Not “The Great Transit Oriented Development Swindle?”

Written by Marc Salomon. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on March 04, 2010 with 15 Comments

In a world threatened by Peak Oil, Transit Oriented Development is a development concept
aimed at encouraging the development of housing and commercial centers around mass-transit systems.

By Marc Salomon

March 4, 2010

Over the past ten years, the San Francisco Department of City Planning has rezoned much of the east side of San Francisco [0] for greater densities of market rate housing based on the theory of Transit Oriented Development:

TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT is the exciting new fast growing trend in creating vibrant, livable communities. Also known as Transit Oriented Design, or TOD, it is the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high quality train systems. This makes it possible to live a higher quality life without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.
Transit oriented development is a major solution to the serious and growing problems of peak oil and global warming by creating dense, walkable communities connected to a train line that greatly reduce the need for driving and the burning of fossil fuels.[1]

Surely only the antideluvians deny that burning fossil fuels is a leading cause of climate change. And clearly one of the best ways that we can contain emissions is to consume less petroleum. And who but a stick in the mud could be against “Exciting new fast growing trends” or “vibrant, livable communities?” Especially if the residents of those communities are hip, slim and young.

Each of these sections warrants a detailed explication of its own. This piece is intended to serve as a high level sketch of the issues involved and how environmental jargon is used to further developer corruption of the political and planning processes.

What Are the Realities of TOD in San Francisco?

Under a cursory examination of the concrete realities on the ground, in San Francisco, Transit Oriented Development is a Green bait and switch designed to promote developer profits [1.5] while exacerbating the very conditions which lead to increased emissions, climate change, congestion and slower, less reliable surface transit. Simply because desirable aspects of a policy appear to work on paper does not mean that they work that way in reality, or that other aspects of the policy don’t actually work against preferred aspects. Compact urban development can lead to denser more walkable communities, but only with sufficient investment in regional infrastructure to discourage auto ownership by making transit more attractive. In the absence of that level of investment, the economic characteristics of this type of development in San Francisco will most likely diminish transit reliability by increasing auto trips–the precise opposite of TOD’s stated goals.

The Existing Transit System is Under-Invested

The existing transit system, both regional and local, is not capable of handling existing demand. Proposed development has been shown to slow down existing transit investment, which according to market research studies [2] associated with the San Francisco MTA’s Transportation Effectiveness Project, discourages transit choice riders from abandoning their autos for transit. The long haul regional network is neither fast nor reliable, and the first and last miles are slower and less reliable.

San Francisco is Actively Dis-investing in Muni

Current acute and active structural disinvestment diminishes transit as an attractive alternative by making service less reliable and increasing trip time. As government retrenches from funding commitments to transit, the existing condition of Muni in the neighborhoods slated for TOD today are actually worse than when the Eastern Neighborhoods and Market Octavia EIRs which gave TOD the green light were approved.

Transit Oriented Development Takes More From Muni Than it Contributes

The Environmental Impact Report for Eastern Neighborhoods stipulates to the significant adverse impacts on the Municipal Railway at the time;

A proposed project [Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning] would have a significant effect on the environment if it would cause a substantial increase in transit demand that could not be accommodated by nearby transit lines, resulting in unacceptable levels of transit service; or cause a substantial increase in delays or operating costs so that significant, adverse impacts on transit service levels could result. With the SF Muni and regional transit analyses, a proposed project would have a significant effect on the transit provider if project- related transit rider trips would cause the capacity utilization standard to be exceeded during the p.m. peak hour. SF Muni’s standard of capacity utilization is 85 percent.[3]

The Preferred Project would result in significant, adverse transit impacts on Muni service affecting the following seven lines: 9-San Bruno, 22-Fillmore, 26 Valencia, 27-Bryant, 33-Stanyan, 48-Quintara, 49-Van Ness/Mission. [4]

Since that EIR was certified and these rezonings passed, the MTA has lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to state operations subsidies cuts, general fund contribution cuts and work order charges, and has repeatedly cut services accordingly. The conditions considered for TOD in those planning areas no longer apply, yet those rezonings remain even though greater environmental impacts upon which they were predicated remain undisclosed and unmitigated.

Local and Regional Transit Infrastructures Are Neither Reliable Nor Robust

Transit Oriented Development is predicated upon the notion that existing transit infrastructure is attractive enough such that residents of new units will take transit to work instead of drive. This assumption is critical from two perspectives. First, new residents owning vehicles will create parking impacts and increase local traffic congestion which will slow down local transit. Second, that in the face of unacceptably grueling transit commutes, that these residents will not take transit to work, which will eliminate the alleged climate change benefits of TOD.

San Francisco is not the regional employment center. Employment growth projections according to the Association of Bay Area Governments [5] indicate that San Francisco’s job levels are flat while jobs at the sprawled job centers will grow roughly where the headquarters of the top 30 of the Chronicle 200 firms and in sub-regions served even worse by transit in the North Bay.

