Transit Oriented Development (TOD) | Definition, Principles and Benefits

Defining Transit Oriented Development (TOD) 

In urban planning context, a transit oriented development (TOD) is defined as the sort of urban development that magnifies the amount of residential, commercial and leisure space within the walking distance of public transport. It fosters a symbiotic relationship between dense, compact urban form, design and public transport use.

This is an attempt to compact the cities and reducing dependency on the new urban developments in the periphery which highly foster the shift from non-motorized to motorized modes of travel. It creates a truly efficient and equitable community.

Transit oriented development generally concentrates development in and around transit systems in order to promote transit ridership which is considered as one of the effective sustainable development strategy. TOD is not just any development near transit. It is a development that:

  • Increases “local efficiency” that integrates walk, cycle and public transport for better accessibility and make it livable.
  • Creates a sense of community and place.
  • Fosters public transport ridership and reduces use of private vehicles.
  • Affords an accessible and safe living environment for the community.

Transit is basically defined as a singular term that is commonly used to describe shared public, transportation services. It also refers to public transport modes such as BRTS, MRTS. Whereas Transit Oriented Development is designed to maximize access to public transport in a residential, commercial or mixed-use area. Ultimately, they discourage an individual’s auto-dependency and promote transit ridership, thereby alleviating traffic congestion,  improving air quality, and limiting carbon emissions. A Transit oriented Development neighbourhood typically has a center with a train station, metro station, tram stop, or bus station, surrounded by relatively high-density development with increasingly lower-density development spreading outwards from the center.  According to renowned architect and urbanist, Peter Calthorpe, the concept of Transit oriented Development “is simple: moderate and high-density housing, along with complementary public uses, jobs, retail and services, are concentrated in mixed-use developments at strategic points along the regional transit system.” Transit oriented Development may have other names such as “”Pedestrian Pockets,” “Traditional Neighborhood Developments,” “Urban Villages,” or “Compact Communities” (Calthorpe, 1993). Transit oriented Development emphasize the “integration of transit on a regional basis” and walkability in the neighborhood. Peter Calthorpe has summarized the urban design principles associated with Transit oriented Development:

  •  organize growth on a regional level to be compact and transit-supportive;
  • place commercial, housing, jobs, parks, and civic uses within walking distance of transit stops;
  • create pedestrian-friendly street networks which directly connect local destinations;
  • provide a mix of housing types ,densities, and costs;
  • preserve sensitive habitat, riparian zones, and high quality open space;
  • make public spaces the focus of building orientation and neighborhood activity;
  • encourage infill and redevelopment along transit corridors within existing neighborhoods.
    –The next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream, p. 43
Transit Oriented Development
Transit Oriented Development

Transit oriented development involves not only heavy rail transit (HRT), both surface and underground, but also feeder bus service and express bus service. Recently, light rail transit (LRT) is gaining popularity in many cities as a replacement for bus in some busier corridors particularly due to its ability to carry significantly more passengers per hour per direction but also due to its quality of service and reduced journey times due to traffic signal priority as in the case of London. (Gleave, 2005: 99) Moreover, all the different transit networks involving HRT, LRT and bus should be integrated in the transit network planning process along with provisions for smooth transfer in between. In addition to improvement of transit service,13 some auto disincentives are also required to achieve desirable transit system efficiency. (Casello, 2007: 65) However, in case of existing underutilized transit infrastructure, construction of new transit infrastructure is not an option and redevelopment of the existing transit nodes at higher density using mixed use development principles should be the priority. (E.P.A. 2001) Furthermore, cities with several activity centers in addition to the central business district (CBD) also referred as ―polycentric metropolitan development‖ tends to show more distributed trip patterns along with higher modal percentage of automobile usage. Thus, coordinated transit services both between and within activity centers (Casello, 2007: 76) and between primary residential areas and activity centers are required to improve transit system performance. (Modarres, 2003: 78)

Walking Sheds (The “Five-minute Walk”)

One of the primary focuses of Transit oriented Development is surrounding a transit station with development appropriate to high-occupancy transit use.  An overlay zone that defines a TOD area is typically between 50-100 acres (Berke, et al., 2006).  The “walking shed” is the area the people living, working, or otherwise using this area are willing to walk to access the transit station.  Most jurisdictions consider a five-minute walk roughly ¼ mile from the transit station.  This defines the geographical extent of the TOD.  Barriers to walking include lack of pedestrian infrastructure, significant elevation changes, and long blocks. These factors may changes the distance pedestrians are willing to walk to and from a station and ultimately affect walkability and a failed plan might lead to loss of walkable cities!

