The Power of Transit-Oriented Development

Back in the late 1970s, when Washington’s Metrorail system first began operating in Arlington County, Virginia, the future of Arlington and other old, inner suburbs was far from certain. Across the Potomac, the District of Columbia was suffering from depopulation, rapidly rising crime rates, and serious fiscal difficulties.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Arlington, Fairfax County was enjoying a stunning period of growth. People were flocking by the hundreds of thousands to Fairfax’s sprawling residential subdivisions, and employment centers popped up and grew rapidly around freeway interchanges.

The future looked as though it belonged to Fairfax County, and Arlington’s decision to target development around its new Metro stations seemed quixotic and anachronistic.

But now, with the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, Arlington seems to have been extraordinarily foresighted in its decision to grow around Metro. From 2000 to 2008, Arlington’s population grew by 10% — all of it infill development, and a remarkable achievement for an inner suburb.

Even more remarkably, this growth has led to a negligible impact on local traffic. Daniel Malouff, author of the BeyondDC blog, reported yesterday morning on a meeting with Arlington’s Department of Transportation, at which officials recounted some numbers that had emerged from research on the effects of county development choices.

Among the remarkable statistics:

1. Auto traffic counts in the Pentagon City area are level today compared with counts from 1975. Despite all the development that has occurred there in that time frame, including construction of one of the region’s largest and busiest shopping malls, there has been no measurable increase in traffic congestion.

2. 1,000 units of urban-format TOD housing generates fewer auto trips per day than a single suburban-format McDonalds or 7-11. You can build 1,000,000 square feet of residential TOD and generate less congestion than 2,000 square feet of auto-oriented retail.

Arlington has very nearly maximized the development potential of available land around Metro stations, but it’s looking to create new transit access for its communities by building a streetcar line along one of the county’s busier thoroughfares (and running along its busiest bus routes). Already, denser, walkable, and mixed-used developments are replacing older strip malls on the planned line.

And of course, Fairfax County has been busily working to reverse its approach to transit and development, its streets and highways having bogged down under the weight of constant congestion.

Back when Metro was originally built, Fairfax did not attempt to lobby for routing through population centers, opting instead for a cheaper alignment along the median of I-66 (for the Orange Line), and along existing rail right of way (for the Blue Line). Stations were almost exclusively surrounding by parking; riders would nearly all arrive by car.

These decisions have proven difficult to reverse engineer, but Fairfax County has been trying. Along the I-66 corridor, the county is encouraging such transit-oriented development as can be accommodated. In Springfield (on the Blue Line), a large, walkable redevelopment plan has been slowly making its way forward despite the difficult economic situation.

But the biggest shift is occuring elsewhere. Fairfax County and the state of Virginia recently won federal funding for a new extension of the Metrorail system, to be run through the densest portion of the county at Tysons Corner.

The Silver Line will be used as a framework around which to completely remake Tysons into a dense, walkable downtown. The area may ultimately be home to over 100,000 people, and an employment center to rival downtown Washington.

The rest of the country will be watching. Tysons represents one of the most ambitious attempts to reengineer a suburban employment and retail center into a pedestrian friendly mini-city, fit for residents as well as workers.

Of course, the opportunities to make these kinds of changes are extremely limited. Very few heavy rail systems have been built in the past half century. Commuter rail and light rail systems are increasingly common in growing cities, but federal funding has simply not been made available for new lines on the necessary scale, and the federal government has not made transit-oriented development a priority in choosing where and how to allocate transportation dollars.

This is an inexcusable missed opportunity given transit-oriented development’s record of accommodating population growth without contributing to new congestion. Hopefully it is one Congress will address when it gets around to crafting a new transportation bill.

11 thoughts on The Power of Transit-Oriented Development

  1. What do you do in a city like Cleveland that built a heavy rail system in the middle of the last century and has basically done zero TOD around any of the stations? People point to systems like that as proof that heavy rail is a waste of time and money.

  2. From 2000 to 2008, Arlington’s population grew by 10% — all of it infill development, and a remarkable achievement for an inner suburb.

    Over the same period, the inner suburb of Howard County grew by 11% and the inner suburb of Prince George’s County grew by 9%. So it’s hard to see why Arlington’s growth is “remarkable.”

    And all of the outer suburbs grew faster than the inner ones. Carroll County grew by 12%, Frederick by 16%, Charles by 17%, Prince William by 30% and Loudon by a whopping 71%.

    If transit-oriented development is so attractive, why did inner suburbs that lack it grow just as fast as Arlington? And why did the outer suburbs, which are not remotely transit-oriented, grow much faster than Arlington?

    Whatever has driven population growth in Arlington over the past 8 years, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with TOD or transit.

