Density. For planners and urban designers helping to create transit-oriented developments (TODs), density is the crucial factor in achieving a critical mass for ridership and a mixed-use walkable environment that will entice people out of their cars. In many cases if planners can’t reach that threshold of density than transit is the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water.
Density continues to be extremely important to the success of transit, and in looking at the largest cities in the U.S., residential and employment density correlate strongly with the percentage of transit modal share. But increasingly, physical access and the walkable environment of a TOD are getting face time in the transit debate. Reconnecting America, arguably the organization taking the lead in TOD, highlights street design, public space design, and connectivity to transit as must-dos. Even if the density threshold is met, in many cases if these urban design principles aren’t used in land use planning, premium transit won’t acquire its maximum ridership.
In working on a corridor plan in southeast Florida, I, along with my project team, are thinking extensively how to retrofit the land use design along a large arterial, that for the majority of its length traverses a low density suburban context. Through our short-term and long-term land use recommendations, we hope that it will be retrofitted to provide better access to the public transportation it currently has, as well as be able to easily become a transit-oriented corridor (TOC) in the near future. In preparing this corridor for its birth as a TOC, we are employing four design principles that I would argue are most effective in creating an environment supportive of transit-oriented development: connectivity, enhancements to the public realm, site orientation, and ground floor design and use.
Connectivity is the degree of which streets, roads, and pedestrian routes are joined together. The more connected the street network through a site, the more access and circulation options are provided. If an urban fabric has a high degree of connectivity, it provides many ways for users to navigate their environment and, in the process, reduces the extent to which all travelers must rely on one route.
Increasing the number of multimodal routes that connect with transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:
- alleviate automobile congestion by providing more navigational choices to users to reach destinations more efficiently,
- allow the corridors to maintain their current width or be narrowed through a road diet to accommodate multimodal forms of transportation , and
- create a physical environment that is conducive to mixed-use development and increase transit ridership.
Public Realm Enhancements
The “public realm” refers to space that is publicly owned, accessible, and maintained. Design enhancements to the public realm along major corridors provide more appropriate facilities for transit, transit-users, and the mixed-uses supportive of transit. Alterations to the public realm along transit-oriented corridors can include improvements to buffers such as landscaping and lighting, enhancement of pedestrian-dedicated space such as sidewalks, and allowance of space for outdoor commercial activities.
Enhancing the public realm along transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:
- encouraging uses to access transit through direct and efficient routes to station facilities,
- providing space for station facilities and supporting public space required of premium transit,
- creating a comfortable environment along the corridor for transit users in between transfers, and
- creating the active public space required for a healthy mixed-use environment
Site orientation is how buildings are located on a site in relationship to the public realm. In the past few decades, especially along commercial corridors that are designed-oriented for the automobile, parking lots have taken precedence over the building’s relationship to the street. In more urban environments that were developed before mainstream use of the automobile, buildings are located adjacent to the street and parking is accommodated on the street or by more modest lots the rear of the building.
Traditional site orientation along transit-oriented corridors has many benefits, most notably:
- creating a sense of enclosure along the street that helps contributes to a comfortable environment for pedestrians,
- achieving a building height-to-street ratio of at least 6:1 to achieve an urban character along the corridor,
- allowing the overlooking of public space, which is instrumental in creating safe environments for people, and
- creating an efficiency in travel for transit users and pedestrians between destinations
Ground Floor Design and Use
Instrumental in creating an urban environment that is conducive to transit-oriented development is an active public realm. Regulating the design and use of the ground floor of buildings adjacent to pedestrian space and transit facilities can have an enormous effect or the safety, comfort ability, and commercial success of the corridor.
Active ground floor spaces can have many benefits, most notably:
- an overlooked a safe environment for pedestrians and transit users
- creating an appealing space with a strong identity that attracts people and business, ie: “placemaking”
A co-worker made the observation that many of the sites that host the low density retail product that we were charged with retrofitting along this corridor often shared the same context, plot size, and density. In our research of the design alternatives for traditional big box sites locally we stumbled across two Targets, one in Tampa and one in Orlando, that illustrate the importance of design principles in development along future transit-oriented corridors.
The Target located on Dale Mabry Highway and I-275 in Tampa was welcomed by many when it was built in 2005. By building stores adjacent to a multi-story parking deck, the design included three times the amount of parking and stores located on the same site. A higher density of development was certainly achieved. It was a different alternative to the typical suburban development that had been seen for the past 4 decades. In this case, I believe “different” might have been substituted with “good,” and for lack of a better example, even considered “urban.”
- Connectivity: The site design does not include any streets through the site and therefore the one access road to the north of the shopping center is congested, contributing to traffic along the corridor
- Public Realm Enhancements: There is no public realm dedicated to pedestrians or cyclists at all in the development, which encourages car usage
- Site Orientation: Instead of orienting the buildings on the site so that the liner building in front of the parking garage fronted the corridor, a surface parking lot and out parcel buildings were placed along the road. The result is a poor quality pedestrian environment with no clear connections to transit
- Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls bordering circulation space and inactive uses like a parking garage contribute no activity to the public realm and creates an inhospitable walking environment
The Target located on Orange Avenue in Orlando however, achieved the same program and density (even more actually) while addressing its urban context and properly employing the four design principles. The difference in the quality of place and access to the urban corridor is absolutely staggering.
- Connectivity: The site design includes two north-south and one east-west through-roads that disperse circulation throughout the site and alleviates congestion on the corridor. This also makes the mixed-uses included in the development more accessible to bordering neighborhoods
- Public Realm Enhancements: Sidewalks in the development and adjacent to neighborhoods are comfortable for pedestrians. Proper buffering is provided by vegetation and on-street parking
- Site Orientation: Instead of placing suburban outparcels along the corridor, buildings are placed directly fronting the sidewalk. While they do not achieve a density desired on a TOD corridor they do create a more urban and walkable character.
- Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls are avoided where possible. Facades that face the public realm are majority fenestration and provide active uses adjacent to open space.
These two development examples illustrate how important required design standards are in achieving a land use and pattern required of transit-oriented design. While many design principles could be put in place along designated transit-oriented corridors, requiring connectivity, a well-designed public realm, active ground floor uses, and site orientation will achieve a high-quality level of development. The below picture shows from a site planning perspective how easily the higher quality development in Orlando could be achieved on the same site in Tampa.
In fact, we realized that this is the case among many Targets, including the one on our corridor in Hollywood, FL.
And the Target in my home town of Charlotte.
We need to remember that “different” doesn’t always mean better. And while we are making progress in achieving a higher density and more program on a site, we could make even a bigger difference on many of our future transit-oriented corridors if we are just aware of how cities as close as an hour away are integrating the same big box products. While density certainly lays the foundation for a rich TOD, its optimal success is dependent on the quality of place achieved by traditional urban design.