Orange County Sees Growth of "Transit-Oriented Development"

Last summer, Orange County christened its 11th Metrolink station. It's in Buena Park, right next to a brand-new housing development. That pairing of train stations and housing is something we're starting to see more of in Southern California. For the next two days, KPCC's Susan Valot will take a look at a growing trend in building called "transit-oriented development."

Note: This is the first of a two-part story. Part Two will air on Friday, November 9.

Susan Valot: Hop off at a subway stop in New York City or Washington, D.C., and you're likely just steps from a deli, a little shop, or a newspaper stand. And nested on top of those businesses are residents, in lofts and apartments. It's called "transit-oriented development" – building homes and businesses within easy walking distance of train or subway stops.

[Sound of crossing gate bells as the train arrives at Santa Ana Station]

Valot: The idea is to get people get out of their cars and into the trains. We're already seeing it near stations in Fullerton, Buena Park, and Santa Ana.

Marlon Boarnet: There's some evidence that people who live near transit stations are five times as likely to commute to work by transit as persons that don't live near transit stations. One of the flies in the ointment is that some of that same evidence finds many of those people were transit commuters before they lived near the transit station.

Valot: That's Marlon Boarnet, a UC Irvine professor who studies the link between urban planning and transportation. He says transit-oriented development is just one of many tools planners use. Boarnet says transit-oriented development would take some cars off the road, but...

Boarnet: The issue is it's not a very large fraction in the context of the metropolitan region. So many people wouldn't see reductions in their own traffic congestion from a particular transit-oriented development project.

Valot: Boarnet says more transit-oriented development is popping up in Orange and L.A. counties now because more money's been spent on commuter rail, like Orange County's eleven Metrolink stations. Southern California's high-priced land plays into it, too. The land's gotten so expensive that it makes more sense for developers to pack more people into less space.

Boarnet: In residential construction, Orange County in particular hit that threshold about five years ago. We went from a situation of having probably no residential high-rise buildings within the county to having several dozen high-rise residential buildings in the county that are either being constructed or in the planning phases.

Valot: And, says UCI's Marlon Boarnet, the denser development is often near train stations or sites of future stations.

Train Announcement: "Metrolink 684, all aboard please. The next station stop is Irvine. This stop is Tustin. All aboard please."

Valot: The big argument against transit-oriented development is that it's just an excuse to pack in people like sardines. Boarnet says that density's coming, whether we like it or not, thanks to population growth. But opponents say people who live at transit-oriented developments usually keep their cars and keep driving, which defeats the purpose.

[Sound of traffic on 405 Freeway]

Valot: Up the 405 Freeway from Irvine in West L.A., Ted Balacker of the conservative Reason Foundation says the costs of transit-oriented development outweigh the benefits. Balacker's the co-author of "The Road More Traveled," about the traffic congestion "crisis."

Ted Balacker: The problem with transit-oriented development and transit in general is that it's going against enormously powerful global trends of suburbanization – the suburbanization of employment and housing. So we no longer have the travel patterns that are conducive to transit-oriented development or to transit as it exists today.

Valot: Look at how traffic's exploded on the 91 Freeway, as more people move from L.A. and Orange counties to the Inland Empire in search of that affordable suburb. Balacker says that suburban shift makes it hard for transit systems – and transit-oriented development – to be successful.

Balacker: We used to have, you know, the "traditional" trip. You maybe live in the suburbs and work in the city, and everyone would go back and forth, suburbs to city. That sort of hub and spoke system has been replaced by a free-wheeling commute pattern, where people leave from every imaginable origin and go to every imaginable destination.

Valot: Balacker says we're wasting too much government money on transit-related projects, in the form of subsidies and tax breaks. He says the money's better spent on other things. But planning expert Marlon Boarnet points out part of transit-oriented development's value is to individual neighborhoods. We'll take a look at one of those neighborhoods tomorrow.