TOD Got Street Cred Yo

The wonky urban planning acronym “TOD” has been flowing across an uncannily wide spectrum of local interwebs as of late.  The debate over sister TOD bills HB1490 and SB5687 has percolated up from the lowliest of blogs to grace the pages of the esteemed  Crosscut, and has even felt the love from the PI’s star opinion maker.  Sally Clark’s public workshop on the legislation got play-by-play coverage from both Publicola and SLOG.  There appears to be a frightening number of wonks in this town.

Through all the buzz over the past several weeks it’s clear that the most sensitive cultural nerve struck by the proposed TOD bills is a distrust of top-down, so-called “one-size-fits-all” planning.  In short, Americans don’t like being told what to do.  And urban planning in particular has a stained reputation stretching back nearly half a century to the heyday of urban renewal — top-down planning in the extreme that for the most part failed miserably.

But all in all, I can only infer that most of the bristling over the proposed TOD legislation is knee jerk reaction driven by inflexible ideology, combined with a myopic underestimation of the crisis we face.

Here’s why:

So far, most of the controversy has swirled around the density stipulations in the proposed legislation.  Yes, an allowed density threshold may be one-size, but it’s a size that’s easy for almost anyone to fit into.  Zoning that allows an average of 50 dwelling units per net acre is completely in line with Seattle’s concept of an urban village, and from the perspective of cities worldwide, it is remarkable only in that it is such a modest a level of density.

Furthermore, the proposal would require only that the average over the entire half-mile radius area meets the threshold.  Local communities would have full control over how the zoning is arranged and divvied up through the the station area.

And furthermore, the density threshold is a minimum only, and as such is inherently not one-size-fits-all, because many station areas will no doubt choose to allow even higher densities (see for example plans for the Bel-Red corridor in Bellevue, with proposals for zoning that would allow building heights up to 150 feet).

The fundamental purpose of an allowable density threshold is to make sure that government regulations do not prevent people who want to live near high capacity transit stations from doing so.  Framing the issue in this way underscores the shallowness of the “top-down” objection.

The bill as originally proposed mandated that parking minimums cannot be required in station areas — it would not ban parking, as some misinformed detractors believe.  In other words, the bill would limit government regulation, and allow individuals to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to build parking.  One might expect that the folks who are wary of the nanny state would be on board with this sort of deregulation, but apparently since it would be coming down from the State level, that makes it unacceptable.

Because the TOD bill would enable higher density development, it is a top-down mandate for more crime!  Now, that would be a powerful criticism but for the fact that it’s based on nonsense.  There is no causal relationship between density and crime rates.  And in fact, it is the deserted streets and neighborhood centers that tend to become havens for street crime.  When more people are out and about in the neighborhood doing legitimate, everyday things, the whole neighborhood becomes safer for everyone — “eyes on the street,” as Jane Jacobs famously called it.  And more density means more eyes. Will this country ever get over it’s anti-urban bias?

Housing Affordability
One thing we know for sure is that housing prices in the new station areas are destined to rise faster than the city average if we do nothing in the way of new regulation, and let the market take its course.  In contrast, the proposed TOD legislation would reduce upward pressure on housing prices for two reasons:  (1) simple supply and demand, and (2) the bill requires affordable housing in new development.

Some folks never seem to tire of making the inane claim that building dense multifamily housing makes single-family housing less attainable for families.  The reality is that the supply created by new multifamily housing lowers demand, and thus helps drive prices down and increase availability for all housing, including single-family.  And this effect more than offsets any single family housing that might be lost to multifamily redevelopment.

Restricting housing options to single-family virtually guarantees expensive homes that will be unaffordable to all but the most wealthy of families.  It would not be the end of the world if some single family zones in the station areas had to be upzoned to meet the density threshold, and the truth is, such upzones would be effective policy for promoting both housing affordability and sustainability.