A study of commute times from 20th and Mission, the center of the Mission Area Plan which is extremely well served by regional and local transit investment, to the top 30 of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 200 Firms [6] should dispel the fallacy that transit competes effectively with private autos for average commutes:

Sources: drive times,, transit times:
TOD in San Francisco Does Not Compete with Suburban Sprawl

The TOD thesis asserts that in order to check suburban sprawl, cities need to densify their urban cores to support greater densities of development. But this is predicated upon the assumption that housing in the urban core and periphery are fungible, that the core and periphery compete interchangeably for buyers. The disparity in economic demographics and the price of housing between the two markets dispatch this as false:

Median home price: Brentwood $298K [7]
Median per capita income: Brentwood $33K [8]
Median home price, SF EN construction $627K [9]
Median per capita income, SF EN (D6) new construction $91-147K [10]

In order for TOD to check sprawl, prospective home buyers would be expected to make the choice between purchasing a $300K unit in Brentwood or a unit costing twice that much in San Francisco. Further, in order to check motor vehicle commutes, the assumption would be that someone paying that urban location premium would more than double their commute time by taking transit.

Although San Francisco has a superior investment in public transit, that investment is not sufficient to tip the balance in favor of lengthy commutes by those well heeled enough to be able to afford to purchase housing in San Francisco. The “last mile” problem remains, where jurisdictions in the periphery near sprawled job sites will need to make a transit investment similar to that of San Francisco in order to balance the equation and make transit attractive to commuters. The City’s own studies demonstrate that under a previously under-invested system, Transit Oriented Development will slow down most Muni lines in the plan areas. Under subsequent disinvestment, these numbers only will get worse.

The Muni is not the only existing infrastructure which will be impacted by TOD. The Planning Department stipulates to the fact that existing infrastructure is insufficient [11] and that new construction in TOD zoned areas will not pay for its own added infrastructure costs [12]. That means that the infrastructure needs of existing San Franciscans whose sidewalks, streets, parks and playgrounds are crumbling and dangerous will need to wait until the newcomers are provided for. The Planning Department also stipulates to the fact that new residential development will not pay enough property taxes over time to cover the future costs of city services they will consume.

Under the Planning Department of Gavin Newsom and John Rahaim, lucrative entitlements are being fast tracked and the bill to cover the costs of that construction now and over time are landing in the laps of San Franciscans. Note that the same people who are expressing concerns over the unfunded liabilities of city employee benefits are the same ones who are fast tracking saddling the City with the out-year unfunded liabilities of new luxury construction.

If the fiscal costs to the City were not bad enough, the demographics of new residents should sound the alarms for all progressive, liberal and moderate San Franciscans.

Market Rate Housing is for Republicans

In 2000, Bush/Cheney received 2812 votes in District Six, the epicenter of new residential development. In 2004 Bush/Cheney’s vote jumped to 3845. In 2008, McCain/Palin garnered 3984 votes. There is a pressing need for housing in San Francisco. Does anyone really believe that the constituency we need to be fast tracking housing entitlements for are Republicans? [13]

Transit Oriented Development is a poor business deal for San Francisco. The benefits accrue to developers and new homeowners while the burdens are shifted onto San Francisco’s beleaguered taxpayers. In order for TOD to work as advertised, we need for new housing to be affordable to existing San Franciscans and to have in the pipeline a level of investment in local and regional transit infrastructures which we are not likely to conceive of much less realize.

The T-Third line has failed to take advantage of a mostly exclusive Right of Way and Transit Preferential Signaling to break past the 11 mph average speed barrier [14].
Against that backdrop, the future for similarly situated BRT projects on Van Ness and Geary to improve transit speeds is dim indeed.

Surface transit will never be able to be competitive with private autos. This problem had been solved more than a century ago with underground subways. In order to have a hope that TOD will work, the City needs to identify a capital program on the order of $20 billion to dig a network of underground subways that can obviate the street grid and surface obstacles which conspire to snarl transit. The DPW and MTA should develop in-house expertise with tunnel boring machine technology. The surface transit quagmire will only worsen as population grows.

To quote Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols’ last song of their last show ever, in San Francisco at the Winterland Ballroom, January 14, 1978, “This is no fun. No fun at all. No fun. Did you ever get the feeling you’re being cheated?”

Foot Notes

[0] Eastern Neighborhoods
[1.5] Affordable Housing Sensitivity Study Keyser Marston:
[2] Market Research
[3] Eastern Neighborhoods, Adoption Packet:
[4] Eastern Neighborhoods, EIR′
[5] ABAG Projections 2002: Employment Growth 2000 to 2025 by 1454 TAZ (58.8MB PDF)
[6] Chronicle Top 200
[9] condo stats:
[10] Healthy Development Measurement Tool, SFDPH
[11] Eastern Neighborhoods Needs Assessment
[12] Eastern Neighborhoods Public Benefits (pg 47)
[13] San Francisco Department of Elections
[14] T-Third not living up to potential By: Mike Aldax April 16, 2009 SF Examiner