There He Goes Again

In case you missed it, the final verdict on transit-oriented development is in:

“Displacement Coalition says TOD bad for people, business & environment”

So reads the headline for yet another ludicrous compilation of specious arguments from the ever-prolific Carolee Colter and John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.  Not satisfied only with fear-mongering through mendacious interpretations of the density targets proposed in the “Creating Transit-Oriented Communities” legislation (HB 1490), Colter and Fox are now striving to sow false seeds of doubt about the merits of transit-oriented development itself. Applying the time-tested model of the global warming deniers, their tactic is to raise questions that are irrelevant (e.g. it snowed in London!), but nonetheless appear to be troubling contradictions unless you get beyond a surface level understanding.

For a piece so packed with illogical arguments, false conjecture, and sloppy facts, a full rebuttal is a tedious prospect (like this).  So why bother responding at all?  Because the Colter/Fox noise machine works.  There is no shortage of people who eat it right up (as anyone who was at last week’s Mt. Baker Community Club meeting could attest), and these people have the potential to create significant road blocks to badly needed progress.

In what follows I stick to the overarching flaws in their case, with the hope that commenters will weigh in on some of the gory details.  Though it may be hard to believe (for me, at least), this blog — potty-mouthed name and all — captures a fair share of eyeballs from policy makers.  So if you care about this issue, know that your comments have the potential to be a resource for decision makers.


Right out of the gate, Colter and Fox allege that the benefits of TOD are just another fantasy of those wacky enviros:

“On the surface TOD sounds plausible. But where’s the scientific evidence that it will actually work?”

Of course, this is just a slippery tactic for creating the impression that there is none.  But alas, Carolee and John, that is the farthest thing from the truth.   There are piles of published studies on compact development and TOD that demonstrate the environmental benefits.  One good source is the Urban Land Institute’s recently published book Growing Cooler, which posits a mathematical relationship between density and CO2 emissions based on a wide survey of published literature.  Colter and Fox are either staggeringly ignorant about the topic on which they are writing, or they are liars.

Throughout the rest of the piece the authors disregard their own demand for scientific evidence and proceed to speculate freely about all manner of possible development impacts, while providing nothing in the way of analysis or hard data to support their contention that TOD would do more harm than good.

But here’s the crux of it:  There is a gaping flaw in logic that forms a common thread running all through Colter and Fox’s arguments, and that is their failure to acknowledge the fact that if growth is not accommodated in TOD, it will have to go somewhere else.  Apparently they fantasize that development has magical powers to create growth where there was none before, and that the demographers’ projections of regional population growth will be proven wrong if only TOD could be stopped.   

So for example, the embodied energy sacrificed with the demolition of a building is only part of the story.  For honest accounting, you would have to compare the total impact of the TOD scenario with the total impact of the no TOD scenario.  And no TOD doesn’t  translate to no new construction — the same amount of new housing units would have to be built in some other location.  And since that other location would invariably be less urban and lower density, it is all but certain that TOD would have a lower net environmental impact.

Same goes for the scenario in which a resident is displaced to the suburbs and ends up driving more miles.  Let’s say for example that the redeveloped building could house ten people for every one that lived in the existing building.  What Colter and Fox are ignoring is that if the old building was preserved, then you would end up with ten people forced to live in places where they would have to drive more, instead of just one.

And same again with trees: if you have to provide a given number of new housing units somewhere, and you want to minimize the loss of carbon sequestration by trees, then clearly the best solution is to locate the new housing in an already developed urban area, and build it as dense and as tall as possible.  The result of curtailing TOD would be precisely the opposite of what Colter and Fox contend:  more trees would be lost overall, more viable habitat would be destroyed, and greenhouse gas emissions would increase.  Climate change is not a neighborhood-scale phenomenon.

The Seattle Displacement Coalition has a noble mission, and the impact of redevelopment on the most vulnerable in our communities is an important equity issue. But the babble of Carolee and Fox reveal a mindset trapped in one-issue tunnel vision and remarkably oblivious to the realities of the present day.  If we do not make drastic, systemic changes to the way we live, climate change will displace hundreds of millions of the poor and vulnerable across the globe.  And one of the most promising strategies we have for systemic change is to create compact, mixed-use communities with easy access to high-capacity transit.  That is, TOD.

Affordable housing and TOD are not mutually exclusive, and there are countless smart and dedicated people working on solutions that will help create both.  Too bad the members of the Seattle Displacement Coalition are not among them.