With the recent rise of light rail train and other new transit proposals, the idea of transit-oriented development can make a resurgence. Developed in the early 1990’s by Peter Calthorpe, the concept of transit-oriented development (TOD) encourages the development of full and vibrant communities designed to be centered on transit facilities. Specifically, the concept encouraged organizing growth to be compact and transit-supportive, mixing a variety of commercial and residential real estate within walking distance of a transit stop, and promoting open space and a sense of community.

To understand the hype behind TOD, we need to go back a century, to the beginning of transit. In the Twin Cities, the Twin Cities Rapid Transit (TCRT) was created in 1891 and was championed by Thomas Lowry. Transit options at this time updated rapidly, starting with the horse cars and then quickly switching to the cable cars. From there, most cities moved to electric streetcars as the main mode for transit, and Lowry capitalized on this option. At its height, the TCRT streetcar system had 524 miles of track within and around the Twin Cities and had over 200 million riders per year in the 1920’s. For Lowry, the transit system was a way for him to encourage development on his extensive real estate holdings in St. Louis Park and Columbia Heights. Calthorpe and his associates later termed this as development-oriented transit, or the creation of transit lines in certain areas to encourage real estate development.

The Twin Cities – and other metropolitan areas – needed to grow, but without a sophisticated transit system, growth was limited to the couple miles that citizens could traverse by foot or bike. With the streetcars, it was now possible to live outside the city and have more space but still get to work inside the city. Land outside the city was cheaper to buy and build upon, and so streetcar suburbs developed quickly all along the corridors of Lowry’s transit system, with the earliest houses being built right alongside the tracks. With these houses, small shops and groceries sprang up near track intersections. Often, the buildings at intersections were multi-story, with stores on the main level and apartments above. If a person lived in a streetcar suburb, they could take the streetcar into and out of the city for work and make purchases for dinner on their walk to their house. Because automobiles were not yet popular when many of these suburbs were developed, the buildings were still grouped relatively close together to facilitate pedestrians walking to stores and stations. Today, we don’t consider these areas to be true suburbs, but when they were built, they were their own communities, separate from the city culture.

The proliferation of the automobile in the 1920’s, and even more so post-WWII, made the streetcar largely obsolete. By 1954, streetcars had been completely replaced by buses in the Twin Cities. They also made streetcar suburbs difficult for people to live in and also own cars because the developments were not designed to include parking or garages. And from then until now, space for parking has been a major factor for any development project.

Ease of access to a car created the suburban culture as we now know it, and the suburbs grew rapidly after WWII. Households were able to own multiple cars and citizens could easily travel longer distances to get to their workplaces. This quickly made for highly congested cities and roads, and a call for mass-transit use was made, notably by President Kennedy in 1962 when he said we needed to promote “economic efficiency and livability” in urban areas. Because of this, federal funding was made available to update and build new transportation systems. However, these new transit systems were automobile-centered. The park-n-rides allowed suburbanites to drive a short ways to a transit station, and then take a bus or train into the city. While this system is still in use, it does not bring in a large number of regular riders compared to the overall traffic heading into and out of a city daily, and because park-n-ride developments are largely made up of parking lots and nothing else, like residential and commercial real estate, they don’t encourage true TOD.

Economic efficiency and livability are still very much issues today, and transit and development are linked together. TOD can be the future. If we are to expand and improve our transit systems, we need to put thought into how we develop the surrounding area of a transit line. Streetcar suburbs were once a great solution, but they were a byproduct of a new transit system. By pre-planning our developments in preparation for transit, we can ensure both the usability of transit as well as the efficiency of full and attractive communities.