SF Biz Times: no proof that TOD worksTransit-oriented development has been a Bay Area buzzword for the last 15 years, heralded as the best weapon against the housing crisis, gridlocked traffic and widening sprawl.
Across the region, developers have pushed dozens of TOD projects into urban centers and far-flung suburbs alike, from Oakland’s Fruitvale Village to Walnut Creek. Meanwhile in Sacramento, the idea has grown legislative legs in proposals that would spur development near high-frequency transit stops.
“TOD is not only the rage, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Brian Fitzpatrick, real estate and property manager at SamTrans. “Get people closer to their jobs, get people closer to transit.”
It “just makes sense,” as AvalonBay senior vice president Nathan Hong put it.
But for all the chatter, a lack of comprehensive data about how Bay Area TOD projects have fared — in terms of transit use, traffic reduction or quality of life for residents — makes it difficult to keep transit-oriented development aligned to its lofty goals.
There’s minimal Bay Area-specific data to guide decisions about key issues like parking, amenities and transit access. Developers and planners are often left to follow their hunches.
“It’s interesting how much money we’ve put into TOD projects and encouraging them … but how little we really know about the success of them, and also how little strategy we have with TOD in the region,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of nonprofit Livable City who served as a BART director from 1996 to 2016.
(Not) tracking success
The big-picture idea behind TOD is to get people out of their cars. Research has shown that people living near transit are about five times more likely to use it than the average commuter in the same city.
But no comprehensive data tells us how effective TOD sites have been at moving the needle in the Bay Area, said Kate White, planning leader for Arup and former state housing and environmental official. Instead, TOD studies are “piecemeal,” she said, spliced between the state’s 28 different transit agencies and often limited in scope.
Even collecting basic inventory of TOD projects can be difficult for staff-starved public agencies, said BART’s TOD program manager Abigail Thorne-Lyman. This year, BART has kicked off a study with UC Berkeley to survey residents’ transit patterns within a quarter-mile of its stations — for the first time since 2004.
“It’s really hard to monitor and collect this information, and it can take several years,” Thorne-Lyman said. “In terms of ‘does it work’ — do people actually take BART? — that requires tailored survey work that’s pretty resource-intensive.”
Some developers track anecdotal data about their own projects, but few with any consistency. AvalonBay Communities, for example, conducted a commuting survey at its 422-unit project in Walnut Creek in 2017, finding that about 42 percent of residents reported using BART daily.
But many outside studies about parking needs and desirable TOD amenities are already several years outdated by the time they’re published, said Hong of AvalonBay.
“It would definitely help if there was more parking usage data, for example, that tracked things year-over-year — it would help pick up a lot of information on how people live, travel, actually take transit,” Hong said.
AvalonBay Communities Sr. Development Director Jeff White, left, with Sr. Vice President Nathan Hong.
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Creating a sense of place
Back when AvalonBay first started developing TOD projects in the early 2000s, some people questioned who would want to live with the constant disruption of transit, said Jeff White, senior development director. AvalonBay’s completed or in-progress TOD projects include 505 units at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station and 438 units at the Union City BART station.
But the market has borne out, in part because developers have taken wide-ranging approaches to designing welcoming TOD sites.
The Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland, for example, includes both affordable housing, ground-floor retail with offerings like a beignet shop and a bank, plus a preschool and community services. It’s been held up as a national model after a UCLA study found it helped to spur socio-economic improvements in the neighborhood without displacing Latino and black residents.
Equally important is the project’s genuine sense of place, said Chris Iglesias, CEO of Fruitvale’s nonprofit developer, the Unity Council, during a recent walk-through of the village. As trains sped by, a group of teenagers shared a smoke outside the beignet shop and preschool workers waved to passersby.
“It feels like a TOD that has a heart — it’s very much community folks and members hanging around, a lot of strollers,” Iglesias said.
That feeling can actually be measured through “quality of life” scores, Radulovich said, including walkability, the interconnectedness of streets and surrounding income levels. Most transit-oriented developers also push for open space and hangout nooks, which make residents feel at home, said John Eudy of longtime developer Essex Property Trust.
Of course, that doesn’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all standard, either. At Essex’s multi-phase Station Park Green project at San Mateo’s Hayward Park Caltrain Station, a rooftop hangout spot, a “zen garden” and a bocce ball court aim to attract a more suburban crowd.
The question still unanswered is how these different versions of placemaking perform overall, said Radulovich. In other words, while projects should serve their location and demographic, the Bay Area still needs “state of the union” data to advise decisions.
“The good news is that we know more than we did 20 years ago in terms of making good places,” Radulovich said. “The thing that seems lacking is gathering data around policies and practices in terms of both transit agencies, employers, owners of housing — and making sure all those practices are the best practices.”
“You couldn’t get a better location, we believe, than the Transbay area,” says Eudy of Essex Property Trust.
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Whether it was a San Leandro project that took a decade to break ground or a Millbrae project already five years into negotiations, TOD is typically complicated, involving public agencies and private developers and taking years to come to fruition.
Not having up-to-date data and regulations makes it even harder, developers say. Case in point: When Panoramic Interests first proposed its 1,032-apartment project next to the West Oakland BART station, CEO Patrick Kennedy wanted just eight parking spaces on the site.
The city disagreed, and Kennedy compromised with 59 spots. Because “nobody knows” how much parking is the right amount, Fitzpatrick of SamTrans said, there’s wide variation in how up-to-date cities’ requirements are, and how aggressively they are enforced.
“The regulations lag quite a bit. You try not to build something obsolete on day one, but you have to comply with current regulations,” said Jeff White.
Both AvalonBay and Essex, for instance, have conceived ways to build parking garages that could be converted to new uses sometime in the future.
Despite those workarounds — and cities’ frequent reluctance to make radical decisions — developers and policymakers say the hunger for TOD is obvious: Residents actively look for units near transit. People are sick of traffic. And more than ever, the Bay Area needs homes.
“If we didn’t believe it’s working,” Eudy said, “we wouldn’t be developing next to transit stations.”