“Transport, the de facto barometer of economic, social, and commercial progress has transformed the entire world into one organized unit. It carries ideas and inventions to the people and has considerably contributed to the evolution of civilization”
-William F. Ogburn
Public transport has been a part of most urbanites’ lives. Whether it’s taking a nap on the local suburban electric on the way to your college (hey, we’ve all been there) or maniacally running after that 18G bus which is a lot less frequent than you’d like to admit, public transit alludes us in the most wondrous, yet seemingly mundane ways. Transport has become not only the agent for change but a result and a front-runner too.
When Simran latches on to Raj’s hands in the iconic train scene, the train was as much a part of the story as the lead pair. And how can one forget the many misadventures Geet and Aditya had in local buses from Jab We Met?
The train and bus symbolised a new journey, an odyssey that the couple was about to commence. Public transit has become such an integral part of our lives that imagining the average urban experience bereft of their presence is incomplete. You can ask any Mumbaikar about the harrowing crowds in trains. They hate to go through all that on a daily basis but it’s also a rite of passage for any Mumbaikar.
So it is not so surprising that urban planners and designers have taken notice of the necessity of public transit in urban studies. Transit-Oriented Development was a term coined in 1982 by architect Peter Calthorpe (co-founder of the Centre for New Urbanism), which aimed at establishing a relationship between transportation and land-use. Sure enough, it was picked up by urban designers as a potential lens through which city designs could be optimized. One of the earliest examples of a TOD is the city of Curitiba in Brazil.
A common rebuttal from skeptics of TOD is regarding TOD’s being anti-car. As Christopher Coes, Vice President of Real Estate Policy and External Affairs at Smart Growth America says,
“It’s not anti-car, but the choice between car, transit, walking, or biking.”
New Urbanism and the roots of TODs:
New Urbanism developed as a school of thought under urban-design which advocated for walkable, human-scaled urban design, and planning. Suffice to say, TOD was very much a part of it – new urbanism was more of an umbrella term. Urban planner Ann Forsyth posits, TOD has been defined generally as “a mixed-use community that encourages people to live near transit services and to decrease their dependence on driving.”
The evolution of TODs has been quite diverse. Of course, one does not wake up suddenly one day and have an epiphany of an idea carrying such gravitas. In the early 1940s, American cities were focusing on automobile-driven (pardon the pun) settlements. The congestion of the city life did not allure the upper middle-class Americana, and thanks to Henry Ford, personal cars were supremely affordable. As predicted, the middle class moved into the outskirts of cities, preferring to live a low-density, spacious life while taking longer trips to go to work in the heart of the city. This produced the urban sprawl – an ever-expanding horizontal urban built mass.
Peter Calthorpe, who coined the term identifies himself more as a revivalist than an originator of the idea. The idea of transit, generating settlements has not been a new one, as one can see from the boroughs of New York to even the port towns in Ceylon (although transit through water is rarely considered). Even pedestaled architects like Le Corbusier were fundamental proponents of walkable cities. The blocks in Chandigarh measure 400 x 800 m – 800 m being the maximum walkable distance to access the nearest public transport. But it was never “branded” as an exclusive TOD; its TOD-inclined merits have been sidelined.
And I was equally surprised that the “Garden City” model of city planning, theorized, and practised by Ebenezer Howard in the early 20th century, is considered an early precedent of TODs as we know it. Howard focused on creating satellite cities enabled by rail transit access. In retrospect, there’s not much to be surprised about – Le Corbusier, Howard, and Calthorpe, all three fundamentally advocated for walkable blocks, open greens, and easy last-mile connectivity.
However, Garden City aimed at being a Development-Oriented transit where rail transit acted as the conduit between two developed areas.
And this is where the plot thickens – Jane Jacobs, dubbed by many as the Mother of Modern Urbanism blatantly criticised Howard’s garden cities. I know, I’m equally befuddled! She argued that the garden city was a more farcical approach towards solving social structural problems. Howard promoted a sort of “natural romanticism” – cities based on verdant walking trails, lush, prized greenery everywhere.
