Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments

As the automobile became the preferred method of travel in the United States during the 20th century, car oriented development became the dominant pattern of city design. Today it is extremely difficult or simply impossible to go about ones daily life without some reliance upon an automobile. Furthermore, in most areas of the country, the lack of one makes a person a second class citizen. For a variety of reasons, there has been a resurgence in the interest for mass-transit oriented developments (TODs). Proponents of this alternative method of city organization argue for its superiority over car oriented developments in efficiency, aesthetics, and livability (to name a few).1 Although there is something to be said for all of these reasons, here I will concentrate on an argument for TODs from the perspective of social justice. Typically arguments from social justice have been among the more controversial because they often involved some sort of redistribution of resources; in American politics it is often unclear how much the rich should be forced to give up in order to help the poor. I hope to bypass this issue by looking at a current public policy that seems to have wide-spread public approval, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and derive from it an argument for government sanctioned support of TODs. In section 1, I describe a number of public policies, including zoning, highway, and accessibility standards for the disabled and from these derive the moral basis for the government support of TODs. In section 2, I explain my argument in detail and address a number of initial concerns. Finally, in section 3, I address the most plausible objection to widespread TOD development – that gentrification could cause the poor to lose their homes.

1. Preliminary Assumptions

Transit Oriented Developments

It is first important to clarify what I mean by a transit oriented development (TOD). The model that has recently been fleshed out by the New Urbanists certainly surpasses the more constrained notion that I want to deal with.2 The New Urbanist model has been the most common in the United States for the past 10 years; large developers are typically sought by a community in order to fill the area around a rapid transit center with commercial, residential, and retail properties in accordance with the New Urbanist design rules.3 Many have argued against the methods of New Urbanism as well as the overly corporate tendencies of their developments;4 however, here I offer a far simpler picture of TOD, one that is based upon the idea of developing within walking distance of stops of a rapid transit system.

I define TOD as a mode of development that makes a rapid transit system the primary method of transportation. Although many development forms could perhaps fulfill this requirement, practical considerations lead to a system containing a single integrated rapid transit system composed of (roughly) circular development nodes with radii equal to the distance people are willing to walk to the transit stop in the center of the node. Development nodes are tools for zoning and infrastructure construction; a successful TOD allows for most interactions (commercial, civic, and recreational) to take place within the TOD itself, and this means that the only transportation modes necessary are walking (with obvious allowances for disabilities) and mass transportation.5 Formally, these are the only requirements of a TOD; but in order for such a structure to function given contingent facts of our social world, some other features must also exist. Typically there must be average one-way commuting times of no more than an hour (though usually shorter than this) and the transit system should feature frequent arrivals at all nodes. These requirements in turn typically demand higher densities in order to provide a critical mass of users for a mass transit system to be efficient. This requirement oftentimes produces the highrise TODs that have been very prevalent in American urban areas; however, the actual required density of any node is a contingent fact of the TOD itself and is the function of a complex calculation of mass transit capabilities as well as the efficiencies demanded by a community. It is also important to remember that increased densities do not necessarily mean higher buildings; decreasing street width can also yield dramatic increases in densities without sacrificing the “human scale” of an environment.6

The vital aspect of a TOD is that it essentially eliminates the need to own and support a car. A well functioning TOD should contain almost all of the locations one would desire to go to inside of it, and therefore the need for daily car use is eliminated. This does not mean that car use is eliminated completely,7 but simply that it will be far less necessary in a TOD than in a car oriented development. This benefit of accessibility regardless of car ownership is the most vital for my purposes; I will argue that TODs provide accessibility that is not achievable in a car oriented development. Other aspects of TODS affect the sorts of goods people can derive from them, but this is a topic that I won’t concern myself with in depth here; I briefly discuss this issue in my conclusion. Here, I need to justify the premise that government can legitimately make development decisions that may be contrary to what many individuals prefer.

