In Successful TOD, it’s the Little Things That Count

by Mariia Zimmerman


The Brickell neighborhood is seeing lots of new development, along side reminders of Miami's past, but lacks elements to make walking feel safe or easy to navigate. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, 2013)

The Brickell neighborhood is seeing lots of new development, along side reminders of Miami's past, but lacks elements to make walking feel safe or easy to navigate. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, 2013)

The new intermodal Central Station at Miami's International Airport provides an easy and eye catching connection to downtown. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, 2013)

The new intermodal Central Station at Miami's International Airport provides an easy and eye catching connection to downtown. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, 2013)

Recently I spent a few hot and sunny days in Miami, Florida discussing Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) finance strategies with planners from across the country. Joining me was Dena Belzer, President and CEO of Strategic Economics – one of the nation’s top thinkers on urban finance, and staff from Reconnecting America. In our discussions with meeting participants we strove to reinforce the important reality that transit itself does not make an urban market, but rather, transit investment can act as a market accelerator.

A common mistake for planners and transit officials is to pursue TOD projects with a belief that building near transit will automatically create significant new ridership and increased property values. Too little attention is paid to the smaller scale strategies that can help to make TOD a success. Included in this category would be things like attention to good design of both the building and the street – does the project fit with the neighborhood’s scale and aesthetics? Are there sidewalks, trees or other greenery and lighting that signal people are desired and that it’s a safe and comfortable place?

A case in point is Miami, where the city’s elevated transit system sails by overhead creating a challenge to integrate it with the urban fabric. New development including Dadeland South and the new Intermodal Center at Miami International, are significant in scale and take advantage of a unique zoning tool available along Miami’s Metrorail lines where a “rapid transit zone” designation allows for much higher density and land use control by the transit agency. Urban neighborhoods are a curious mélange of incredibly high density mixed with old-school 1950s one or two story structures.  The result can feel a bit unsettling, especially for those experiencing it on foot.

                     In visiting these sites, I was struck by the lack of simple things like continuous sidewalks, clear signage, and bike lanes. Quite simply, accessing the transit system felt unsafe and confusing. Crossing the street from the transit station at Brickell to the hip restaurants across the street required almost “frogger-like” skills given the lack of safe cross walks. I do not mean to undercut the hard work that the city and region are doing. But rather, to remind us that while large scale infrastructure and development projects can grab attention of politicians and the media, density without design may fail to generate anticipated return on investment  -- both in terms of creating new riders and in transforming neighborhoods. Equally important are smaller scale strategies that focus on improving the safety, convenience, and feel of a place to signal that people are welcome and transit is a preferred way to travel.

  • Can the public (office workers, tourists, senior citizens and youth) easily and safely get to and from transit?
  • Is the transit network connected to bicycling facilities which can extend the reach into urban neighborhoods? This means more than a few spots to lock a bike, but including strategies to create safe bike routes across the city.
  • Are signs clear directing people to and from the transit system into surrounding neighborhoods, and also easy to help navigate on the system and between transit providers?

Groups such as Project for Public Spaces, the National Complete Streets Coalition and the National Association of City Transportation Officials have developed fantastic resources to help planners, engineers and elected officials visual and plan these types of lower-cost investments that can boost ridership and create more livable neighborhoods for everyone.

Less frequently mentioned, but equally important is to educate and enlist those who would be your obvious allies if only they knew it. Top of this list are hotels and convention centers located near transit.

Case in point: Last year, Miami opened a new multi-modal station at the international airport. Costing roughly over $500 million, the new station looks amazing and is easy to navigate. Transit officials report 10,000 additional riders since opening. Fine, but not nearly good enough! This number could expand even more were greater effort made to educate and connect with the city’s hospitality industry – a major economic driver. Consider the fact that Miami welcomes an estimated 13 million tourists each year, with 98% arriving by air. An additional 35,000 people work at the airport. It would appear that less than 1% of these people are using the new connection. Why?

On this visit, I stayed at the downtown Hilton Hotel which was literally across the street from Metromover – an elevated rail loop that connects to Metrorail which serves the airport. (None of this was clear from the system’s signage, nor do the route maps in the train cars show the connection to each other.) Despite this close physical proximity, neither the hotel’s website nor hotel staff recommended transit. In fact, when asked they explicitly discouraged transit since it was “too confusing and complicated.” So, I paid $48 and spent 45 minutes in a cab upon my arrival at MIA.

I got the same response from the Marriott staff across the street when trying to return home. The concierge did not think you could take the train to the airport. Having seen the connection on my tour the day before I pressed him, and after asking 4 different staff he finally found one who could confirm that it was possible. Thanks to the knowledge of this one kitchen staff, I spent $2 and 34 minutes riding transit back to the airport. Point in fact – Miami-Dade transit saved me time, money, and provided a pretty fantastic aerial tour of the city. However, these benefits were not well known by those who worked immediately next to the station.  We need to do better. The Miami-Dade mobile transit app is a good start, but technology is not a replacement for an in-person recommendation.

Engaging key employers, anchor institutions and major tourist destinations is a low-cost, high-impact way to build riders and prove the value of transit to connecting people to where they need to go.

Postscript: Since posting this blog, I was alerted to a terrific new resource from the Urban Land Institute and American Planning Association entitled Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented Design. This new how-to manual is co-authored by urban planning expert and University of Utah research professor, Reid Ewing, and Keith Bartholomew, professor and associate dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah. Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design (ISBN 9780874202014) is not a cheap read, but is available through ULI’s online bookstore. Appendixes will be posted online at http://www.lib.utah.edu/pedtransit.