In making that direct comparison, it’s not just the commute time, but if there is an easily seen, direct comparison between the transit line and the traffic. Humans are visual creatures, and it does not matter what kind of statistics you can pull off to discuss differences in travel times if the better option is watching transit move quickly while traffic in turn moves slowly. Anyone who has ever been on the freeway in Chicago during rush hour and seen a blue line train fly down the tracks while hoping traffic picks up soon will agree that it makes for a solid message that transit should be a considerable option.
However the biggest deterrent to TOD success is also the biggest thing that creates the traffic congestion: rush hour. Merriam-Webster defines rush hour as “a period of the day when the demands especially of traffic or business are at a peak” (2008), which usually means that people are travelling to and from work. If we review the data from Renne (2005), we remember that this dealt with travel to and from work for the utilization of TODs. We cannot make a complete comparison without viewing overall transit ridership, however in order for TODs to be successful in eliminating traffic congestion there must be places of employment along the transit line (Arrington & Cevero, 2008). Leisure and weekend journeys are great, but until citizens of Rust Belt cities see transit as a viable option to get to and from work, promises of using transit and TOD to rid cities of congestion are moot points.
The nice part about TOD from a business perspective is that as a business within the TOD, you get the added benefit of people who are already walking in close proximity to your business. This provides tremendous opportunities for urban retailers to reach out to a new group of consumers. They do not have to entice them to plan a trip directly to their location or hope that a sidewalk advertisement will get them to pull into the parking lot. Instead, assuming that the municipality can actually get the transit lines in a place where they can be used for a work commute, potential retailers and service providers in the TOD are getting a built-in block of potential customers. While driving commuters are cutting down on the number of trips needed in the wake of higher gas prices (White, 2012), transit commuters have known for as long as there has been transit that the more you can do at a single transit stop, the more time you will save.
The opportunities are tremendous for a new TOD to attract and keep new businesses who will be able to take advantage of this potential customer base. The country leads the world in the amount of gross leasable area of retail space per capita at 20.22 (Integra Realty Resources, 2007), more so than any other nation on the planet. That means that there is a tremendous amount of retail space available for lease. The positive aspects of the TOD should provide opportunity not only for established national retailers, but local businesses looking to find a steady stream of neighborhood customers.
Increased retail activity does a great deal for the municipality as well, even if people are not interested in the transit aspect of the TOD, there is still the opportunity to attract people who are interested in the development on its own merits. This is all about increased return on investment, if a city can do a TOD well, the businesses have a better chance of success and will generate more taxable revenue for the city and the state and the businesses have customers that are much harder to lose since they are taking that commute regardless of whether or not they are interested in retail. Considering that it costs a retailer five times as much to attract a new customer as it does to keep an old one happy (Dunne, Lusch, & Carver, 2011), a well-built TOD will benefit the shopping experiences of the city, the citizens, and the business owners alike.
Transit Oriented Development for Place-making
What can really make TOD special is not the convenience or nostalgia of taking a train, it is the ability to create a true place for people to interact and carry on a less serious demeanor. Sociology Professor Emeritus Ray Oldenburg of The University of West Florida has dubbed these places “third places”. The “first place” being the home, and respectfully the “second place” is the place of employment. However these places are obligations, at least for those who are not homeless and are part of the workforce, which people are generally bound to. You need shelter, and you need to make a living in order to keep that shelter and survive. But even at a full time 40-hour work week and sleeping a solid 8 hours per day, there is still 1/3rd of a person’s day for which they can spend however they choose. There are of course other obligations as well, but when the shopping is done and the day’s commute is over, people are faced with a choice: what do I do with myself?
Third places are the places that give life the extra enjoyment; they are the places where we choose to spend our ever-so-precious free time. They are portrayed in the media in a way that many Americans are familiar with, such as the once popular sitcom Cheers that features a group of friends in Boston who all frequent a local bar. This is just one example of community-based places where people spend to choose their time. Oldenburg says of third places:
“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.” (Project for Public Spaces, 2012)
People like local areas that they can feel attached to, a key component that the social interaction that Oldenburg feels that we are missing from society overall today. The suburban life that we have coveted as “the American dream” has in reality pushed us farther and farther apart from each other. As a result, we are losing the aspects that make a healthy community.
TOD has many elements that compliment real place making, with the higher density, increased walkability, and built in social interaction, TODs are third places waiting to happen. Many people who are repopulating urban areas are younger Millennials who are looking to escape the suburban lifestyle of their parents. No municipality should expect them to see transit stations surrounded by developments that are perceived to be ugly and out of date and be excited to hop on your transit system to get there. This is especially true of Rust Belt cities, where people take a special kind of pride in their cities, and people will not respond well to textbook new(sub)urbanism as a proper third place.
What takes the TOD from a house to a home is the little things that people can look at and be a part of. When the Crossroads shopping center in Lake Forest Park, WA underwent renovation, they had a large chess set made of pieces up to 28 inches high to be played on an eight foot chessboard (Oldenburg, 2001). While it sounds like a gimmick, it worked, and as part of the revitalization of the commercial space Crossroads became a local hangout for chess enthusiasts, as well as others who were interested in witnessing he spectacle in the first place. This is one example that we can take from a competitive arena, shopping mall retail, and apply it to TOD to give it a personal touch.
When someone lays eyes on a TOD in the Rust Belt, they should see a sign that things in their city are improving, it should be a message the good things are coming and that there are others that want to be a part of it. When reviewing a site plan, if you are unable to see what makes your TOD special and makes people feel good about your city, then it is time to go and find some revisions.
Historian Donald Olsen said that “If we are to achieve an urban renaissance, it is the nineteenth century which will be reborn”, not the 20th century (Ehrenhal, 2012). The commons and social interaction prior to the industrial revolution are what will lead us to a place where we can improve public health, dialogue amongst our peers, and maybe one day a world where people do not count friends based on computerized social networks. Parisian critic Alfred Delvau in his 1862 work Les dessous de Paris exclaimed that:
“we find it tiresome to live and die at home…we require public display, big events, the street, the cabaret, to witness us for better or for worse…we like to pose, to put on a show, to have an audience, a gallery, witnesses to our life” (Delvau, 1862).
As it turns out, Delvau remains correct about our perceptions about public life to this day. While today’s Rust Belt cities are a far cry from the world of 19th century Paris where housing was poor and street life did not have to compete with 4G internet speeds anywhere you go, it does mimic the way that people act today with their desire to perform in front of an audience. The place of wide boulevards and plazas with the hustle and bustle became a place where any visitor could sit back and take in the human drama at their own pace (Ehrenhal, 2012). To anyone who believes that people have taken to a suburban lifestyle in order to hide from others and avoid social interaction, I offer the simple fact that online photograph sharing service Instagram which only started in 2012 has well over 50 million users (this is in addition to the millions of users on sites that promote photo sharing, such as Facebook, TwitPic, Tumblr, or Flickr.), and is adding 5 million per week (Taylor, C., 2012) as people readily look for new and exciting ways to put their whole lives on display for the entire world. TOD facilitates all of this by strengthening communities and creating people who live, work, play, and ride in the same spaces.