June 18 2020
Will Coronavirus Kill Transit Oriented Development?
Prior to this pandemic, I would have written an article stating that mixed-use and high-density developments, also known as Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) to urban planner enthusiasts, were taking hold and that it was time to investigate the role infrastructure plays in them. In fact, it seemed that TOD’s were overcoming their bad rap and becoming a new standard with increasing numbers being implemented along transit lines and as part of developments.
Much of this is due to decades of urbanism leadership by advocates like Peter Calthorpe and Janette Sadik-Khan, who, through their efforts seemed to successfully have myth-busted TOD’s. In my article, I would have said that this myth-busting had led cities, transit agencies and community planners to approach urban planning with a more integrated and sustainable frame of mind, incorporating more TOD’s into their designs.
I would have also said that the tension between suburban versus urban was nearly a thing of the past and that the preconceived notion that TOD’s are only for young professionals had been dispelled. In fact, I would have even said TOD’s are increasingly seen as a desirable option for all generations, regardless of their income because they contribute to living a more connected and sustainable lifestyle.
Ultimately, I would have suggested that it was time to take the next evolutionary step and reorient our thinking around TOD’s and the importance of infrastructure contributing to the integration of both the transit and the development (stay tuned for more on this). However, it seems that with the spread of COVID-19 and the threat of future transmittable diseases, we may have hit a speed bump.
The threat these developments now face, is that density is seen by many (even if the “many” are misinformed) as the hot spot for the transmission of infectious diseases and the exact place to avoid. So, will pandemics like Coronavirus kill the gains made towards the implementation of TOD’s? Will these threats create such fear that it once again paralyzes decision makers from investing in these developments? Let’s explore.
We are now faced with a new challenge – The fear of density
According to the United Nations, 95% of people testing positive for COVID-19 live in urban areas. I’m concerned that the pandemic and data like this will create a fear of density and roll back the great gains we have made in popularizing Transit Oriented Development.
The pandemic has certainly instilled fear and a sense of germaphobia. But this will pass, as it has with viruses past. The immediate questions are “how quickly will our cities bounce back?” and “how quickly will citizens feel comfortable being in close proximity of each other again?” Yes, we will be quick to hug our family and friends, but will we hop back on packed trains or elevators? Will we have a visceral fear-based reaction to the next person that sneezes or clears their throat in our immediate vicinity?
As all levels of government continue to plan their response and rethink ways to use our public spaces – primarily roads and sidewalks – I argue that we must also think about new ways to use our indoor shared spaces.
I write this from Calgary. A winter city like Calgary does not have the luxury of simply moving its people outdoors permanently. The constraints of the walls around us cannot practically be knocked down… or, perhaps they can?
In this line of thinking, perhaps we need to re-evaluate how we modify TOD’s of today and design them for the future. Recently, some interesting research was conducted, to understand the spread of COVID-19. The research supports the importance of designing density correctly. In fact, what has been reconfirmed through this pandemic is that not all dense centres are created equal. Different types of density dictate the quality of how people live and work, based on the variety and ease of access to the amenities within a dense environment.
Our designs must accommodate flexibility in their outdoor and indoor spaces, allow for expansion and contraction and ensure preparedness for emergency events like future pandemics. Regardless of designing to futureproof for the required flexibility, the goal for TOD’s remains the same: to strike a balance between density, open spaces, and transit connectivity with proximity to mixed-use services and amenities.
How to deliver the vision of TOD’s while accommodating for future pandemics?
Since the onset of the virus we’ve seen innovation in our approach to outdoor spaces. With the reimagination and repurposing of sidewalks and streets to accommodate pop-up patios and increased pedestrian realms, we’ve adapted our outdoor spaces to allow for social distancing.
I argue that we can reimagine and open up our shared indoor spaces as well, and not just because we can but because doing so will aid in keeping businesses open, economies stable and allow us to live the lives we’re accustomed to with only minor adjustments.
Designing our buildings and structural spaces to expand and contract will help accommodate physical distancing requirements during an outbreak and, more importantly, instill confidence in visitors and residents who can continue to live, work, and play with just a little bit more breathing room.
Informed by tools such as pedestrian modelling, the planning of the interior space or the retrofitting of existing spaces could include knock down walls, modular interiors, and other such areas that may have a functional purpose during “normal” times but that can be relocated or removed during pandemic conditions.
For instance, even pre-pedestrian modelling, Entuitive was involved in the Core Revitalization Project in Calgary where we were able to modify the indoor space to suit our clients’ objectives, relocating escalators, adding new openings and expanded floor plates. This shows how easily we could accommodate a new physical distance reality in a post-pandemic world through the adaptive reuse and reconfiguration of space.
Extending this line of thought further, there could be opportunities to design other facilities in a way that redundant infrastructure is built into the system for future pandemics. An example would be a transit station that uses a central loading platform for passengers during normal operations but that could operate a second side loading platform in pandemic conditions. This could bring more trains online to help people spread out and travel more safely and efficiently, even considering potential drops in ridership as we’ve seen with COVID-19.
