Transit-Oriented Communities: A Blueprint for Washington State

What you best be doing next Tuesday, October 27, from 4 to 8pm, is this: Drinking beer and talking the wonk about transit-oriented communities. Because that’s when there’s gonna be a release party and AIA exhibit opening for a new report called Transit-Oriented Communities: A Blueprint for Washington State, written by Futurewise and its partners GGLO and Transportation Choices Coalition. Details here and here.

Some may recall a little brouhaha over HB1490, a.k.a. the TOD bill, during the 2009 legislative session, when the evil social engineers at Futurewise tried to mandate that every Seattle neighborhood would have to become as dense as Mumbai or lose City snow-plow service. Or something.

Seriously though, the Blueprint was inspired in part by the HB1490 experience, which demonstrated the need to educate the public and address the concerns of community members. The report reviews the social and environmental benefits of TOC, proposes a typology and performance metrics, examines the potential for TOC on the ground in the Central Puget Sound region, and proposes policy actions that would help foster TOC.

This report is chock full of wholesome wonky/planful/urban designy goodness—I should know because I helped write it. Since in a past life I was an electrical engineering researcher, I took on a lot of the techy stuff, such as energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  My science background has left the indelible stamp of a skeptic on my brain, but the more I learned about the relationships between GHGs and land-use patterns, the stronger the case became.

Below is a little sample from the “Evidence” section of the Blueprint, that goes with the bar chart porn at the top of the post:

A 2000 Canadian study of the Toronto area modeled the effects of socioeconomic makeup, location, and neighborhood design on GHG emissions from vehicles.   The results are summarized above, and show that the both urban form and distance to the central business district have a significant impact on household GHG emissions. For example, in the “inner area” case, GHG emissions from households in a neo-traditional neighborhood (residential density = 102 units per acre) are half that of households in the traditional suburban neighborhood (residential density = 9 units per acre).

13 Responses to “Transit-Oriented Communities: A Blueprint for Washington State”

  1. Sara Nikolic

    May I add a little excerpt from the preface? And if you think this is too long and wordy, just wait until you see the full report (available online next week at

    During the legislative session, Futurewise and Transportation Choices Coalition board members and staff attended dozens of meetings with community members, planners and policymakers in the Seattle region to discuss the provisions of the bill. While most meeting participants expressed support for the intent of the legislation, many expressed concerns over the impacts of the specific provisions. In general, these concerns fell into three broad categories:

    • What is the need—in terms of population growth and environmental challenges—to promote transit-oriented community patterns over conventional land use patterns?
    • What evidence supports the environmental and social benefits we can expect to achieve through the minimum thresholds set out in HB 1490 and SB 5687?
    • What do TOC look like? How will these provisions change my neighborhood?

    This report responds to these concerns by laying out a detailed case for TOC through: analysis of population and growth trends in Washington State, data linking TOC to social and environmental outcomes, performance-based measures for planning for TOC, images and case studies to help visualize TOC, local, state and federal policy actions needed to support more TOC, and appendices with additional resources for citizens, planners and policymakers.

    It is our hope that this document will contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation about land use, housing and transportation policy decisions as our state population grows. We firmly believe that we must grow in a manner that protects our environment and promotes social equity, and that we should do so while also promoting a greater quality of life for everyone in our cities. And we believe that TOC are a vital strategy to help that happen. We look forward to the continued dialogue.

  2. Tony the Economist

    So, let me get this straight, an 11-fold increase in density AND an ideal location gives you a 50% reduction in GHG emissions? That’s really not the most cost-effective way to do it. Even if you somehow manage to marshal the political will to impose this vision on society, the suburbs still exist. The social, financial and environmental cost of demolishing them and either rebuilding them as dense communities or returning them to nature would outweigh any GHG benefit you could derive.

    Solving climate change is actually fantastically easy. A simple carbon tax at the national level, phased in over about a decade plus some federal money for R&D and, viola! Problem solved, and at about a tenth the cost (at the highest) of trying to do it through land use reform.

    This climate change issue makes a convenient political cover for convincing a hyper liberal city like seattle to embrace your particular vision for land use, but you seem to have forgotten that this is also a hyper educated, hyper literate city. That means we can see through the rouse. You won’t get far.

    That said, I love TOC and I hate cars. Cars are noisy, create smog, require ungodly amounts of space, cost a fortune, undermine social equity, increase physical and social stress, facilitate overconsumption, devastate local retail, make functional walking nearly impossible in most neighborhoods and kill thousands of people every year. There are countless reasons to move away from auto-dependence and toward TOC. Global warming is the least persuasive and all this emphasis on climate change simply distracts attention from all the other, much more persuasive reasons to support TOC, AND it distracts attention from all the much, much more effective solutions to global climate change, like carbon taxes.

    It also feeds right into the frame created by the auto-warriors that proponents of TOC want people to sacrifice, to give up their freedom and prosperity for the greater good. Nothing could be farther from the truth. TOC is not a sacrifice. Done well, transit oriented communities provide more freedom, more mobility, more opportunity, more prosperity, less stress, higher quality of life and greater social equity. We are not asking people to give up anything, but to gain everything. It’s long past time that we started making that case.