Regarding reason #2, it couldn’t be any simpler:  Redevelopment is going to happen regardless, but the only way it will include a significant number of affordable units is if it’s mandated by legislation.  Will local governments step up?  Who knows, but right now the State has an unprecedented affordable housing offer on the table.

Here again, one might expect widespread support from the general Seattle populace for a bill that would help ameliorate the City’s affordable housing quandary.  Unfortunately, for many it appears that close-minded bias against the means (i.e. legislation that would encourage higher-density multifamily housing), takes precedence over the achievement of otherwise desired ends.

What’s At Stake
The official name of HB1490 and SB5687 is this:  “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through land use and transportation requirements.”  That is to say, the legislation’s reason for being is the desire of the citizens of Washington State — as expressed through their elected representatives — to address climate change.

But in much of the debate I’ve witnessed, the massively important primary goal of the proposed legislation gets lost in the noise.  The discussion invariably devolves into gripe fests over how the bill may or may not satisfy the unique interests of each and every person who may or may not be affected, or how such a bill must be the work of Satan himself because the sponsors didn’t hold years of stakeholder meetings and obtain a signed permission slip from every neighborhood resident in advance.  It’s as if people believe that the legislation was proposed for the sole purpose of pissing them off.  And through all the complaining, nary a word do we hear about an alternative, realistic proposal for dealing with climate change.

Responding effectively to the threat of climate change will not be painless, and the pain will not be distributed perfectly evenly.  That is the reality of solving a crisis.  Yes, redevelopment around station areas will cause some displacement.  But this is not an intractable problem — the solution is policy that fairly, or better yet overly compensates those displaced.

The situation on the ground increasingly demands that leaders take quick and decisive action.  Unfortunately, it’s getting to the point where we no longer have the luxury of copious time for drawn out, all-inclusive decision-making processes.  That is another reality of solving a crisis.

When the ozone hole was expanding in the 1980s, few expected the federal government to bend over backwards trying to get buy-in from any and all parties who may have been negatively impacted by a ban on CFCs.  We knew what we had to do and we knew we had to do fast.  And the same is true now for climate change.

Land use patterns have multi-faceted, systemic, and persistent impacts on greenhouse gas emissions.  New buildings and infrastructure stay around for 50 to 100 years or more, which makes it all the more critical to immediately stop creating low-density, car-oriented built environments, especially in areas that are served by high-capacity transit.  But here’s the thing:  An allowed density threshold would not mandate this needed change in land use patterns:  it would only insure that regulations do not prevent it.  The proposed TOD bill would not force anyone to do anything.  No developer is going to pursue a dense multifamily housing project in a station area if nobody wants to live in such housing.

The proposed legislation is simply an attempt to establish an urgently needed but relatively modest baseline for sustainable land use patterns in station areas.  That it has received such an antagonistic reception in what is supposedly one of the most progressive cities in the country is a stark indication of how far attitudes have yet to shift before climate change will arouse a response commensurate with the threat.

19 Responses to “TOD Got Street Cred Yo”

  1. Sabina Pade

    Excellently argued, DB.

  2. Cascadian

    Though the TOD bill is not an example of the form, I think you touch on something key when you link resentment and suspicion about top-down planning with opposition to development. One of the key arguments in Jane Jacobs’ book is that cities need to enable more decision-making at the district and neighborhood level. I think the way it should work is that the broad mandates come from the top down, but that the details of development come from the bottom up. In practice this would mean a city would designate the amount of density needed in each district or neighborhood and leave the specific form of that density up to locals working closely with developers. I think if people didn’t feel totally powerless about the buildings going up down the street and actually owned the implementation details without being able to override the actual necessity of development itself, that a lot of NIBYISM would be redirected into local pride and a sense of place.

  3. jcdk

    Man, the crime and parking concerns are the strangest ones for me.

