Transit Oriented Development: Great and working, but how well and where?

It is commendable that Chicago recently initiated a policy called “Transit Oriented Development” or TOD, which allows developers to avoid the 1:1 ratio of parking spots to rental units in residential buildings and build less than otherwise required. The success and popularity of the new ordinance has proven many skeptics wrong. Indeed a new set of TOD projects going up in Chicago indicates there is no intention for developers to ignore the ordinance. Like so many new steps being taken in Chicago, this is one worth celebrating, however there is a clear lack of creativity in how the ordinance was designed and in its implementation. As more developers look to take advantage of the ordinance and more community advocates seek ways to increase economic viability in their neighborhoods and make for more sustainable living patterns revisions in the ordinance should be considered allowing maximum advantage.

At a community meeting I attended recently it was brought to my attention that because of urban geography some areas that might be ripe for TOD projects will get cut short because of the 600 foot entrance-to-entrance distance limit for TOD status. The limit means the entrance from the transit stop must be no more than 600 feet to the entrance of the development. In a place like Jefferson Park for example, the entrance to the transit stop at the Jefferson Park Transportation Center, is behind a large bus terminal with multiple stops eating up a good chunk of the 600 feet range for TOD projects.*

The 600 foot range for TOD (1200 feet combined with a “p-street”) is quite frankly not a creative enough design for this ordinance. It needs a level of malleability that allows for more customized TOD projects appropriate to the area they are built in. The TOD requirements should go beyond just asking “is there an “L” stop or a Metra station” to asking “is there also Divvy available? If not, will there be in the near future or can there be Divvy available in the near future?” as well as “what non-Divvy bike infrastructure exists?” The ordinance should take into account an area’s “p-street” status, the ability to incorporate that status into other transportation projects, and current walkability scores. Adding new Divvy stations or bike infrastructure could be contingent for TOD projects. The availability of parks or schools, bus routes, and service frequency should all be considered as well. Asking such questions could be used to create an ordinance with multiple possible TOD project area ranges.

This map shows the lots where TOD is possible around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago's Northwest Side.

This map shows the lots where TOD is possible around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

This map is the CTA's transit map showing the same area around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago's Northwest Side. The red circle shows the TOD area around this stop. The blue circles show TOD areas around other nearby transit stops ("L" and Metra). Notice how all the others include one or more CTA and/or Pace bus routes.

This is the CTA’s transit map showing the same area around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The red circle shows the TOD area around the Forest Glen station. The blue circles show TOD areas around other nearby transit stops (“L” and Metra) for comparison. Notice how all the others include one or more CTA and/or Pace bus routes.

In all instances the current ordinance should be kept in place (basic TOD, an “L” or Metra stop, but no other explicit transit options), but with extensive expansion.

A potential model could look like this: the lowest common denominator (TOD Level 1) of combined transportation models needed in one location to justify TOD designation should be access to a Metra stop, at least two bus routes one of which is a Night Owl** route, and ideally a Divvy station. At the most basic level the TOD ordinance would apply like it currently does. The key difference is a “p-street” or buffered or barrier-protected bike lanes would allow that range to extend to 1200 feet, not just the “p-street” designation. In instances when one or more additional bus routes pass within a 1200 foot range of the node transit stop–that is when there is also a “p-street” or bike lanes–the potential range would be allowed to extend an additional 600 feet (to 1800 feet).

The next level (TOD Level 2) would be any “L” stop with one or two adjacent CTA bus routes passing one of which being a Night Owl route. In this case, the TOD area may be extended along the Night Owl route up to 2400 feet from the “L” stop. A “p-street” designation and/or buffered or barrier protected bike lanes would still extend the TOD range to 1200 feet and one or more additional bus routes would allow an additional extension of 600 feet (to 1800 feet total). If the latter circumstances exist, the range along Night Owl bus routes could also be extended another 600 feet to a total 3000 feet from the node transit stop.

This chart shows the progressive expansion of TOD ranges depending on the mix of available transit options. Green = current TOD ordinance; Orange = TOD Level 1; Blue = TOD Level 2; Red = TOD Level 3

This chart shows the progressive expansion of TOD ranges depending on the mix of available transit options. Green = current TOD ordinance; Orange = TOD Level 1; Blue = TOD Level 2; Red = TOD Level 3

The largest TOD areas (TOD Level 3) would be centered on spots where a CTA “L” is adjacent to at least two bus routes, including one Night Owl service, and a Metra station. In this area designation, the automatic range for TOD developments would be 1200 feet. If a “p-street” and/or buffered or barrier-protected bike lanes exist that range would extend to 1800 feet. Along regular service bus routes that run “late night” (until 12:30 AM) Monday to Saturday the TOD designation could be extended up to 3000 feet from the node transit stop with or without a “p-street” designation and/or said bike lanes. If TOD Level 3 applies, TOD areas could extent 3600 feet from the node transit stop along Night Owl bus routes. At least two Divvy stations within 1 mile of the node would be required for this designation.

The fact of the matter is that all these areas exist already. The intersections of Fullerton and Pulaski adjacent to the Metra Milwaukee District North line in Hermosa, Western and Grand near the Western Metra station, and the Brainerd Metra stop (two blocks from Ashland and two south of 87th) along the Metra Rock Island all posse the combination of transit options described for TOD Level 1. The intersection of 63rd and Ashland adjacent to the Green Line, the intersections of Pulaski and Cermak along the Pink Line, at the intersection of Division, Milwaukee, and Ashland in Wicker Park all have the prescribed mix for TOD Level 2. The area around the Irving Park stops at Irving Park and Pulaski and the area around the Jefferson Park Transportation Center all fall into the TOD Level 3 category.

The aim of the models I propose are intended to work with what exists and mark the areas where the best possible combinations of transit allow TOD to not just succeed, but thrive. Realistically, it is unreasonable to think TOD will work in places like Forest Glen along the Forest Glen Metra stop on the Milwaukee District North line. Trains stop once hourly, there are no bus stops immediately adjacent, and unless more transit options or better connections are established it just doesn’t seem like a place where TOD development will happen successfully. If you look at “L” stops along side streets though, such as in Ravenswood Manor along the Brown Line, the availability of other transit options is unnecessary to make TOD functional. Train run frequently, they run through very walkable and dense areas close to more active areas with entertainment and shopping. Recognizing this fact, I think, is important in adjusting the ordinance to work in different urban environments. Malleability, creativity, and a recognition of life’s realities will make a more impactful ordinance.

The last point I made here, that TOD simply will not work in some areas because other transit options simply are not available should not be seen as a defeat for TOD, but rather act as an impetus to push even further. The end goal should be to recognize how to both maximize the areas where TOD is effective and maximize the development possibilities while simultaneously acknowledging areas of weakness then looking to improve that. Areas with extensive transit options spread over large areas, like Lawrence Avenue from Kimball east to the Union Pacific North Ravenswood stop could be turned into entire TOD disctricts–or, let’s say, the entirety of the Loop! This might also include requirements that improved bike infrastructure will be included, expansions to the bus system, increased train frequency along Metra routes and so on. The surface has only been scratched, but the momentum is there like never before to really push forward better TOD options and calls for better transit options in in at least some areas of the city.

*This is based on how Alderman John Arena, 45th Ward explained the situation.

**These routes run 24/7.