LA TRANSPO - TOD is an acronym. As with many acronyms, it has numerous potential meanings. Time of day. Tour of duty. Terms of delivery. For Indiana Jones fans, Temple of Doom. Truth or dare. The other day. Transfer on death. To name just a few.
But for metropolitan hipsters, Urban Growth Machine acolytes, density fetishists, and other developer shills, TOD can mean one thing and one thing only: transit-oriented development.
The theory behind transit-oriented development is that density should be placed close to heavily trafficked transit stops. Some theorists talk about “corridors of density.” Some talk about “nodes of density.”
Transit has often been used as an alibi not only for various forms of FSD (Free Shit for Developers), including upzoning and density bonuses, but also excuses to reduce or eliminate parking requirements (which is itself, of course, a form of FSD). The theory is that where public transit is available, people don’t need and won’t use cars.
Proximity to transit and frequency of service are also justifications for FSD in California. In fact, some “density bonuses” and “ministerial approvals” (meaning the state has preempted community-based land use decisions in favor of state mandated levels of density) are directly connected to proximity to transit and frequency of service.
In some cases, if transit headways are reduced below a certain threshold, it’s possible that ministerial approval and FSD are eliminated. This may be one reason why the state legislature and the Governor were able to reach an agreement to pump $5.1 billion into failing transit agencies, despite the state’s $31.5 billion budget deficit.
But does it really make sense to pump scarce taxpayer dollars (that could, for example, be used for affordable housing) into failing transit systems to bolster the frequency of service, despite falling ridership?
It certainly doesn’t make sense if the theory behind TOD is that more people living close to “major” transit lines will ditch their cars and use public transportation. After all, it is “transit-oriented” development, so if you lose the “transit-oriented” part, you’re only left with the “development” part.
It seems as if TOD fans are bigger fans of the “D” in TOD than they are of the “T” and that they are preparing themselves for a back-up plan, should the state bailout of the transit agencies not entice people to make better use of public transit and increase ridership.
In a piece with the telling title “Will TOD Survive the Transit Downturn?” Josh Stephens, contributing editor of the “California Planning and Development Report,” who regularly exhibits WIMBY tendencies, frames it as a direct question: “The fundamental question is whether transit-oriented development actually needs transit to succeed.”
His answer is a fairly resounding “No.” Transit-oriented development, according to Stephens, should be decoupled from transit.
In this rather novel interpretation, he gains the support of other WIMBY urbanists like Michael Manville, professor of urban planning at UCLA.
“[Manville] suggested that the ‘doom loop’ scenario presents the state with an opportunity to potentially drop the pretense of transit ridership and instead extend TOD-style incentives to a wider range of infill locations.”
It is refreshing for TOD advocates to openly admit that transit was always only a “pretense” for “transit-oriented development.”
With that mask now off, Professor Manville continues:
“If you like these programs, it may be time to untether them from transit, and just say we’re just going to have the program along major commercial corridors, or something like that.”
And who might be those most likely to “like these programs”?
The article also goes on to confirm that the theory behind TOD never really worked all that well in reality.
“Manville noted that the average resident of TODs, especially those that include large numbers of market-rate units, are not likely to use transit very often under the best of circumstances. Nonetheless, transit orientation gives developers a host of benefits — including density bonuses and, following the 2021 passage of SB 2079, the opportunity for significant parking reductions, all of which can make projects pencil out for developers.”
Stephens then gives clarity about the real justification for TOD, despite the pretense of suggesting that building more densely near transit was somehow a logical measure or good urban planning or sensible policy:
“Whatever the benefits of TOD are to residents, the benefits to developers all but ensure that state and local programs to promote TOD will stick around.”
So, TOD was never meant to benefit the residents. It was always meant to benefit developers. Transit-oriented development was always developer-oriented development all along. TOD is really DOD.
Lisa Mandolini, CEO of affordable housing developer Eden Housing, had a slightly different take on TOD without transit:
“It’s [TOD projects] also close to other things. It’s close to groceries, schools, hospitals, senior centers. The transit stops aren’t in the middle of nowhere. They’re around other stuff. So, the benefit of having that stuff is good for more than just people riding trains to get to work.”
So here we have “stuff-oriented development,” or SOD.
Of course, the shift from TOD to SOD or DOD leaves the question open about what we should do with our failing transit agencies. The foundation of most public transit systems was always to serve commuters, i.e. to help people get to and from work. With the advent of work-from-home and stuff-oriented-development, transit systems seem to have lost much of their raison d’etre. And yet we still pour billions of dollars of funding into trying to keep them afloat.
But if TOD is now going to be untethered from actual transit, does spending the billions on supporting transit agencies actually make any sense? Wouldn’t we be better off spending those billions on, say, affordable housing?
SB 679, authored by now Congressperson Sydney Kamlager-Dove, created the Los Angeles County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency, aka LACAHSA. We are used to hearing from our Sacramento legislators and Governor about just how important the creation of more affordable housing is in order to address our state’s housing affordability crisis.
The State of California is facing a $31.5 billion budget deficit, and yet the legislature and Governor just made a deal to find $5.1 billion to help bail out struggling transit agencies, including BART. Yes, transit is important, but so is affordable housing.
How much money did the legislature and Governor find to fund LACAHSA?
Not one red cent.
If the legislature and Governor were interested in anything beyond “happy talk,” if they were willing to put their money where their mouths are, then they would have allocated significant funding for the agency they created to allow LACAHSA to fulfill its mission: the preservation of affordable housing, the production of affordable housing, and the protection of rent-burdened tenants in Los Angeles County, which has more residents than 40 states in the Union.
Currently, while the state’s struggling transit agencies are the recipients of billions of dollars in state funding, LACAHSA is being funded by private foundation grants. “Disgraceful” may be a euphemism for the brazen hypocrisy with which the legislature and Governor’s office is treating LACAHSA and those residents whom LACAHSA are meant to serve.
While the state legislature and Governor’s office are undoubtedly cooking up new ways to shower their Urban Growth Machine donors and friends, let’s consider the avenues being opened up by the death of TOD.
Without the constraints of transit as a justification for more intense development, the possibilities for the market fundamentalist WIMBYs are fairly limitless, not to mention for other Trojan horses of varying sizes, shapes, and colors.
Untethering incentives from what is being incentivized opens up the doors to all kinds of Free Shit for the undeserving.
- Child subsidies for the childless!
- Clean air subsidies for polluters!
- No smoker insurance discounts for smokers!
- HOV lanes for everybody!
- Good driver discounts for bad drivers!
- Disabled placards for people who aren’t disabled!
- Charitable donation tax deductions for people who don’t donate to charity!
Just think how economic incentives with no strings attached can boost the economy. Just imagine what more Free Shit for people who otherwise wouldn’t qualify would do for equity.
Ok, to some people, the WIMBY desire to untether transit-oriented development from transit itself may just seem like a cynical ploy to move the goalposts as part of an ongoing mission to eliminate zoning and urban planning.
But FSD will most certainly increase developer profits and add richly to the bottom lines of other real estate interests, from hedge funds to global capital to money launderers and assorted speculators.
In the immortal words of Larry LaPrise: “That’s what it’s all about!”
The word “Tod” (roughly pronounced “toad”) in German means “death.” TOD is dead. Long live DOD!
(John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009 and has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember, and a contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)