The Rebranding of Urban Transit: A “TOD Summit” Lets Architects Rethink Rail

By Jack Skelley

Architects and urban planners agree: TODs—or Transit Oriented Developments—are the future of our cities. As land on the urban fringes is consumed by sprawl, creating hideous commutes and sour economies, a crucial solution is to bring transportation close to jobs and housing. What is also dawning on these experts, however, is that the TOD solution is not the most people-friendly concept. Fairly or not, it tends to connote noisy trains and cramped living.

James C. Auld, AIA, a partner with Altoon Partners LLP, is an architect leading the rethinking of TODs. He co-chairs the annual TOD Summit produced by ULI Los Angeles. (This year’s TOD summit is Thursday, June 6, at Metro Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Register here.) He describes how the TOD solution is evolving into “great places to live and play.”

Form: What is wrong with the term TOD?

Auld: For people in the military, government and non-profits, it’s a tidy and memorable moniker. But as we enter an entirely new phase, it’s really inadequate to describe what could and will be going on. TOD is pretty threatening, except when you realize what it can give to you. It has been associated with higher density, shoe-horning more people into apartment buildings and “workforce/subsidized/senior housing.”

However, “transit orientation” does give working people added or better-appropriated time in their lives. So it should be presented as improving people’s quality of life, giving them options for when the car doesn’t work, for when you get older, for those times when driving four miles can take 35 minutes.

Form: On a design level, what do TODs do for neighborhoods?

Auld: When you walk from where you live to a rail or transit station, everything slows down. That zone between the curb and 15 feet up becomes much more tactile and every linear foot is more valuable, both as walking experience and as real estate. It’s about frontage versus square feet. When you’re in a car the streetscape is mostly a blur. 

Form: What design changes will make that experience more livable and enjoyable?

Auld: It’s about connecting transit systems where people live, work, play – where they have to be and want to be. I am a digital person. But younger people especially live in the world of smartphone apps. In Seattle and Portland, where transportation is highly advanced, the travel app is really useful and sophisticated. Meanwhile, the L.A. subway doesn’t even have Wi-Fi. You are disconnected when you are underground. Younger people are all over this. The car is not going away, but people are choosing to live in more urban places. Many of them are live/work places and smaller-scale development. The best ones also have serious bike facilities. All this will meet the needs of younger people and market demands. There is a huge demographic swing happening, and the future results will be amazing.

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