The Role of Government in Urban Planning

Before even considering the details of my argument, one might take a libertarian line toward the entire project of city development.8 The libertarian might say that the entire premise of public policy for city development is based upon an incorrect paternalistic assumption that private individuals and corporations, if left to their own preferences, will develop cities in suboptimal ways. I don’t want to deal with this issue directly but will instead find some reasonable consensus in public opinion about the role of government; if I can find relatively uncontroversial public policy directly related to city planning, then this seems like a promising starting point for deciding what we actually expect in the way of government regulation of development.

The right of government to regulate development through zoning of some sort is virtually uncontested in American society. Of course specific zoning patterns are oftentimes extremely controversial, but the debate almost always takes place within the framework of how to zone and not whether to zone at all. Zoning restricts uses of properties in accordance with some imposed use structure; this is typically done to limit conflict of uses. For instance, heavy industry and commercial uses are usually zoned separately from residential ones so that the various nuisances created by the former do not negatively affect the living situation of those in the latter. And even more dramatic, high density residential properties are oftentimes kept separate from single family homes through zoning regulations.9 Similar processes can be found in road design and construction; when a new highway is proposed there is extensive analysis by experts on the relative merits of various projects. Of course in a democratic society citizen feedback is an integral part of any design process,10 but substantial portions of development projects originate from planners within the government; they seek to design cohesive and harmonious systems that will function well.11 And, contrary to the libertarian’s assertion, it appears that this role for the government is an uncontroversial one. In the United States (and especially in US cities) people expect the government to provide some order in development.

People also generally expect the government to promote behaviors which are socially beneficial. I don’t want to deal with the more marginal meanings of “socially beneficial” because that is an extremely controversial concept; I simply want to assert that there exist some acts which are more socially beneficial than others and that the government has an interest and the right to promote those acts. I don’t think this is as controversial as it may seem initially, as examples abound of people easily accepting this sort of policy by the government. For instance, carpool lanes are quite common in large metropolitan areas as a method to reduce traffic by increasing the number of people who carpool (ride together); the idea is to give carpoolers their own lane, which will likely have far less traffic, to reward their good behavior. However, one could easily look at this as an unjust distribution of resources; the non-carpoolers are, in a sense, deprived of a lane for which they have paid. It could, furthermore, be seen as a harm committed against the non-carpoolers because the non-carpoolers will likely experience heavier traffic than if the carpool lane were a normal lane. Perhaps the libertarian would bite the bullet and say that carpool lanes are unjust, but this would only show that Americans do not generally accept the libertarian position; rather, carpool lanes are generally uncontroversial as a method for traffic calming.12 I gave the example of carpool lanes in detail but there are many uncontroversial policies that are quite similar in their motivation;13 they seek to increase certain behaviors because it is believed that such behaviors are socially beneficial.

Finally, I want to relate this more directly to transportation policy by showing that federal funding of transit projects that further some conception of good transportation policy is generally accepted in our society. The best example of this is undoubtedly the massive interstate highway project initiated in the 1950s.14 To ensure that an extensive network of highways would be created, the federal government heavily subsidized local highway projects using higher driver user taxes; this direct taxation allowed the major federally subsidized highway projects to avoid the typical competition for budget funds.15 This basic goal of producing an interstate highway system through government subsidization is generally accepted as justified.16 We can see a similar attitude toward federal grants for mass transit projects today in the Federal Stimulus Bill of 2009;17 the primary purpose of the bill is to stimulate the economy but the sorts of projects supported also represent a choice by the government about what sorts of projects further the general good.

The ADA and rights of access

The Americans with Disabilities Act18 is another uncontroversial government policy that reflects an important underlying view of the role that American government plays in the lives of its citizens.19 Essentially, the act seeks to make basic life needs more attainable for the disabled through accessibility mandates for those places that are vital for attaining those needs.20 The act uses punitive means to force both public and private entities to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled; this is most visible in the sort of accommodations required for new building construction.21 I want to make an analogy between the sort of governmental control over allowable construction design and the control seen in city planning; the acceptability of both of these seems to stem from the government’s interest in providing a society that is accessible to those with a variety of abilities. I think we can generalize the mandate that the ADA represents to include most human environments. In other words, given the concern people seem to hold for the right of accessibility, the government has a mandate to ensure accessibility in city design.