  3. garyg, the reason Arlington’s growth rate is amazing is that all of it’s land was completely built out well before 2000, meaning any new population growth required redevelopment of existing land. It’s easy to grow when all your doing is bulldozing trees and putting up tract homes (Loudoun, Prince William, and Prince George all have sizable undeveloped areas). It is much harder to see sizable population growth when you have to redevelop existing land, not to mention overcome the general decline in household size one sees in urbanizing areas. For a more appropriate comparison, consider that Fairfax County only grew by 4.1% during the 2000 to 2007 time frame. Though not completely built out, Farifax is fairly close to it. Futhermore, the District only grew by 3.5% during the same time.

  4. I’m not sure why infill development would be harder than developing land from scratch. In any case, the fundamental driver of growth is demand. Demand seems to be just as high for other inner suburbs as for Arlington, and much higher for the outer suburbs. Loudon County grew at seven times the rate of Arlington. Prince William County grew at three times the rate of Arlington. This is consistent with the long-term national trend of decentralization of people and jobs.

  5. Gary, that’s just not accurate. To understand why you could consult the research of Ed Glaeser, among others, who has documented that population growth in outer suburbs and rapidly growing Sunbelt cities is largely a function of the elasticity of supply. That is, it’s easier to build there.

    If growth were all demand driven, then prices wouldn’t be any higher in inner suburbs and central cities. But that’s not what we observe.

  6. Ryan,

    Ed Glaeser, among others, who has documented that population growth in outer suburbs and rapidly growing Sunbelt cities is largely a function of the elasticity of supply.

    Here’s what Glaeser says about the cause of sprawl, in his paper Sprawl and Urban Growth

    “In this essay, we document that sprawl is ubiquitous and that it is continuing to expand. Using a variety of evidence, we argue that sprawl is not the result of explicit government policies or bad urban planning, but rather the inexorable product of car-based living. Sprawl has been associated with significant improvements in quality of living, and the environmental impacts of sprawl have been offset by technological change.”

    If growth were all demand driven, then prices wouldn’t be any higher in inner suburbs and central cities. But that’s not what we observe.

    You can’t infer anything about demand from price alone. The higher prices in inner suburbs and central cities are the result of their higher densities. If 10 people are competing for a given area of land, the unit price of that land will be higher than if only 5 people are competing. Same supply + more demand = higher price. Since land prices are higher in dense areas, housing prices are higher in dense areas.

  7. Gary, that paper doesn’t really address the question at issue, which is why there is greater population growth in one place relative to another, not what development form that growth takes.

    Your latter paragraph gets the economics badly wrong. Price is not a function of the number of people bidding on a good, but on willingness to pay. Picture an auction where two people who badly want an item bid the price of the item up significantly. Adding additional bidders to the process would only generate a higher final price if the new bidders were willing to pay more for the item than the people already participating.

    Land prices cannot be higher in the center of the city unless people are willing to pay more for the land. Similarly, housing prices in the center of the city can’t be higher than housing prices elsewhere, unless people are willing to pay more to live there. Land prices in dense areas are high because builders know that they can put a lot of homes on such land and charge a high price for those homes.

    Demand supports the high price. If this were not the case, then any landowner offering an urban condo at a significant premium to a much larger residence just a few miles away would be unable to fill it. People pay what they’re willing to pay for a good and no more.

  8. Sprawl is the decentralization of population. Population grows outward rather than through infill and higher density. So the causes of sprawl obviously refers to “why there is greater population growth in one place relative to another.” If Glaeser’s conclusion that sprawl provides people with a better quality of life is correct, it’s not surprising that outer suburbs and exurbs grow faster than inner suburbs and central cities. The growth data from the Washington area is consistent with Glaeser’s conclusion. Despite the huge spending on transit and TOD in Arlington, it has grown much more slowly than the outer suburbs of Loudon and Prince William counties. And no faster than other inner suburbs such as Carroll and Frederick counties.

    And you seem to badly misunderstand the relationship between density and land prices. By definition, higher density means more people per unit area of land. If more people weren’t willing to pay for a share of the land, it wouldn’t be higher density. And the more people there are competing for a given supply of a resource, the higher the unit price of that resource. So land prices tend to rise with density. This isn’t true only in the United States; it’s true everywhere that land is subject to market pricing. It’s basic supply and demand. And because land prices are higher where density is higher, housing prices are higher where density is higher. The market clearing price of high density housing is higher than the market clearing price of low density housing because high density housing costs more to supply.

  9. AG (comment #2), the answer to this question is twofold. First, many of the infrastructure projects in question cross jurisdictional boundaries. Therefore it’s very hard to get all of the relevant entities on board to secure the necessary long-term funding. The financing of such infrastructure projects is simply much smoother and more predictable when arising from a unified source. Second, most state and local governments simply don’t have the money to maintain a consistent funding stream for transportation projects. Because of their balanced budget requirements, the cutbacks in tough times have a procyclical effect, meaning funding streams would dry up and compound the economic harm. Furthermore, they would have to finance their activities through capital bonding, which often carries a significantly higher interest rate than federal t-bills.

    One more point: the increased focus on transit-oriented development would cost a negligible amount of extra money. The key is rejiggering the review mechanisms that make it much easier to get approval for sprawling strip malls than rail lines and transit-oriented development projects.

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