Transit-oriented development — What does it take to get it right?

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A recent trip to Addis Ababa really brought the imperatives of transit-oriented development as a complement to mass transit investments home to us. As a strategic response to rapid urbanization and growing motorization rates, Addis is one of several African cities currently developing public mass transit systems such as light rail and bus-rapid transit. Similar initiatives are budding in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, and other cities in South Africa.

It is well known that transit-oriented development, or ToD, is a high-value complement to mass transit development. Compact, mixed-use, high density development around key mass transit stations can have the dual benefits of creating a ridership base that enhances the economic and financial viability of the mass transit investment and compounding the accessibility benefits a mass transit system can bring to a city’s residents. This is not to mention the intrinsic value in creating vibrant social gathering places for communities at strategic locations.

It ain’t as easy as it looks
The successful development of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County in the Washington DC region has been 40 years in the making
The value of ToD is well recognized by urban planners and transport specialists globally; there are some phenomenal examples of successful ToD, ranging from Curitiba in Brazil; Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia; to Stockholm in Sweden and Washington DC in the USA. However, the reality is that it remains difficult to realize successful ToD. While there is a lot of interest at the World Bank to support ToD, the Bank still needs to build up a solid track record; and internationally, there are many examples of ToD initiatives that have not materialized or delivered expected results. Indeed, a leader of an Asian city once complained to us that while they had set out to develop ToDs, the result was instead transit-adjacent hubs which created enormous amounts of car traffic.  

What does it take to get it right?

Through this blog post, we wanted to share our take on why getting ToD right is so hard and start a discussion on potential ways the World Bank could help in developing successful ToDs in cities like Addis.  Part of the challenge is that ToDs are difficult both to plan and to execute; four key issues are worth highlighting:

  • Firstly, realizing ToD requires coordinated efforts across multiple sectors and a series of inter-linked development phases, where attention to details is crucial.
    A rendering of the integrated development project around the Tanjong Pagar MRT station in Singapore
    A ToD is ideally an integral element in the city’s master plan process of identifying a hierarchy of urban centers integrated with the mass transport network (and other infrastructure). Following which, an urban design scheme for the ToD would be contextual and consider various dimensions including the integration with and access to the transit station, supporting a right mix of land uses and density, and the creation of a walkable, human scale environment around it. In addition, getting a ToD right is often about getting the details right – for example planners in Singapore often point to reserving direct pedestrian links to the entrance/exit to stations and guiding pedestrian circulation through sheltered walkways as critical elements of a successful ToD experience.

  • Secondly, successful ToDs require not only the city’s support of high density, mixed use development around transit, but also a prioritization of developing these areas over others in the metropolitan area.
    Curitiba: Successfully focusing a majority of the urban development along mass transit corridors
    In the best scenario, this priority is reflected in an urban growth pattern that mirrors the mass transport network, as in Curitiba, with little or no development off the system. In the worst case scenario, the potential of the ToD is diluted by competitive development off the mass transport network, sometimes in competing jurisdictions outside the primary city. These competitive developments lower both the market potential and the value of the public transport advantage of the ToD - an advantage that depends fundamentally on ensuring that both legs of the prospective trips to/from the ToD are made via public transit.

  • Thirdly, the transit accessibility of successful ToDs has to be higher than auto accessibility. Achieving this requires a number of deliberate actions – for example, Singapore’s transport and land use policies promote greater convenience and lower cost for public transport than driving; London and Boston reduce the amount of parking spaces in downtown buildings to prioritize public transport.

  • And fourthly, implementing successful ToD requires strong legal backing, sound financial planning and appropriate timing. At a technical level, it is necessary to formulate detailed development control guidelines and enforce such guidelines in a manner that is transparent and consistent yet not perceived to be overly burdensome (often a problem since powerful developers/investors could carry political clout that far outweighs the enforcement agencies).  The legal environment is critical and defines what role the government plays beyond providing access infrastructure and appropriate zoning. Financing considerations are also important. On one hand, ToD offers a variety of land-value capture opportunities for recouping the financial costs of ToD and mass transit development – such as through joint development at stations, tax-increment financing and selling air rights in up-zoned areas. On the other hand, international experience suggests that it is not easy to avoid conflicts of interest between financial gains for the public sector and safeguarding the interests of area residents.  Timing issues are also critical: the construction schedule of the transit station and the adjacent public infrastructure need to be carefully coordinated with market demand and therefore, the release and development of land parcels around it.
Getting ToDs right – One at a time

While ToD efforts by cities in Africa and in other developing countries are fairly recent, they benefit from a good recognition of the added value and available lessons from international examples. The good news is that ToD can be fairly localized and operate within a confined geographic scope. This is thus more manageable, allowing for a focus of resources and, if successful,  generate a demonstration effect. A good starting point is to choose a ToD location which is not right in the city center but near it; where there is still sufficient catchment but relatively less encumbrances. Once one ToD proves successful, there will be greater confidence and the relevant planning–implementation-operating model could be replicated or scaled up.
We know it is no easy task, but ToDs can be done right – one at a time.  What do you think?

Learn more:


Chyi-Yun Huang

Senior Urban Development and Disaster Risk Management Specialist

Shomik Mehndiratta

Practice Manager for Transport in Europe and Central Asia, World Bank

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