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June 19, 2009

Can Transit-Oriented Development help fix urban sprawl?

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A satellite image of a typical Tyson’s corner road. (Image: Microsoft Virtual Earth via

A satellite image of a typical Tyson’s corner road. (Image: Microsoft Virtual Earth via Downtown Creator)

One of the toughest challenges facing public transit agencies is designing a system that works well in lower-density areas outside of traditional urban centers. Suburban and ex-urban sprawl pose a serious problem for alternative modes of transportation–for bikers, walkers, and transit riders–in cities all across the country, including our own dear St. Louis.

Time magazine published an interesting article last week about Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, one of the nation’s most notorious and massive examples of sprawl, located in the D.C. area. Right now, this ‘exurb’ consists mostly of shopping malls, big box stores, and office complexes, and has very little housing. The article details a new development plan inspired by the proposed addition of a light rail line through the area, with four stops proposed for Tyson Corner. The development, all sponsored by private developers rather than a local government, calls for the addition of thousands of living units and the institution of a street grid in an area that now is connected primarily by parking lot. It’s Transit-Oriented Development on a massive scale, with the impetus for the project coming mainly from the addition of the light rail stops and from a desire to reduce traffic.

It’s an interesting idea and, as far as I am aware, unprecedented in its scale. What do you think? Will this work or even happen? Could transit-oriented development of this type transform St. Louis in the future? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

7 thoughts on “Can Transit-Oriented Development help fix urban sprawl?”

  1. Jimmy Z says:

    TOD is bedeviled by two things, the chicken-or-egg challenge that you need transit for TOD to succeed and you need density for the transit component to succeed (someone needs to go first and take the risk absent the other) and the inertia in too many local planning agencies, where existing required parking ratios do little to encourage density. In THEORY, TOD offers a compelling argument. In reality, there are few new, truly successful, examples, and nearly every one of them is driven by much-higher underlying land values than we find around St. louis, and they’re usually coupled with more congestion and much-longer commutes than we find around here, as well.

    Does that mean that TOD can’t work here? No. It’s just going to take someone with the vision and the marketing skills that made New Town St. Charles a success (in a flood plain, behind an industrial park) to do a TOD project in the city, combined with enough consumers who “get it”. That, and enough jobs “at the other end of the line” to make commuting via Metrolink a viable reality – if you’re working in St. Charles County or out the Highway 40/I-64 corridor, you’d gain very little by embracing TOD . . .

    ( is also another great resource on the topic.)

  2. Melissa says:


    Good point–I hadn’t yet considered the chicken-or-egg problem. It seems that the Tyson’s Corner situation is unique because transit will be heading out that way anyway to provide access to the airport, so developers are taking advantage of stops that will be coming to the area whether it gets more dense or not.

    Perhaps the key to successful TOD in St. Louis would be a close working relationship between area TOD developers and Metro. After all, Bi-State was founded decades ago with regional economic development as one of its guiding principles.

  3. Paul says:

    I think the issue of relationships between cities, developers and Metro is key here. But let’s leave Metro out of the equation for a moment. What is THE relationship between developers and the Saint Louis region?

    Key questions:
    – Who is the driving vision behind development in Saint Louis City and County?
    – Which developers have a vision beyond strip malls and Wal-Marts?
    – Will residential developers stop building isolated housing islands but rather build next to the strength of well established neighborhoods?
    – Can residential development in the city thrive with the continuing issues of the school system? Are these two as intertwined as they seem or can residential development occur a renaissance no matter the state of the school system?
    – Is now the time for some of the smaller urban organizations to take a larger leadership role where other organizations have been slow to respond?

    Something like Tyson’s Corner requires a tremendous amount of long range planning. Cities, neighborhoods, “districts”, need to commit to developing long range plans. Would be cool if someone could collect those plans and post them on a site. Maybe this exists, would love to know.

  4. Amelie says:

    this is a cool idea but can it really work in St Louis? were already a built up city. Theres not much room for new development like TOD stuff

  5. Jennifer says:

    As built-up as St. Louis is, there’s a lot of room for urban infill, especially closer in. And in sprawled areas similar to Tyson’s Corner, the trick is to bring in the residential component that has been left out, making accommodations for transit. It’s a question of setting up land use so that it’s not residential here and commercial there, but a blend of the two.

  6. Matt says:

    I think it can work in St Louis. Arlington, Virgina, has won national awards for its transit oriented development. The EPA recently gave the city the first award for excellence in smart growth. Arlington is also an old city, but it has managed to increase walkability. Hopefully we can repeat those successes in St Louis.

  7. Peter says:

    Thanks for the good post! I’m excited to see it happen here in STL!

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