  3. Tony the Economist

    I should clarify. It appears that this report does actually go well beyond the GHG implications of TOC, and does touch on at least some of the dozens of other reasons that TOC is a good idea. Kudos on that. However, GHG should be a footnote at best compared to all the other reasons. GHG is a red herring. It is cheapening the debate and giving much more fodder to your enemies than you imagine.

  4. Sara Nikolic

    Tony – I think it will give folks plenty of reading material on non-GHG reasons that TOC are a good idea, although there is a fair amount on GHG too. Here is an overview of the Evidence chapter:

    There is an extensive and growing body of published research providing evidence that well-designed TOC can lead to a range of substantial social and environmental benefits. In brief, TOC have the potential to:

    • Promote health by encouraging walking and biking, cutting air pollution, and reducing motor vehicle accidents;
    • Lower household expenses for both transportation and housing;
    • Reduce municipal infrastructure costs;
    • Provide a high return on public investment in transit infrastructure;
    • Help meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods;
    • Curb land consumption and thereby help conserve working farms and forests, and protect natural ecosystems and water quality; and
    • Cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with both transportation and the built environment.

  5. City Comforts

    Do you really think that a nation which elected GW Bush twice is motivated to “eat its spinach” because it is good for them?

  6. City Comforts

    Let me expand just a bit.

    It is intuitively obvious that living closer together is going to save resources. People get that.

    What people don’t get is that urbanism is fun. In fact, the vast majority of the people in this country have never (seriously) spent time in a real urban environment — be it neighborhood or city. Their impressions of urbanity are formed by Fox news and visits to whatever “Aurora Avenue” is nearby. “Main Street” is largely gone from the collective memory.

    The best thing which can happen for urbanism in the USA is for the rich and famous to move into town in droves. (Which is happening.) People ape the rich and their habits. “People” magazine ought to be urged to have a real estate section so that the masses (“students and workers”) can see how people who can live anywhere live.

    In fact I think that general trend is underway. The task now in many locales is to show at the detail level of the individual project (of course we won’t see a lot of those for the next few years) what urbanism means.

    Policy is important but doesn’t move the masses.

    OK, yes it is important at the policy level. I guess I just find that name TOD (or TOC) so dry and wonkish that it annoys me. I certainly don’t want to live in TOD; I want a traditional city neighborhood. May boil down to the same thing but sure sounds different.

  7. Sivalinga

    By all means! Let’s all expand just a bit.

  8. Ross

    Politically speaking, a lot has to do with the type of density. To summarize, there are three types of places:

    1) Apartments/Condos
    2) Houses on small lots
    3) Houses on big lots

    Of course, in reality, there is a big mix. A lot of density in the suburbs has occurred with the addition of big apartment buildings.

    Houses on small lots have been very popular for a long time. A house in San Fransisco costs a bundle. A place in Berkeley, a little less, but still quite pricey. A lot of people move to the suburbs not because they want a big yard and the space but because they can’t afford a house in the city.

    Apartment and Condo city living has increased in popularity in the last twenty years. Likewise, its portrayal on T.V. has also improved (e. g. “Friends”, “Frasier”, etc.). However, small houses on small lots is rarely featured. Instead, people are led to believe that we must choose between a house in Lynnwood (with a big lot) and a condo in Belltown. What many people want, of course, is a little house on Phinney Ridge. If they can’t afford that (and most can’t) they would like to buy a house like that in a neighborhood like that. Unfortunately, they usually can’t. If you move to Lynnwood, the houses (and more importantly, the lots) are not like that. Selling this type of development in places like Lynnwood would make all housing more affordable and more desirable. As much as I would like to see more density in (central) Seattle, I would really like it if the suburbs (or outer reaches of the city) had lots of smaller houses on smaller lots. I think this type of development should be promoted as much as possible.

  9. MJH

    I might also suggest reading ULI’s recently released “Moving Cooler” report, which was compiled by Cambridge Systematics. It is a companion piece to the previously published “Growing Cooler” and focuses on transportation. And it is for the serious wonk, make no mistake about it. Several individual strategies come out ahead of land-use related strategies to reduce GHG in terms of cost and overall impact, including raising the cost of fuel (increased taxing), reducing highway speed limits, and can’t remember what else. One might make the leap and assume that doing these two things (and maybe throw in tolling for good measure) might make living in the burbs slightly less attractive due to increased cost of driving and travel times.

    We don’t have to force people to “embrace the vision”, we just need to hit their pocket books. People will either choose to drive more efficient vehicles, carpool more, take transit, or move to a transit-oriented community.

    Transit-supportive land use is clearly a critical piece of the puzzle, as is a carbon tax. After reading “Moving Cooler” the idea that it’s going to take many different strategies to address climate change is ever more clear.

  10. Bill B

    could you folks stop playing Robert Moses and get back to critiquing the CRAP that our design professionals are dumping on this city.

    who is on the DRB that let this pablum through??

  11. dan cortland

    man the lifeboats!

  12. dan cortland

    Bill B@10: You can find them here.

  13. Transit-Oriented Communities Event Tonight | hugeasscity

    […] Don’t forget about the Futurewise/GGLO/Transportation Choices Coalition Blueprint for Transit-Oriented Communities launch event tonight from 4–6pm at the Pike Brewing Company in Pike Place Market, followed by an opening reception from 6–8pm at the Design Gallery at AIA Seattle on First Ave between Virginia and Stewart.  More info here.  […]

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