Transit-Oriented Development in the Age of High-Speed Rail (Part One)

In an age of increased need for connection and rising demand for urban living, high-speed rail and transit-oriented development seem destined to intertwine.


This is the first in a three-part series on high-speed rail development in the United States. For Part Two, click here.

In an age of increased connection and rising demand for urban living, high-speed rail and transit-oriented development seem destined to intertwine. Yet as this prospect looms nearer on the horizon, experts caution that certain elements need to be taken into consideration in order for such a dynamic to be successful.

At the U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s annual summit in Washington, D.C. last week, speakers from across the transportation and development sectors shared their insights on how to expedite the development of a national high-speed rail system, while best orienting residential and commercial development around such.

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Miss. and current president and CEO of Reconnecting America—a non-profit think tank, noted that the very prospect of a complete national high-speed rail system is still no sure bet, and that continued advocacy is key at this stage.

“Having been a mayor for 16-plus years at one time in my life, I know what it’s like to have plans that sit on a mayor’s shelf, having passed from one mayor to the next, and are never actually implemented,” said Smith.

Smith went on to detail Reconnecting America’s vision for high-speed rail, how it fits so neatly into pre-existing transportation infrastructure—from highways to conventional rail to airports—and why smart and affordable TOD would ultimately become a major component.

“What we’re about is helping you think through and design a system [so] you can ride to a place you can actually afford to live,” said Smith. “The last time we had a vision for transportation in this country was, of course, the interstate highway system. What we actually got over the years, while it worked for a while—we now see the congestion that we fight to and from work and our homes.”

Indeed, while many obstacles surrounding infrastructure often do not become apparent until years or decades down the road, it is best to address as many known issues as possible in order to deal with the unknowns at a later date.

Mike Bello, senior planner and landscape architect at Gensler, spoke about the key ingredients necessary for effective TOD and how they could be incorporated around high-speed rail—particularly in order to make the developments as enduring as possible.

Photo by Philip Shea

“Being the right size and addressing their context, TODs can really increase value of not just the identity in the community, but also address a blending into the surrounding community,” says Bello. “Some quick design principles [include] community stakeholder collaboration, [a] mix of efficient land uses, affordable housing choices, distinct and attractive communities, direct development towards existing communities… and [a] variety of transportation choices.”

Bello added that the value of public-private partnerships in this endeavor cannot be overstated, and that when approaching TOD, developers should stick to the maxim: “Build a place, not a project.” Mixed uses and market-driven retail development are also key components.

Smith also detailed what he thought were the central characteristics of a successful transit-oriented development based on past examples, echoing the need for collaboration and connection between all the stakeholders and involving as many public entities as possible.

“Of course, TOD basically is providing a mixture of housing and retail and commercial development in a very walkable community,” says Smith. “To do good TOD requires many partnerships at every level, and if you could read those puzzle pieces—it’s developers, it’s the community leadership, it’s certainly the transit providers themselves, the states [and] the federal agencies.”

In terms of his own experience, Smith detailed what factors played into the success of Union Station in Meridian, Miss. and why smart decisions of policymakers then have led to immense community benefits that continue to be felt today.

“We built the first multi-modal transportation center in the South some 20 years ago,” Smith said. “Of course, quality of design is everything. You could do it cheaper, but you wouldn’t have the significant economic impact that we’ve had. Meridian is a city of 40,000 people, but we host 250 events and over 300,000 people a year use that station. It’s a place of congress as well as a place of transportation.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tom Fleury, executive vice president of Cityline Partners, spoke on the importance of optimal convenience for residents and retail customers within the TOD, especially appealing to the younger generations (particularly Y and Z) who will likely use future spaces the most.

“What do you want? You want light [rail]. You want walkability. You want open space. You want all of those things that make that generation, the grandchildren generation, want to live there,” said Fleury.

Additionally, Fleury notes that there are some regulatory goals that developers specifically need to target in order to gain as wide of a tenant base as possible.

“You have got to provide ADUs, workforce housing, affordable housing—all of your projects can be near competitive in the marketplace, but to get the GSA tenants requires LEED Gold or better.”