Transit Oriented Development

It's a normal Wednesday afternoon. You walk outside to grab groceries at the store down the street, stopping at a park along the way to soak in a bit of sun. Later, you'll meet your friends at a mall close by, taking the metro that's within a 10-minute walk of your house. Sounds nice, right? If this is already your reality, it's likely you live in an area prioritized for transit-oriented development. If not, maybe you'll see one soon! Transit-oriented development is catching on in many US cities. Let's see what the hype is all about. 

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Table of contents

    Transit-Oriented Development: Definition

    Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the planning and construction of communities in greater density around or close to public transit stations (i.e. bus, tram, and metro stops). Peter Calthorpe first coined the term 'transit-oriented development' in 1993 to describe the pattern of building dense, walkable, and mixed-use style communities around transit stops in North America.1 TOD is meant to directly address suburban sprawl and invest in a new way of life, where walking, cycling, and public transit use are the main transportation modes.

    The focal point of TOD is accessibility to transit, which increases connectivity to other parts of a city while decreasing the environmental costs of car use. Although the concept has been around for decades now, only a handful of cities have passed ordinances in recent years for TOD. There are multiple reasons for this, namely the expansion of suburban sprawl and the historical decline in transit use in the US.

    Transit Use in the US

    The combination of suburban sprawl and car dependency stands in complete contrast to transit-oriented development. In the US, public transit use has been decreasing for decades, with only 5% of commuters using these services.3 Public transit use is primarily used by those who can't afford a car -- lower-income and minority groups. Further, 45% of Americans don't have access to public transportation.2 This is because many people live in suburban developments which require the use of a car to get to work, school, or other services. With low figures, it's difficult for transit companies to make revenue and investment in expanding their services.

    This wasn't always the case. Before the expansion of private automobiles, public streetcars and buses were common forms of transportation in cities. As car ownership increased between the 1920s and 1970s, so did suburban sprawl and the exodus of people away from urban centers. Still, workers had to commute back to cities for jobs and other services. With increased street traffic, buses and streetcars lost their advantage in speed and reliability. As a result, there was a sharp decrease in transit ridership, and services were cut.

    Transit Oriented Development Paved track lines in Oakland CA Transit Oriented Development Definition StudySmarterFig. 1 - Paved track lines in Oakland, CA, USA; Many track lines were paved over in US cities as more cars filled the streets

    Given these issues, transit-oriented development serves to address both urban and transportation problems. Although there have been noticeable drops in transit ridership in most US cities, there are some transit networks that have been more successful. For instance, Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake City have been prioritizing neighborhood growth around transit areas and have seen higher ridership rates—in other words, successful transit-oriented development!

    Transit-oriented development originally took the form of urban densification projects in Europe. Copenhagen took the lead on this in the mid-1990s, after witnessing decades of the negative effects of urban sprawl and automobile dependency (i.e. air pollution, loss of life in city centers, segregation).

    The logic was that shorter distances between urban functions improved energy efficiency and had to be achieved by concentrating urban development projects around railway stations to stem social segregation, city financing issues, and environmental externalities. This was in contrast to the perception many people had at the time: congestion, crime, and pollution make cities uninhabitable.

    Fast forwarding to now, Copenhagen is considered one of the most sustainable cities in the world. This is due in part to the success of transport-oriented development projects, but also local community investment in creating lively areas within those developments.

    Transit-Oriented Development: Concept

    There are several vital components and elements for successful transit-oriented development. These include plans for both public transit and urban planning that should be designed together and are based on Calthorpe's research.1 Density is a key component, with the construction of buildings, jobs, and activities in close proximity to each other.

    Transit Oriented Development Features of Transit Oriented Development Transit Oriented Development Concept StudySmarterFig. 2 - Features of Transit-Oriented Development

    Along with density, diversity in land use is necessary to ensure people have the opportunity to walk to areas they need to get to. Another term for this is mixed land use, which combines residential, commercial, recreational, and other services in close proximity (on the same street or block). Street design should encourage walking, ideally with urban grids.

    Thresholds for walking, in this case, are required. Based on several sources, areas within a 10-minute walk or roughly half a mile (800m) should be targeted for development. This is because people are more likely to walk and use transit stops within this time frame and distance. Transit should also have high frequency and speed for people to rely on the service.

    Transit Oriented Development Cross-plan for street design Transit Oriented Development Concept StudySmarter

    Fig. 3 - A cross-plan for street design in Transit Oriented Development by TUMI

    Benefits of Transit-Oriented Development

    TOD fulfills the criteria for sustainable design by addressing social, economic, and environmental components of urban development. Unfortunately, few cities in the US have expanded and planned for TOD. The bulk of recorded benefits is primarily in Europe.

    An increase in walking, cycling, and transit use would reduce the need for cars, and therefore reduce car emissions. The reduction in car emissions would benefit the environment by improving air quality. Ideally, TOD would include green areas which would also contribute to air and water quality.

