Transit-Oriented Development with Chinese Characteristics: localization as the rule rather than the exception

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Since our days in school, we have often been told to first define our terms before doing anything else. China is a country that does not shy away from acronyms, and “TOD,” or transit-oriented development—a concept that merges land use and transport planning—is one such acronym that has become wildly popular within the field of urban development.
So, recently, when government officials from seven Chinese cities and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development gathered to launch the  China Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot Project on the topic of TOD, it was clear that they all had the same definition of this three-letter acronym.
Or did they?
“What’s the right radius for a TOD zone?” “Can TOD work in brownfield in addition to greenfield developments?”  These were some of the definition questions raised by the cities in the last and longest session of the technical discussion. Instead of looking confused or frustrated by debating definition items at the end, eyes lit up and backs got straighter; participants realized that they weren’t the only ones who didn’t follow an exact, formulaic definition of TOD. It became clear that everyone was in the same boat and had the same questions, and that localizing TOD for each city’s context was a rule rather than an exception. 
Led by the World Bank and supported by the  Global Environment Facility, the China Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot Project had its official launch in Shenzhen on September 6 th. The project is helping seven major cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Ningbo, Nanchang, Guiyang, and Shenzhen, to incorporate TOD principles into future urban and transit policies and plans. In parallel, the project will support the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development to create a national TOD platform for sharing data and best practices on TOD for these cities and beyond.
“Adopt, adapt or abandon,” was a saying that one of the keynote speakers highlighted as an approach to TOD standards from other parts of the world. What might be considered a walking distance in a temperate city, for example, may not be the same for a city with a consistently blazing hot sun, or one with freezing winds in sub-zero conditions. Similarly, the scope of a TOD zone in a city that is high in bike access may be larger than those that are not (and we continue to uncover more patterns every day through big data from dock-free bike sharing). Despite its intuitiveness, everyone decidedly agreed that blindly adopting U.S. TOD guidelines (often considered the origin of TOD as a concept) should not be done.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all definition for all cities across the world, the World Bank TOD Community of Practice has a general description that allows for flexibility:

TOD is a planning and design strategy to ensure compact, mixed-use, pedestrian and two-wheeler friendly, and suitably dense urban development organized around transit stations. It embraces the idea that locating amenities, employment, retail shops, and housing around transit hubs promotes transit usage and non-motorized travel. Well-planned TOD is inclusive in nature and integrates considerations of resilience to natural hazards. 
Although they may not have left the project launch knowing the exact radius for their city’s TOD zone, the city officials did leave with one sure thing: TOD with Chinese characteristics is on its way. 


Jasmine Susanna Tillu

Urban Development Consultant

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