TODs Are about Choice, Not Sacrifice

Ken Ryan of KTGY Group talks to MHN about the issues that are impacting sustainable transportation solutions, transit-oriented developments/districts (TODs) and the challenges in accomplishing the design and pragmatic goals for a TOD.

Ken Ryan, principal and head of Community Planning and Urban Design Studio with KTGY Group, has been invited to participate as a speaker at Mobility 21’s Ninth Annual Southern California Transportation Summit, “Delivering Sustainable Transportation Solutions: Strong Economy, Livable Communities, Efficient Networks,” which will be held next week in Anaheim, Calif.

Ryan talks to MHN about the issues that are impacting sustainable transportation solutions, transit-oriented developments/districts (TODs) and the challenges in accomplishing the design and pragmatic goals for a TOD.

MHN: What are the factors that are contributing to the growth of TOD in the US?

Ryan: Transit and TODs are no longer just about reducing vehicle mile travel. It is also about community building. The timing right now seems to be right for a number of reasons, particularly the affordability factor coming out of the downturn, the mobility issue—cost of fuel and car—and certainly from a sustainability perspective. It is no longer just a project created for the purpose of higher density or affordability but one that is a great place to live in. To sum up, it is affordability, mobility, sustainability and livability. If you do all those things you end up with a place that is interesting and people are willing to live in.

MHN: Are people ready to sacrifice their big house in the suburbs?

Ryan: I wouldn’t use the word sacrifice, it is more about choice. If done correctly it is a choice that people make to live in TODs. For us the question is who are we building for and what do they want in their community? We have found that it’s multigenerational and every project is different. In some cases there are aging populations who don’t want the big house and yard, so they aren’t sacrificing anything but making a different choice. They still want to be connected to friends, their community and place of worship, etc. The younger generation looks for a dynamic people place with enough things to do. And there are young families with kids as well, and the challenge there is in making more space for those people. One of the trends is having all those different components—single-family and apartments/condos—but it is also a challenge.

MHN: What are the challenges in achieving all those components?

Ryan: Initially, it is very important to have a vision, whether it’s a large, intense project or a small walkable community. The key is to focus on what are the fundamental urban design framework elements that create the space. Is there a pedestrian orientation, a great public realm, or something else? Timing is also very important. When you don’t have a blank slate, we are finding that some of these transit districts are emerging over time. While vision is important, it should not come with an overly regulated document. It should allow the TOD to evolve. If done correctly, the community doesn’t feel mass produced but has those principles in place. This is always a challenge.

A pragmatic challenge is parking. How many people are going to be there and how do you park the community? It’s easy to have these conversations in urban places that know and understand these issues, but in emerging suburban areas, outreach to the community is very important. Funding is also a challenge.

MHN: Are there zoning regulations in place to help with some of these challenges?

Ryan:Yes, but with zoning regulations one size doesn’t fit all. Vision helps lay the groundwork. But it is not helpful to over-regulate and overly restrict the possibilities, because they get underestimated as the area emerges. If you try to come up with specific actions and criteria and how dense a project should be, that would not work.

MHN: What is the average size of TODs today?

Ryan: It depends. Some projects that are over the top are about 150 acres and the community would be connected by multiple modes of transport so that residents can get to the main station. The more typical walkable TOD that is visually and physically connected is about 100 acres or so.

MHN: How long will it take TODs to take root in states and cities that don’t have a history of transit-oriented behavior?

Ryan: This is not one of those things that might happen in the future. It’s already happening in California. It’s not just design but what needs to be done in response to the market. We have talked about reducing greenhouse gases and the need for regional planning in California for years. But now cities are moving forward because if you want to get transportation dollars, you need to move forward with regional transportation that is tied to housing, and that’s the first time in this state that this has occurred—educating and going through the process that it’s not just about putting a bunch of residential next to a train station but about creating a community.