Goals of TOD

  • Create vibrant, livable, sustainable communities.
  • Create compact, walkable, mixed-use communities centered on quality transit systems.
  • Creating dense walk able communities that greatly reduces the need for driving and energy consumption.
  • Provide simple public transport access to the maximum number of people within walking distance.
  • Reduce the private vehicle dependency & include public transport use through design, policy measures and enforcement.

Scale of TOD

TOD is the area within the first 400 to 800 meters of transit stations.

Application of TOD is in context of scales in planning are Regional context, Sub-regional context, city context and area context. It shall require a robust methodology for interventions. Hence the Transit oriented development would need to be planned at:

  • Moblity1: Regional or Sub-regional planning level
  • Moblity2: City or local area planning level

At regional scale, the TOD index identifies those areas in the region that have high transit orientation but lacks good transit connectivity. At local scale, mainly the first priority is urban development and second priority is transit development due to several reasons like time constraints, etc.

Characteristics of Transit Oriented Development (TOD)

  • Compact, higher density development
  • Mixed uses
  • Good pedestrian environment
  • Public amenities
  • Parking management
  • Good transit service
  • Strong connectivity between transit  and development

Principles of TOD

  1. WALK | Develop neighborhoods that promote walking: High quality, passable pedestrian footpaths provide basic mobility for all. Furniture, landscaping elements, and building edges transforms walkways into most vibrant public spaces. It requires physical effort and it plays an effective role in improving the environmental conditions. The three key parameters of this principle are Safety, activity and comfort.
  2. CYCLE | Prioritize non-motorized transport networks: Cycling is a graceful, emission-free, healthy and affordable transport option which is highly efficient in nature. The key factors promoting cycling is the provision of safe street conditions and secure cycle parking and storage. Street design assures safety for cyclists by reducing carriageway speeds. A complete network of shading elements, smooth surfaces and stable cycle parking are essential in nature.
  3. CONNECT | Create impenetrable networks of streets and paths: A dense network of cycling and walking routes results in short, varied and direct connections that improve access to goods, services and public transport. Recurrent street corners and narrower right of ways with slow vehicular speed and many pedestrians fosters street activity and local commerce.
  4. TRANSIT | Locate development near immense-quality public transport: Transit associates and integrates distant parts of the city for pedestrians. Access and proximity to immense capacity public transit service.
  5. SHIFT | Increase mobility by regulating parking and road use: Competent parking fees and a reduction in the overall supply of parking create incentives for the use of public transport, walking and cycling. Inadequate and reliable urban space resources can be restored from unnecessary roads and parking and can be reallocated to more socially and economically productive uses.
  6. DENSIFY | Optimize density and transit capacity: Escalation of residential and commercial uses around immense capacity rapid transit station helps to assure that all residents and workers have access to high quality public transport. The only restraint to concentration should result from requirements for approach to daylight and circulation of fresh air, access to parks, open spaces, conservation of natural and cultural resources.
  7. MIX | Plan for mixed use: A varied mix of residential and non-residential land uses reduces the need to travel and ensures activation of public spaces at all hours.
  8. COMPACT | Create regions with short commutes: Redevelopment of existing urban fabric helps ensures that residents can live close to work place, schools, services and other destinations resulting in reduced travel times and emissions. At the scale of the city, being compact means being integrated spatially by public transit systems.

Density Concentrations and Land Use Buffers for Transit Oriented Development

Typically in TOD, higher density development is allowed or required within a short distance of the transit station (300-500ft). Further away from the station – 500-1500ft – is usually located another, less intensive zone, with a continued mixture of uses.  Finally, a zone from 1500 feet to the edge of the TOD zone is still less intense in density and uses are intended to blend into the surrounding community.  The City of Austin created overlay zones – Gateway, Midway, and Transition – with distances and development intensity similar to those listed above (City of Austin, 2005).  The intent is to provide a walkable, sufficiently dense, safe, area around TOD stations in the context of a land use pattern that promotes varying forms of transit.  A mixture of densities is envisioned throughout the TOD, with density graduations decreasing from the zone encompassing the TOD station.

