There is a lot of talk in the United States, and Seattle in particular, about Transit Oriented Development or TOD. Often times this phrase is used to describe the planning process around station area development in a new transit system build out. This process usually involves some form of public-private relationship to achieve the goal of adding density of housing, jobs and services around the station node. In Seattle at least, this process is fraught with complications due to the often conflicting mandates between the rail agency and the local governing jurisdictions. The level of density achieved is usually much lower than the maximum potential, due to concerns of neighbors and lack of vision and leadership to fully address the long-term regional growth trends and needs. In a way this is a strategic error on the part of government, not realizing the importance of creating a built-in, long-term customer base for their massive investment. Instead the project sponsors cave to the pressure of a small minority of vocal individuals rather than looking out for the good of the community at large. As an advocate for compact, sustainable, and livable communities, I find myself frustrated by the lost opportunities in the TOD model that are too often caused by this short-term instead of long-range focus.
Here in Hong Kong where for decades station area planning has dominated the development landscape, we have found ourselves facing the opposite of the lost opportunity problem. Driven by a much different land ownership scheme, where government owns nearly all land and instead sells development rights on a land-lease basis, the concept of Development Oriented Transit (DOT) dominates. In this model, the government conveys development rights at the station area to fund not only the station build-out but also to capitalize an “endowment” of sorts for future operating subsidy. This bifurcated revenue model is further enhanced by two components to the land lease payment – and up front capitalized lease payment and an ongoing percentage of revenue lease payment. From the several conversations we have had with both public and private sector representatives, government’s measurements of project success seem to be the amount of revenue in the short and long run that are generated by the overall development activity (transit+real estate) and the number of system riders that can be accommodated in the new station area with supporting housing, jobs and services. The end result in the urbanized areas is often a huge, multi-story station podium filled with retail and services coupled with large towers of residential and commercial uses. These monolithic structures, while financially very productive, at times fail to meet the needs and goals of individuals and the overall neighborhood at the pedestrian level.
At the Chinese University of Hong Kong we heard from Eugene H.K. Leung, whose Master’s thesis was a study of the proposed rail station for the high-speed train service between Hong Kong and Beijing. He proposed an elegant solution to the podium problem, where an additional goal was added to the conventional success criteria of the project: permeability of the public pedestrian zones at the DOT station podium. Rather than having the podium act as a fortress against the surrounding neighborhood, as is the case at many of the most urban stations, Mr. Leung’s solution creates a net for people in the community surrounding the project thereby fortifying the fabric of the neighborhood as a whole.