    A couple of “activists” guys in the Columbia City area can’t get over the idea that there isn’t and won’t be a big parking garage near the light rail station. They keep going on about it, even in the context of HB 1490. And then they get all hot and bothered about the crime and social engineering that density will bring. Yet they fail to connect the presence of crime to parking garages – which a quick google of “vancouver skytrain parking lot theft” proves.

    I guess I am a nimby: to big’ol parking garages.

    I hope this TOD bill passes and will be applied to the Rainier Valley – I drove by the Rainier Beach station the other day and saw some big single family homes being built – that’s not right!

  4. spencer

    your argument certainly is good but it is also tinged with judgment and is as myopic as you claim the detractors to be. With the impending situation of climate degradation looming the last thing we need is blaming and name calling. What is missing in my assessment of your argument is how the proponents of density are getting out in the community to educate people on the benefits of density.

    Most of my friends living in Seattle know we need density to continue growing. Some of them even develop multifamily housing here already. I would honestly say all of them support density but with regards to these House Bills most of them can not form opinions on it or do not care because they are not educated well enough to make sound arguments. This is the largest fault I see with the supporters’ process of these bills by not reaching into communities to ensure that the people effected have a solid understand of what is at stake here. So far all I have heard and read are proponents crying about the environment, pointing fingers back at detractors and that there isn’t enough time for community outreach. This seems absurd to me. The more voices proponents can educate properly the better their message can get supported. That was the first take home of the Obamma presidential campaign: empower people, give them a sense of hope and see an opportunity to interact and make a difference. People are much smarter then the advocates I have met and read about give them credit. Advocates seem too quick to judge public opinion based on a few large mouthed individuals willing to stay to the end of some lame public forums. If they would reach deeper into the community to people who did not or are unable to attend these meetings they will begin to see and cultivate more support for what should be done while gaining valuable insight into the certain communities and neighborhoods they are planning to change. That sounds like two birds with one stone…

    Personally, if I had a better understanding of both these bills I could educate and enlist at least ten more people and then they could each get ten more. But, because I am dubious of the stakeholders sincerity to reach out publicly to garner support I, subsequently, question their rush to pass these bills.

    To your credit, you have done a great job of posting some valuable information on this subject to clarify a few questions most people have but I sometimes wonder if your missing the forest through the trees. The details are what we all seem to be arguing about [see the above comment from jcdk] but as you have alluded to it is the big picture we need to address which is carbon reduction. It isn’t mandating TOD. It isn’t more multifamily housing. It isn’t parking garages. Those are all details. What we are talking about it our carbon impact. By reaching out to people, their communities, and social groups I guarantee proponents of these bills will gain a stronger, warmer reception because they are showing up to empower people act rather than directing people to act. This will also lead to people changing smaller parts of their daily lives that will decrease their carbon footprint [and I bet have a larger impact on carbon reduction then TOD]. What a deal!

  5. chrismealy

    Having just returned from the Pearl District in Portland, all I care about is the quality of density, not the density itself. I didn’t see any this bullshit there:

  6. JoshMahar


    I think this bill is exactly what you are asking for. It is a broad set of guidelines that the community is able to use to make their neighborhood look how they want. All that it really does from my understanding is put some protections in so that there’s at least some density and not all SFH, that some of the development is affordable, and that there remains at least some amenities like green space.

    The half mile radius allows communities to pick and choose how and where they want their density and affordable housing units to go. Most of them have upzoned areas anyway around the arterials, so its not all that big of a difference.

    Also, the parking was to get rid of minimums. That is not to say that every single developer can’t put parking in, but if some creative and forward thinking developer wanted to make a non-parking affordable housing unit. They could do that.

    Remember that any major development will be subject to design review, and no doubt we can argue the merits of that, but the community is able to dialogue directly with any developer and bring concerns about stuff there.