Cars charging in the city centre

Incentives for Transit Oriented Development

Successful TOD does not develop solely based upon market favourability.  Along with plan-making for station areas, the development climate can act as an impetus for TOD, especially when incentives are placed upon desirable development within a TOD district.  This incentive has proven effective in various TOD districts.  The San Mateo Transit Oriented Development Program is a prime example of how government-provided incentives can promote desirable features of TOD (Napier, 1998).  The program directed grant funds for on- or off-site improvements to properties within 1/3 mile of a specified transit station with sufficient allowable densities.  The program helped create over 3,600 new bedrooms surrounding a rail station; sidewalk improvements; plazas; lighting; and landscaping.  San Mateo’s goal of promoting a transit-oriented, walkable, safe community with mixed densities and land uses was achieved while profitability for developers working on these projects was realized.

Other incentives including residential density bonuses, transferable development right receiving area bonuses, reduced or eliminated traffic impact fees, streamlined permit process, or short-term tax abatement may also promote successful development in TOD districts.

Other benefits of Transit Oriented Development

  • Higher quality of life with improved places to live, work, and play
  • Greater mobility with ease of moving around
  • Increased transit ridership
  • Reduced traffic congestion, car accidents and injuries
  • Impetus household spending on transportation, resulting in more affordable housing
  • Incredibly reduced dependence on foreign oil, reduced pollution and environmental damage
  • Impetus incentive to sprawl, increased incentive for compact development
  • Less expensive than building roads and sprawl
  • Enhanced ability to maintain economic competitiveness

Example of Transit Oriented Development : Metropolitan Place in Renton, Washington

One successful example of Transit-oriented development is “Metropolitan Place” in Renton, Washington (Smutny, 2002). It is one of King County’s first transit-oriented developments and was completed in September, 2001. Metropolitan Place is a mixed-use development (apartment/retail) located across from a park-and-ride transit center. It includes 90 apartment units, 4,000 square feet of retail (ground level), and 240 parking spaces in the underground parking garage and 150 parking spaces for park-and-ride (Metro KingCounty, 2005).  Residents in this community are provided one free bus pass per unit to encourage higher use of public transit. King County leases stalls in the parking garage for park-and-ride use, and these stalls are shared during non-commute hours.  Finally, Metropolitan Place provides affordable housing units that attract a mix of income levels.

Problems with Transit Oriented Development

Many of the problems associated with implementing TOD have to do with societal acceptance.  The biggest problem with this tool is that given a choice, people often choose socially and economically stratified neighbourhoods. In addition, those that can afford it seem to prefer the convenience and comfort of automobile use. Banks are structured to fund isolated single-use developments and are forced to underwrite them based on past successes rather than future needs (Dittmar & Ohland, 2004).  Banks, no doubt, would fund new financially safe developments rather than bet on the success of urban renewal.  Also, many new residential projects today are still required to utilize standard parking ratios, even when they are located adjacent to transit centers.  Such requirements undermine the potential density bonuses of TOD.

Four layers of planning affect TOD developments: regional plans, Comprehensive Plans, Specific Area Plans, and zoning ordinances. Because regional institutions and local governments sometimes lack coordination and individual towns and cities rarely work together, new transit corridors that need complementary land uses are often difficult to implement. In short, TODs require regional planning, and many times regional planning authorities do not exist.

Finally, TOD is a new enough concept that there is no clear path or “definitions, standards, or road maps for developers to follow” (Dittmar & Ohland, 2004). Investors or builders are risk averse. Some have also argued that because there is no market and no incentives “for more compact, mixed-use development near transit,” there is not much TOD supply.  These problems all need to be addressed before TOD implementation becomes widespread.


The rapid economic growth and urbanization have led to problem of congestion, pollution, load on infrastructure, etc. The limited road capacity and the increase in automobiles and population have resulted in congestion, delays and pollution. Hence a sustainable strategy is required to maintain the economic growth and alleviate the problems arising due to growth.

The new TOD strategies in India includes immense density development around transit stations, contributing in critical transportation infrastructure and improved traffic, transportation and parking management.

Author Bio: This article was written by Avipsha Mohanty with inputs from Planning Tank editorial team. Avipsha is a member of NOSPlan and a student at School of Planning & Architecture, Vijayawada.

Read about: Cluster DevelopmentThe Relationship between Transit and Land Use

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