may include parts of northeastern. Cities in the Rust Belt may exhibit the following characteristics: loss of population, loss of industry, decline of tax base, antiquated infrastructure, declining GDP, and loss of quality housing stock. Examples of cities in the rust belt include, but are not limited to: Duluth, Springfield, St. Louis, Gary, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. The degree of which these cities have been able to adjust to their industrial decline varies from place to place, with some doing very well and others struggling to survive.

Many cities, Rust Belt and otherwise, are at the point where they need to make many decisions regarding the way the next generation will get from one place to another. While many Rust Belt cities are losing population (Associated Press, 2010), there is still the prospect of replacing aging infrastructure with transit that will better serve future populations. In order for transit systems to be successful, they must not only be efficient in increasing the mobility of the citizens, but also allow for transit-oriented development (TOD) that properly compliments the system and maximizes its usage.

In its simplest form, TOD is development that is built near a transit stop with the transit stop in mind in order to form a sense of place and social cohesion. This is in contrast to a transit-adjacent development, which is a development built near a transit stop but does not consider the transit stop in the overall plan in a way that is mutually beneficial to both the transit line and the development (Halbur, 2007). While many attempt to define TOD in a specific form regarding density, walkability, and a mix of uses (Dittmar & Ohland, 2004), definitions with specificity of this level can never be completely accurate. TOD can be an array of many different things in many different forms, and what works for TOD in once place may end up being a disaster when implemented verbatim in other places. If the transit system and existing social structure is not properly considered, a TOD in once city could be a TAD in another.

TOD can also refer to the housing market around transit stations, the commerce around transit stations, and the overall activity of the people who live, work, and play there. For the purposes of this paper, commerce and economic development will be the focus. When referring to TOD, it will be only the economic/business side of development and not the housing or residential side of development. Instead of working a list of features into the definition of TOD, the definition of “development that is built alongside a transit stop with the transit stop in mind” provides a solid foundation to add practices and principles that make the difference between whether a TOD is successful or not.

Transit Oriented Development is all about finding the right formula that fits for each individual city, and there is no “one size fits” all solution for TOD. Cities within the Rust Belt are at an inherit disadvantage when it comes to TOD, many of them have little transit aside from the typical city bus service. When it comes to case studies, the vast majority of TOD research has been done in places that have strong regional transit systems, of which very few exist in the Rust Belt. They focus domestically on transit systems such as The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or DC Metro), none of which are very comparable to the urban situations in Rust Belt cities. Globally, we see many studies on places like London, Seoul, Toyko, Berlin, etc. being the focus of study.

As a result, public administrators in the Rust Belt are left with a tremendous amount of information that in a great deal of cases will not apply to their transit goals. Even in places such as California where there is a great deal more support for rail and TOD projects as a whole, there are still issues of TOD not living up to expectations. In an article titled Density Dare, John King speaks of the four-county BART system’s Fruitvale Village stop in Oakland with the following remarks:

“This is where changes around BART stations rarely match the rosy future promised by TOD advocates – that the blend of mixed use buildings, higher density levels, and mass transit in turn generates lively multilayered neighborhoods…even as accolades rolled in, many of the initial retailers went out of business…the optimistic plans didn’t pay enough attention to the exact location. (King, 2012)”

Planners and decision makers need to look on and hope to learn from the mistakes individuals made when so much was in place and supported. If planners have gone through such lengths, are experienced in TOD projects, have the funding and support to make it happen and the project is still not successful, how can we practically apply this model to cities which are struggling to find a new identity? The aim of this paper is to see what lessons we can learn from TOD projects and how we can make them work for cities in the Rust Belt.

In many ways a key component of the growth of Rust Belt cities was the production of the automobile, particularly in Michigan. As a result, many cities developed auto-centric designs that have neither worked well for the automobile or the transit commuter. Pittsburgh’s east-west Penn Lincoln Parkway for example, is the 9th most “reliably unreliable” interstate corridor in the country (Texas Transportation Institute, 2011), while their commuter transit line only serves the commuters to the south. Even Pittsburgh’s situation is better than the failed $6 million subway project in Cincinnati (Singer, 2003), or Detroit who was never able to properly secure funding for a rail system, a problem they struggle with to this day. These auto-centric designs have lead to congestion issues and mobility issues, which will only get worse as time goes on (Hustwit, 2011) assuming that populations continue to increase. With virtually all Rust Belt cities going through populations decline, the traffic congestion of the 20th century no longer exists. Instead, we have a situation where there is more road infrastructure than is needed, and local governments must now consider that repairing roads may not be worth the cost, especially if they can make for a better transit system. In many ways, we can look to the past and see what transit looked like before the automobile to give us insight into how we can find solutions for future transit and TODs.

TOD has existed in the United States in some way, shape or form for much longer than society tends to give it credit for. As long as there have been means of moving people from one part of the country to another, there has been development along the way to support travelers, surveyors, explorers, entrepreneurs, and people who are looking for a new life. This goes back to the 1850’s, when the United States would aide railroad development by granting public land along rail lines to corporations for free in hopes that it would be developed (Russo, 2001). The Illinois Central Railroad became the first railroad to innovate on the concept of railroad company towns and develop towns further down the line with a large enough “catchment area”, where enough farmers and settlers would need a service center somewhere they could easily get to. This was the first attempt to use TOD as a venue for filling the economic needs of a local community. When people talk about modern day transit villages being “economically viable and self sustaining…with transit access to the rest of the region” (Bernick & Cervero, 1997), what we are doing is at the core very similar to what we were doing over 150 years ago. Transit Oriented Development is an American tradition.