  7. Beal

    Spencer –
    The notion that we should fault the policy because of the process is truly the Seattle disease. It’s utter bullshit that you would essentially say to the non-profits working so hard on this legislation: it isn’t enough that you are doing the right thing for the environment and for our society, no, no, first you must spend time and resources that you don’t have explaining to people why this is the right thing for the environment and for our society. Then, years later, once you have buy-in from everyone, then you can move forward with saving the world.
    The comparison to Obama is absurd. That campaign wasn’t an effort led by a handful of underpaid and overworks folks working at non-profits — it was a highly financed strategy that started in 2004 with an opportune televised address. Yes, Obama broke ground on the grassroots organizing front, but to suggest that we now should apply such a standard for public involvement on all policy decisions is recipe for inaction.
    So, Spencer, and all of Seattle for that matter, stop crying about the fucking process and start talking about the actual policy. What I see in these bills are some critical provisions to promote the right type of growth, preserve affordability, and protect the environment — all of which are time sensitive. And that all seems pretty important regardless of who came up with the ideas in the first place. Why cant we judge the merit of these bills on their substance?

  8. Justus

    @ Beal: “Why cant we judge the merit of these bills on their substance?”

    Because that’s just not how it works. Bills are never judged only on their merit; they succeed or fail based on their ability to gather broad support – that’s the process.

    That said, your frustration is (imo) totally valid. Dan really hit the nail on the head with the mini-rant about how here in Seattle, we want everything to benefit everyone, all the time. You can see in the weird nativist NIMBY-ism of the Crosscut crowd, and our culture of ‘polite’, an uneasiness about urbanization, and a fear that change = destruction.

    Dan, great post – thank you. Re: crime, you’re not quite right that density and crime have no correlation, but the stronger correlation is of course with poverty. If these station areas succeed as developments, and are designed well, crime in the area should fall.

  9. Beal

    Justus, I know, and agree, that’s how things work. I’m just disheartened to see good ideas get shot down, to never even get a chance sometimes, because of the process.
    And Spencer seems like a smart enough guy, judging by his taste in blogs, that he could have learned about this bill himself, and then went out to get 10 of his friends to support it, and then 10 of their friends, as he suggests he could have done…instead of sitting back and saying that he won’t lift a finger because the proponents didn’t make sufficient effort to reach out to him. In short, he could make a difference, “because [he is] dubious of the stakeholders sincerity to reach out publicly to garner support” (i.e., he didn’t like the process), he wont.
    That’s more than frustrating. It’s reprehensible.

  10. max

    People would take this blog much more seriously if you didn’t act like it was a joke 3/4 of the time. A joke from 2001 at that.

  11. dan bertolet

    OK Max. But then I’d have to rename the entire blog, no? It’s a debate that I’ve been having with myself ever since I first decided on the name. I made a deliberate choice to make the blog informal and unpredictable, and hopefully a little less deadly boring than many planning blogs tend to be. And so I created a monster.

    Oh, and people might take you a little more seriously if you used your full name. Same goes for the rest of you wimpy anonymous commenters!

  12. spencer


    I totally get where you are coming from and I almost changed my mind until your second post. What a jacka$$ you are for stooping to a personal assumptive attack. I certainly understand where these bills are coming from. I support what they do in my work and my off time but it is hard for me to jump on the band wagon when people like you are so quick to plunge a dagger to the neck of any detractor. You should take applause for making my point so utterly clear. You assumptive nature and judgmental comments only make your arguments weaker. By marginalizing people you only reduce your own credibility.

    With that said, give me one good reason why we shouldn’t be out on the streets empowering people with education to support the good things in these bills? With the support of a majority people we will never need bills like these. These great things will just happen because of their merit and will.

  13. Andrew

    I think the combination of levity and seriousness here is refreshing.

  14. Kathryn

    Consider studying up on TOD

  15. dan bertolet


    Al Gore won the Nobel Prize. The environmental benefits of compact development have been widely covered in the mainstream media:

    How severe does a crisis have to get before the responsibility for understanding what’s going on falls on the individual? And how severe does a crisis have to get before the people who do understand it have no choice but to take action, regardless of whether or not everyone else has bothered to figure out what’s going on?

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