Comment: TOD is good for drivers, too
- Published Monday, August 25, 2003, in the Washington Business Journal
Development around transit good for drivers, too
By Hank Dittmar
It's a perennial debate: On the one hand advocates of mass transit
argue that transit is an essential strategy for combating congestion.
On the other, road advocates maintain that since only a minority of
travelers use transit, we're better off expanding roads that serve
most people. What if there was convincing evidence that building
transit benefits everybody, whether or not they use the system?
New evidence just developed for the forthcoming book "The New Transit
Town" begins to make this case. The catch is that it requires both
the construction of a transit system, and an effort by local
government to encourage development around stations. When that's the
case, everybody wins, even people who choose to live in single-family
neighborhoods and drive everywhere they go.
The example is Arlington County, which has pursued a program of
focusing commercial development and multifamily housing within
walking distance of the Rosslyn-Ballston Metrorail Corridor for 30
years while protecting adjacent single-family neighborhoods.
The study, by the consulting firm TransManagement for the national
Center for Transit-Oriented Development, looked at population,
traffic and development trends in Arlington County. The approach has
been quite successful, with 22.5 million square feet of office
development now in place in the corridor, more than 3 million square
feet of retail within walking distance of the five stations, and a
doubling of households over the 30 years. What's more, the trend
shows no sign of abating. Office rents command a premium over other
suburban locations and vacancy rates remain lower. New housing starts
are booming, with more than 1,500 units under construction at this
At the same time, traffic on arterial and neighborhood streets has
not increased commensurate with the development around the stations.
In fact, a survey of new multifamily housing in the corridor yielded
only one auto trip for every six units in the morning peak and one
for every eight units in the afternoon peak hour, far lower than the
average for such projects.
All this development is good news for Metro, which has seen ridership
grow by more than 50 percent. Unlike neighboring Orange Line
stations, where 57 percent of riders arrive by automobile,
necessitating the construction of expensive parking, 73 percent of
Rosslyn-Ballston patrons walk to Metro, with only 13 percent driving.
This is a huge savings for Metro and the taxpayers who subsidize it,
as patrons who walk are the cheapest form of access, requiring
neither a parking space nor subsidized bus service.
The financial results are equally impressive. The development around
the five stations has an assessed value of more than $9 billion,
generating 32.8 percent of the county's real estate tax revenue from
only 7.6 percent of its land area. As a result, Arlington County has
lowest real estate property tax rates of any county in Northern
Virginia -- and that's one way that transit benefits every resident
of the county, whether they use transit or live near MetroRail.
In fact the enduring popularity of transit-oriented real estate in
Arlington County is beginning to cause concern for county officials,
as the high demand is driving prices up. Demographic evidence and
common sense support the conclusion that this comes from demand
exceeding supply, and not some insidious takeover by the gentry.
Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California has estimated
that up to one-third of the demand for new housing over the next
couple of decades is likely to be for townhomes, apartments and other
forms of dense housing, far more than the market is supplying.
As a result, since transit-oriented neighborhoods in Arlington, the
District and Bethesda are in demand, prices go up. The answer is to
increase supply overall through transit-oriented development, and
happily, many jurisdictions are proposing to do just that. Often,
though, nearby residents oppose such projects, fearing added traffic.
Perhaps the Arlington County example can help to convince opponents
of transit-oriented developments that they too gain -- in reduced
taxes, less traffic, and increased access to amenities. Indeed, the
untold part of the Arlington County story is that increased density
near Metro has provided the county with the tax base that allows it
to sustain and enhance existing residential neighborhoods.
The Arlington experiment shows that development around transit is a
key part of the region's tool kit for growth. With MetroRail long
established in the region and the desirability of housing near
transit proven in the marketplace, it is time to get past the auto
vs. transit debate and began to recognize that the region's transit
system is a world-class asset for the Washington region.
Hank Dittmar is president of Reconnecting America, a national
nonprofit organization that seeks to better connect communities
through transportation. Web Site: http://www.reconnectingamerica.org