    Economically, TOD would be less expensive than suburban sprawl. This is because there would be greater efficiency in building roads and providing municipal services (i.e. sewage, water, electricity). Businesses would also be more accessible, requiring a transit ride or a walk down the street to reach them.

    The social benefits can include a higher quality of life if areas are planned well with placemaking elements. The ability to walk and cycle to places provides an opportunity for a healthier way of life. Public spaces such as parks and plazas can be built, with options for social events or other forms of public engagement.

    Transit-Oriented Development: Examples

    Transit-oriented development looks different in cities around the world. While European cities continued their densification plans in cities, American cities built more sprawl and designed roads exclusively for cars. Changing this process is difficult—but not impossible!

    Seattle's Transit-Oriented Development

    Seattle, Washington is a mid-sized city of less than a million people but is growing rapidly and experiencing housing affordability issues and suburban expansion. Seattle took inspiration from other cities (namely, Vancouver) and began expanding transit services and new urban development projects. A light rail system began operating in 2009, with 'transit communities' as the focus for new development (i.e. transit-oriented development).

    This is similar to previous community developments along streetcar tracks in the early 1900s which created present-day historic neighborhoods in downtown Seattle.

    The city wants to bridge the gap between housing and transportation by reducing the need for cars for day-to-day activities. This has the potential to save households thousands in transport costs a year. It should be noted, cars are not meant to be eliminated altogether but reduced in their use throughout the city.

    Transit Oriented Development Othello Station in Seattle WA Transit Oriented Development Examples StudySmarterFig. 4 - Othello Station in Seattle, WA, USA; The apartments in the background were built as part of TOD in the area

    Dallas' Transit-Oriented Development

    Dallas, Texas is a sprawled city of over a million people and part of the greater Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area. Heavy car dependency, low population density across the city, and single-use zoning are major challenges for Dallas' TOD projects. Still, the city is interested in increasing ridership rates along transit lines within the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system.

    DART and the city have targeted empty lots and underdeveloped land to build mixed-land-use projects and denser residential areas. The struggle for heavily sprawled cities is to reverse course on single-use zoning strategies to prioritize density and public transit use. Even though ridership hasn't been significantly affected, land values and economic activities in these areas have increased.

    Disadvantages of Transit-Oriented Development

    There are some disadvantages of TOD having to do with accessibility and gentrification. Development around transit stops usually occurs within core areas in cities where land prices are the highest. This can make it very costly and unaffordable for many to be able to rent or buy homes within TOD design. This is especially concerning for people who need public transit the most—lower-income and minority groups.

    Expansion of TOD into historically underserved areas can also increase the likelihood of gentrification. Because gentrification occurs in areas of cities where lower-income and minority groups were pushed to live in, these areas are also the closest to other businesses and services. A transit stop in close proximity is likely to lead to more investment and redevelopment in the area, spurring gentrification.

    Mitigating the negative externalities that follow TOD includes developing homes that can be rented at affordable rates to vulnerable groups. This can ensure that the original character of the area is preserved. Encouraging community investment by assisting small and medium-sized businesses to build and operate in these areas can also help keep financing within trusted sources.

    Transit-Oriented Development - Key takeaways

    • Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the planning and construction of communities in greater density around or close to public transit stations (i.e. bus, tram, and metro stops).
    • Transit use has been decreasing for decades in the US, but transit-oriented development has the possibility of increasing walkability and public transit ridership.
    • The key components of TOD are density, diversity, walkable street design, development within a 10-minute walk of a station, and high frequency and speed of transit.
    • TOD fulfills sustainable design elements by providing sustainable environmental, economic, and social benefits.
    • Possible disadvantages of TOD include affordability issues for homes in developed areas and gentrification.


    1. Calthorpe, P. The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 1993.
    2. American Public Transportation Association. Public Transportation Facts.
    3. Freemark, Y. "US Public Transit Has Struggled to Retain Riders over the Past Half Century. Reversing This Trend Could Advance Equity and Sustainability." Urban Institute. June 25, 2021.
    4. Fig. 3, A cross-plan for street design Transit Oriented Development (, by Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    5. Fig. 4, Othello station in Seattle, WA, USA (, by SounderBruce (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Transit Oriented Development

    What is transit oriented development?

    Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the planning and construction of communities in greater density around or close to public transit stations (i.e. bus, tram, and metro stops).

    What is an example of transportation oriented development?

    An example of transit-oriented development are the transit communities in Seattle, WA.

    Does transit oriented development work?

    Transit-oriented development works if vital elements and design components are adhered to. Historically sprawled cities will have a harder time seeing the success of transit-oriented development. 

    Does transit oriented development attract diverse households?

    Transit-oriented development can attract diverse households but there are concerns about affordability and possible gentrification from the development.

    Why is transit oriented development important? 

    Transit-oriented development is important as a sustainable design model for cities to grow along transport corridors. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is transit oriented development?

    What is transit oriented development meant to address?

    Public transit is used a lot in the US and most people have access to it.


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