Rating TOD

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) recently released a new tool for transportation and land use enthusiasts, a draft standard for rating transit oriented development.  Akin to LEED, this TOD standard is intended to help develop projects that are transit-oriented, rather than just transit-adjacent. The Standard is intended for urban development projects that are located within walking distance of a high-capacity transit station and rates them based on specific urban design and land use characteristics known to support, facilitate, and prioritize the use of public transport, walking, cycling and other non-motorized modes. Specifically, the Standard focuses on ITDP’s eight Principles of Transport in Urban Life:

  1. Develop neighborhoods that promote walking;
  2. Prioritize non-motorized transport networks;
  3. Create dense networks of streets and paths;
  4. Locate development near high-quality public transport;
  5. Plan for mixed use;
  6. Match density and transit capacity;
  7. Create compact regions with short commutes; and
  8. Increase mobility by regulating parking and road use.

The blog Transport Politic takes the TOD Standard out for a test drive, applying it to three TOD projects (including MARTA’s Lindbergh Station). Transport Politic praises the TOD standards for providing a tool for objective evaluation of projects and for its potential to produce better TOD results. But the blog questions the structure of the TOD Standard’s scoring methodology and the research supporting that scoring.

Why is the active frontage criterion worth 10 points, but the amount of shade on nearby streets only worth 2? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that residential and commercial density are the overwhelming influencers of transit use, yet those criteria only account for a quarter of the score. ITDP does not appear to have conducted a real-world analysis to demonstrate whether certain elements are more beneficial in terms of attracting transit use.

Transport Politic ultimately concludes that although the Standard offers no novel insight into what makes good TOD, it is nonetheless valuable because it provides “an ‘objective’ number that can be used by non-planner decision makers to help them determine which projects would best fulfill the policy objective of maximizing transit use.”

The TOD Standard and the Transport Politic‘s analysis are particularly timely given MARTA’s reinvigorated TOD program.  MARTA has announced plans to redevelop five station areas in the next two years, starting with the King Memorial Station. In redeveloping these areas it is imperative that MARTA is not just authorizing development near transit stations, but development designed to support those stations.  The TOD Standard has the potential to provide useful evaluation of these plans.

According to Transport Politic‘s analysis, the Lindbergh Station rated a 39 out of 100.  Any redevelopment plans around the King Memorial and other stations must score better than that.


What Does Success Look Like

The website Sightline Daily has a piece on the performance of the SR-167 HOT lanes outside of Seattle.  Based on the research of two University of Washington Ph.D students, they report that the lanes are underperforming projections with respect to both revenue and use.  In fact, they found that:

HOT lane revenue in 2012 was about one-third of the “low case” projection that [Washington DOT] made before the lanes were opened.

But according to Washington DOT’s Annual Performance Summary for the same project, the lanes are succeeding on all fronts. How can these report look at the same information and reaching such different conclusions?

Transportation projects serve a variety of purposes so they will have multiple yardsticks for success.  Any given project may succeed with respect to some objectives but not others. But defining success becomes even more complicated – and at times conflicted – for HOT lanes and other managed lane projects.

Take the basic conclusion of the Sightline Daily piece, that Seattle commuters have used the HOT lanes less than anticipated.  Fewer people using the toll lanes and less toll revenue suggest that the project is underperforming.  But the same numbers can be turned around as evidence that the lanes are free flowing and, due to the low demand, toll prices have remained affordable.  Under those metrics, the lanes are succeeding.

The impact of managed lanes on driver behavior presents another conundrum. What if, presented with the unappealing choice of tolls or untolled congestion, drivers have turned to using alternate routes.  Should this phenonenon be viewed as a success (since the managed lane segment now has fewer drivers) or a failure (since the drivers are now clogging up other roads)?

FHWA’s “Atlanta Congestion Reduction Demonstration Project: Interim Technical Memorandum on Early Results (July 2012)” begins to wrestle with some of these complexities in the context of Atlanta’s I-85 HOT lane project.  Dated July 2012, this unpublicized, draft document provides initial feedback on the project’s performance from late 2011 to early 2012.  The report looks at various metrics such as congestion, tolling, transit use, TDM, and sundry other “Non-Technical Success Factors.”   Among the findings:

  • Travel times in the HOT lanes improved in both the morning (-7%) and the evening (-5%) commute compared to their performance as HOV lanes;
  • Travel times in the untolled lanes decreased slightly for the morning commute (-2%) but increased sharply for the afternoon commute (14%);
  • The overall throughput for I-85 decreased between 3-6% in the morning and 4-10% in the afternoon.  According to the report, “[i]t is unclear what accounts for the lower throughput – travelers choosing alternate routes, more off-peak travel, more mode changes – but these potential causes will be examined in the final report;” and
  • Toll prices showed an upward trend, with the maximum toll price increasing from $1.55 to $4.25 over that four month study period. (Toll prices recently hit the $7 dollar mark).

This report focuses on the first few months of the project and a more comprehensive review is expected in the months to come. But more data will not address the underlying quandry of how to define success. Do we want more people using the HOT lanes or less?  Should the project seek to improve conditions in the untolled lanes? Do we want the tolls to increase (to generate revenue and cover the project’s costs) or stay low (so the lanes are affordable to all drivers)? Should we be encouraged or discouraged that I-85 now has fewer cars on the road?

Obtaining data on how the HOT lanes are performing may not be easy, but defining success is the hard part.