This idea is not so farfetched, as some transit agencies today have additional platform capacity. Whether it’s longer platforms to accommodate longer trains, or an additional side loading platform to serve major events when ridership demands are at a peak, such as the Victoria Station on the Calgary Transit Red Line, we need to think about how to maximize the use of our platforms to accommodate social distancing requirements. More on this in the next section.
Think Lego Blocks – Can structures expand and contract?
To achieve the kind of “amenity rich” density that is considered successful by today’s TOD standards and that can also be functional during a pandemic, the design or retrofit of TOD’s must maximize the open space in “normal” conditions and allow for the partitioning of those open spaces. Let’s explore how we can do this, breaking down the concept of TOD letter by letter.
The pinch point on a transit network that connects developments is both the capacity of the fleet and the limitations of space within the stations. This is primarily seen on the platforms, within concourses or corridors, and at the vertical circulation points i.e. elevators, stairs, and escalators. Using pedestrian modelling we can quantify how people move through a space, as well as identify points of constraint and opportunities where the space can be reconfigured to allow for maintaining capacity while meeting social distancing requirements. Recently, Matt Smith wrote an article on remobilizing after the pandemic, exploring how we can forecast public transit capacity following COVID-19. In this piece, he showed that a socially distanced commute is possible, and I think it is too.
To make our transit infrastructure more adaptable to future scenarios, we can look at how expanding and contracting the available physical space might be possible. Using pedestrian modelling, we see two images of a sample concourse below. On the left is the full “normal” operations configuration, with food and beverage vendors shown in red and ticketing shown in green. If more physical space is required in the concourse over a sustained period, such as a pandemic, these can both be removed or reduced to free up space, which is reflected in the image on the right.
The impact of this can be seen by comparing the orange and yellow contours on the floor in each image which illustrate passengers that are in close proximity to each other. A strategy such as this can make it easier and more comfortable for passengers to spread out within the available space. For some of them, this may improve their confidence in using transit.
Another area of focus within the transit infrastructure is the design of redundancies in the system and how these can help alleviate constraints in the movement of passengers. As I suggested earlier, additional platforms that were previously used for peak period events could now be used for pandemic events, potentially making a case to add redundancies to critical transfer stations or nodes along the system that are servicing essential services such as hospitals, grocery stores, and long-term care facilities.
Open spaces such as streets and sidewalks will continue to be critical to the flexibility and increased social distancing of people. Prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists to promote health and wellbeing is essential and a key consideration for any successful TOD. The reason why TOD’s won’t be easily eliminated because of pandemic events is that open spaces are inherent to good urban design and contribute to the balance of density, mobility, and activation of space.
As famed urbanist Jane Jacobs once said, “the more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity. ” I might only add, light-heartedly, that the well-located parks now require safe social distancing.
Of course, there’s one limitation to open spaces: their dependency on climate. Much of Canada, as we’ve seen with the Calgary example, are subjected to winters that can be long and harsh. Hence why I’ve made the position of this paper that we need to also include the indoor spaces, our structures, in the solution. I’m not just talking about the functional and operationally purposed designs that are required but how we execute the design so that it’s flexible, adaptative, and resilient.
Developments are the realization of a community vision that result in mixed-use structures designed to the pedestrian scale. Throughout the pandemic the built environment, due to its presumed fixed nature, has been labeled as the limiting factor in our ability to respond effectively to physical distancing requirements and keep our people and economies moving.
I take issue with this. The built environment is where the true opportunity to get creative lies precisely because we haven’t tried it yet. Indoor places provide plenty of opportunity to play with space and rejig or expand it as necessary.
Like Lego blocks, walls could be removed and corridors could be widened, but this modularity needs to be designed far ahead of time to be practical. What we might currently see as barriers to the circulation within a building could be re-analyzed and the design of the interior could be optimized or retrofitted in anticipation of future pandemics. if we build this in now, we help to ensure the liveability and resilience of TOD’s down the road.
This concept of adaptability in our built environment is not entirely new. In fact, it was one of the key principles in the Sidewalk Labs Innovation Plan that was proposed for Quayside in Toronto. In that case, adaptability was paramount to ensure more spaces could be enjoyed by more people during more times of the year. This adaptability would also have enabled spaces to be more resilient to future events.
Imagine a structure that is responsive and resilient to the next pandemic
As we all witness and experience this new normal, and we continue to strive to build better communities, let us not lose sight of the goal. After all, structures are more adaptable than you think. Walls can be taken down, spaces can be repurposed, concrete and steel can be added or removed through restoration or retrofitting. Rethinking our public spaces does not have to be limited to just our streets or outdoor places. With a little imagination we can also transform our structures and indoor spaces to be more resilient, responsive and adaptable.
So, will Coronavirus kill TOD? No. It’s created a minor setback, sure, but by viewing it as an opportunity to reorient our thinking and explore how all the components of TOD; the transit stations (T), the open spaces (O), and the development (D) can be adaptable, we will help contribute to a more resilient community during a future pandemic. Hopefully, this will help with the longevity and continued vibrancy of these communities long into the future.