Transit Villages are a Throwback to Medieval Society

By Michael Park
Posted August 3, 2004

Summary:  The transportation options available in feudal society are only quaint in hindsight. Smart Growth calls for a reversion to the limited mobility of the pre-automotive society.

Full text:

Transit-oriented developments (TODs) are a failure in modern society.

The reason I say it this way is because the idea of a transit-oriented development is not new, but has arisen naturally as transportation has evolved. TODs are an artifact from the pre-automotive society and their failure in modern implementation is due to this fact.

It helps to define a TOD… Transit-oriented developments are optimally self-sufficient nodes on the network of a larger transportation infrastructure. In Smart Growth usage, they are transit-friendly and auto-repellent. They have very little room for resident parking (if there is any, it can be costly and is generally in open, burglary-prone lots). TODs are intended to include mixed-use development with retail space where residents can purchase the necessities of daily life without having to go anywhere. Modern TODs sometimes have social services built in, such as child care centers (e.g. the Via del Mar TOD near downtown Watsonville, CA).

None of these ideas are new. The modern TOD is a throwback to medieval society.

In medieval times, when the average citizen had to walk to get anywhere and even horses were a luxury affordable only for a few, villages were naturally built to accommodate transportation time. Generally, villages and cities were shaped like a wheel, with a church at the hub and streets jutting out from there like spokes, all of it encircled by some sort of defense system or by agricultural fields. Shops were all located near the center of the village; proprietors and their families lived upstairs. Without any affordable and widely available means of traveling any distance farther than a day’s walk, the necessities of daily life had to be easily accessible. TODs worked within this societal framework.

However, as technology progressed through the industrial revolution and beyond, and as personal mobility became more affordable and accessible to even the poorest residents, the need for this type of development lessened. Retailers could open up larger stores (generally at the edge of town, where less expensive land was available). With increased mobility, residents were free to avail themselves of greater retail choice, leading to competition among retailers. Recreation became an option as they could venture into the country to see the sights and have a picnic without considerable effort or investment.

By promoting TODs everywhere, Smart Growth has taken a sentimental view of the “old country” and the “good ‘ole days” and is forcing it on modern society.

Though it is certainly nice to have all the necessities of life available within walking distance, to do should not require us to give up the freedom of mobility and the increased affordability that results from choice. Smaller retail locations, though they provide unique wares, often cannot provide low prices because they cannot buy at bulk. Fewer retailers often means less competition on the market, decreased quality of service and less options for customers. A lack of available parking (called a “disincentive” to driving by urban planners) increases the cost and efficiency of daily transportation. Because of the increased cost of living, two income families are the norm, so child care is necessary (it’s generally government-subsidized as well).

To top it all off, TODs are generally unsafe, because of how the community is designed. “Permeability”, a desired feature of New Urbanist (NU) neighborhoods, has been cited even by Smart Growth proponents in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — as well as private studies — as a contributing factor in neighborhood crime. Quite simply, permeability translates into more escape routes for criminals. The “vibrant” social atmosphere called for by NU is essentially a mix of familiar faces (locals) with unfamiliar faces (people in the neighborhood for work, shopping or criminal activities), making a cohesive sense of community almost impossible — and reducing community awareness of criminal activity.

In medieval society, the TOD was the norm; everybody lived there except for the richest lords and rulers. In modern society, however, TODs appeal to one sector of the general population — young adults. Young adults are looking for nightlife. They enjoy meeting new people. They stay up late. They don’t mind noise right outside their bedroom windows. They don’t need private, safe outdoor space for unsupervised children (they don’t usually HAVE children). They don’t have a lifetime’s worth of accumulated material goods that they would be sorry to see stolen.

This is a very long way of saying that TODs are successful only in very limited circumstances: when they (1) involve the modern usage of old development, as in the downtown areas of large European cities; and (2) are inhabited by a young, generally childless, and materially careless population. Even with these conditions satisfied, TODs require heavy subsidies, because of public transit. Though transit systems in some of the densest cities in the world approach self-sufficiency, I know of none that is not subsidized.

If success for TODs is defined as occupancy, then yes, there are some successful TODs. A few. But if success is defined as high occupancy, greater ease and affordability of life for residents and no subsidy from the rest of society, then there isn’t a single successful TOD in the world.

Transit Villages are a Throwback to Medieval Society by Michael Park

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