Historically, TODs have been plagued by misinterpretations in the form of terms such as Pedestrian Pockets, Traditional neighborhood Developments, Urban Villages, and Compact Communities.
Such topical interpretations of transit-oriented development aren’t a thing of the past. With the advent of the starchitect’s click hungry, render-driven, PR-chitecture (a term lovingly coined by McMansion Hell founder Kate Wagner); TODs’ foundations have been reduced to mere visual consumption. Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s answer to urban sustainability falls short of exactly that – building and sustaining this walkable urban utopia for the uber elite will cost a lot, economically and environmentally. And then there are imaginations like those of Bjarke Ingels, speculating a “Floating City” to adapt towards climate change and pandemics.
So if implemented well, TODs solve a plethora of problems, which include:
- Access to housing for lower-income groups
- Access to cheap/affordable transit to essential services
- Access to a greener, cleaner city.
1. Curitiba, Brazil
One of the earliest examples of TODs, transit principles was more or less ingrained in its planning process. Often lauded as the Ideal City and the Most Livable City, Curitiba was planned by architect-turned-politician Jaime Lerner in 1968. Almost half a million population of the city at that time was worried about the overgrowth of the city resulting in a decline of its culture. This thought catalyzed into a conscious master plan oriented towards public transport and historic preservation. What’s more interesting is that since 1974, although its population has doubled, its traffic size has reduced by 30% and has the lowest atmospheric pollution in Brazil.
2. Greater Toronto BRT, Canada
Toronto has been well documented as a great example of a livable, walkable city. The city has a rich history of 186 years and boasts a host of people-friendly interventions. You have the Harbourfront is a celebration of urban life. But the real crown jewel is Spadina Avenue. The avenue is what urban designers call a “Complete Street” and acts as a heterogeneous urban core. It is noteworthy for having separate lanes for vintage streetcars, bikes, and optimized sidewalks.
3. Bike lanes in NYC
In the 1940s, a typical NYC scene might have not included many bikes due to the popularity of motorized cars. But bikes have been there since the 1890s. The revival of bikes came after the excruciating car traffic that New Yorkers started facing. Robert Moses, a famous advocate for cars and a critic of Jane Jacobs, eventually heeded to the demands of bike ridership and since then, dedicated bike lanes have become a common feature of the New York experience. And they’re not stopping at these bike lines, as there are plans to add more of them soon.
4. Mexico City, Mexico: Anti-pollution
Mexico City was facing woes from pollution for a long time. With an ever-increasing carbon footprint, CDMX has recently employed several clean fuel buses, as part of a major TOD-themes overhaul of transport. It has also expanded its bike-renting program, Ecobici to 6,000 bicycles and 444 stations. Not only that, the historic street of Calle Madero, since the implementation of guidelines, has seen an 80% increase in economic activity.
The future of transit
With the advent of an event as rare as the pandemic, new spatial strategies are a need of the hour. Many have criticized the transit-oriented model to be “pandemic-blind”, research in the domain shows that presently, more auto-mobile dependent areas are the ones reporting higher cases and death rates related to COVID-19, rather than in the feared public transit dependent areas. In countries like Japan and France, public transit is a lot safer due to the stringent implementation of hygiene guidelines. Masks and social distancing are mandatory and are followed religiously by the commuters.
But the “public” aspect of a TOD, often cited to be a drawback, can be an advantage as well. Consider the myriad options for travelling – a complete street offers people to travel by streetcars, cars, buses, or bikes. And social distancing can be maintained in most of these modes. The diversity of transport has a world of potential for a pandemic resilient future.
The root cause
Another argument is often that TOD is a preventative action towards pandemics. When citizens are encouraged to be active through bike lanes, walking/jogging tracks, and clean fuels, and the city incentivizes health, the pandemic wouldn’t affect with such voracity to a populace with a relatively higher immunity.
But a truly preventive measure would be the conservation of natural habitats. Pandemics of such aggressive nature originate zootinically, quite often the result of destroying natural environments in the name of urban development. Truly transit-oriented development is sustainable at its core, and aids to the resilience of the city.