Friday, May 3, 2013

BART TOD: Design Matters

In my last two posts (here and here), I wrote about a recent visit to transit-oriented developments (TODs) on the BART system.  The outing, in which I was joined by a friend, was undertaken because the Petaluma City Council will soon consider the Petaluma Station Area Plan, which will also be a TOD.

Today, I’ll use the Richmond TOD as an example of how design details can make a difference in the livability of a TOD.

Look at the photos of the first two blocks as one leaves the Amtrak/BART station.  Perhaps photography doesn’t adequately capture the reality, but my friend and I agreed that the first was a more uncomfortable place to walk.  As pedestrians who didn’t live in the neighborhood, we felt like intruders.

We tried to determine the reason for the different feeling.  We first speculated that it was the architecture.  But the architecture of the two blocks is identical.  Next, my friend guessed that it was the more mature trees in the second block.  I concurred that the trees might be a partial reason.

But I believe the primary reason is the cars.  Or perhaps I should say the curbs and parking strip vegetation that are part of allowing cars into the second block.

In my last post, I noted that Jeff Speck in “Walkable City” writes about the human genetic predisposition to prefer a location at the edge of the public realm, which often means a sidewalk.  At the same time, we’re hesitant to be too close to front doors, feeling that we’re intruding on someone else’s private life.

In the first block, pedestrians are forced to choose between the two unpalatable choices.  The sidewalk feels too close to the front doors.  But the plaza feels too exposed.  So we traverse the street constantly reassessing our decision about where to walk.  And having to make a decision between two equally unacceptable alternatives is uncomfortable.

In the second block, the second choice is taken away from us.  The sidewalk is the only option.  We still not like the front door proximity, but at least we don’t have to balance that discomfort with alternative discomforts.

It was a subtle point, but surprisingly real.  My friend and I both felt that the pedestrian experience in the second block was superior.

This doesn’t mean that we must bring cars into TODs to enhance the pedestrian experience.  Sometimes streets are required for vehicular or emergency access.  But if they’re not, a community garden or playground surrounded by a fence will fill the same role of removing uncomfortable decisions from the pedestrian.

TODs, like many urban places, are delicate assemblies, especially as long as they're forced to engage in unequal competition with drivable suburbia.  Getting the details right is essential.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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