Denver, Featured, Politics, Randal O'Toole, Transportation

Denver transit-oriented developments reflect planners’ misguided mania for density

Over the past decade, three-, four-, and five-story apartment buildings have been built in the Denver area, especially along the routes of current and planned rail transit lines. These apartments, known as transit-oriented developments or TODs, are a part of the original FasTracks plan: first, build rail lines that don’t go where people want to go; and second, provide a customer base for the trains by building high-density, mixed-use housing along the rail lines.

TODs are just the latest version of a decades-old obsession urban planners have had with increasing urban densities regardless of the fact that most people prefer living in low-density areas. Some people blame this obsession on Agenda 21, a document written by a United Nations committee in 1992. But Agenda 21 doesn’t actually recommend increasing densities, while planners began trying to impose higher densities on American cities decades before Agenda 21 was written.

icon_op_edIn the late nineteenth century, American cities were dense because most people could only afford to travel by foot and so everything–jobs, shops, and services–had to be within walking distance of residences. Early urban planners fretted that this density was unhealthy, unsanitary, and promoted crime, so they tried to find ways to move people to less dense areas.

Streetcars made it possible for the middle class to escape dense cities, but they were too expensive for many working-class commuters who remained confined to walking distances until Henry Ford developed the affordable Model T. By 1930, plenty of working-class suburbs had joined middle- and upper-class suburbs.

No one complained about suburban sprawl when the wealthy or middle class moved to the suburbs. But when working class families moved to the suburbs, suddenly complaints arose about people who had different tastes in clothing, food, and music and who supposedly had no appreciation for nature. The solution, said urban planners in the 1930s, was to forbid the expansion of the suburbs and instead house people (mainly the working classes) in “great new blocks of flats.”

In 1935, a Swiss architect named Le Corbusier proposed that cities tear down all existing housing and replace it with high rises for everyone to live in. After World War II, many European countries built hundreds of thousands of units of Corbusian high-rise housing, but mainly for the working classes while the middle- and upper-classes still lived in suburbs.

Similarly, the United States replaced “slums” with high rises for low-income families. These proved so unlivable that most have since been torn down.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs, a resident of Greenwich Village, New York, successfully stopped the conversion of her neighborhood into more sterile high rises. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that Greenwich Village’s four- and five-story apartments with ground floor shops were actually a vibrant, healthy neighborhood.

Jacobs’ book persuaded urban planners that high-rise residences were inappropriate for most people. Instead, they went on a crusade to transform all American cities and suburbs into Greenwich Villages: four- and five-story apartments with ground floor shops. TODs attempt to replicate Greenwich Village in Denver.

So don’t blame TODs on Agenda 21; blame urban planners’ love of Jane Jacobs.

There are several problems with imposing TODs by top-down mandates. First, most people don’t want to live that way. Some do, but the market for those who do was probably met by Denver’s Lower Downtown (LoDo) and other existing dense neighborhoods. So, to persuade developers to build unmarketable TODs, Denver and other cities have to subsidize them.

Second, TODs are expensive. Despite claims that TODs provide greener, more affordable housing, multifamily housing not only costs more per square foot, the Department of Energy reports that it uses more energy per square foot than single-family, probably because landlords have less of an incentive to insulate rental properties than homeowners. The only way TODs are affordable and green is if people live in smaller condos or apartments than the single-family homes they would otherwise prefer.

Third, TODs aren’t really all that transit oriented. University of California, Irvine, economist David Brownstone has found that the reduction in driving from higher densities is “too small to be useful” in saving energy, while careful counts by Portland’s Cascade Policy Institute reveal that people who live in TODs are just as likely to drive, and just as unlikely to take transit, as they would be if they lived elsewhere. TODs actually increase congestion because they concentrate more people on busy arterials.

In short, TODs are a counterproductive hoax urban planners are playing on residents of the Denver area. Taxpayers first pay huge subsidies to build rail transit. Then they subsidize TODs along the rail lines. Then those who get stuck living in TODs must sacrifice living space, privacy, and peace and quiet all to get the supposed advantage of living near the stop of a train that doesn’t go where they want to go, so they end up driving anyway.

Randal O’Toole ( is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, director of the Independence Institute’s transportation policy center, and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.



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