This analogy is probably the largest stretch for my argument and so I have to carefully motivate this move from what the ADA says about the disabled. At the core of the ADA is a wish to make basic social practices such as work, commerce, and recreation accessible to members of society who could be excluded if certain accommodations were not made. In the case of the disabled, this means that those private and public organizations that participate in these social activities must design facilities in an accommodating fashion so long as the cost to do that is reasonable.22 The most common repercussion lies in new construction where the most radical requirement dictates the sort of facility design that is acceptable for private companies so that the needs of disabled employees and patrons are accommodated. And here is the important move; from the set of mandates contained in the ADA, it seems as though we can derive a cultural value that requires that all people be given some minimum amount of access to the sort of life activities that the ADA specifies.

There is a quick response to my claim; it seems odd to extend the ADA to those without disabilities given that the act is entirely about the disabled. Nowhere does the act reference the rights of people who do not lack capabilities related to “major life activities” and these are far more basic than could be relevant for anyone without a disability.23 I grant this fact as a legal point, but I make no legal claims to begin with. What we need to do is find the background values that the ADA is an instantiation of and from those we can reason morally about what is implied by these shared values. One profitable route might be to consider the moral concerns that the ADA was meant to address. It is made quite clear in section 12101(a)(4)24 that the act is meant to be a tool against discrimination; there it states that, “unlike individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability have often had no legal recourse to redress such discrimination.” A similar sentiment is conveyed in the rest of the section describing the purpose of the ADA as well.25 But perhaps the strongest and clearest description of the values behind the act comes in section 12101 (a)(7-8).26

  1. the Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals; and (8) the continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous, and costs the United States billions of dollars in unnecessary expenses resulting from dependency and nonproductivity.

It is quite apparent here that the ADA is meant to be a solution to the problem of fairness, and the positive rights it grants individuals with disabilities represent more than governmental neutrality but rather governmental facilitation of access. My interpretation of this underlying value is this: all persons have a right in the United States to have access to basic elements of social life such as (though not restricted to) work, commerce, education, and recreation and when the costs of any change are reasonable, people have rights against the suppliers of these social activities.

One might still argue against my formulation by claiming that the ADA is meant as a sort of redistribution in favor of the disabled given that the disabled are not at fault for their disabilities. This is contrasted with the poor for whom I’m arguing for; one may think that they have been given their chance to gain enough economic security to own an automobile and participate fully in society but they have simply failed. Under this libertarian reading of the ADA it might be concluded that although some might have been responsible for their own disability (the reckless base jumper, for instance) the spirit of the ADA is directed toward those who are disabled through no fault of their own. However, this simply seems wrong based upon what has been written by the congress about the ADA; the House-Senate Conference Committee report on the ADA, for example, states quite clearly that even those who are disabled as a result of illegal drug use are fully protected under the ADA,27 so this result isn’t simply a technicality of application but is a very conscious decision that reflects something about the values behind the act.28

One might stick by the claim that there is simply some moral difference between being physically disabled and lacking a car in a car oriented development. I will try to discredit this intuition with a thought experiment. We can imagine one person who uses a wheelchair for mobility who cannot enter a government building, except with great difficulty, because the only entrance requires the use of stairs; this is a straightforward injustice.29 However, there seems to be no moral difference between this case and one in which the impediment is some sort of physical barrier like a wall (i.e. a sudden change in height of the path without any stairs or elevator); the wall would be difficult to overcome for a person of normal physical capabilities and would make life just as difficult for the non-disabled person as the stairs do for the disabled person above.

Now, imagine that a society chooses to use walls instead of stairs as a method of changing elevation in architecture. Note that this method does have a notable benefit over stairs and in fact the same one that stairs have over ramps; it is a more efficient (in fact, the most efficient) use of space when the goal is to change elevation. This, of course, would be an insane method of architecture without some easy way for people to scale these walls. But, if we imagine that this society has come up with a contraption that allows one to easily jump up these walls (let us call them ‘jumpers’) then it seems like an open question whether such an architectural method would be so ridiculous. Furthermore, the society in our example is one in which the free market thrives (let us imagine it is much like our own) and everyone is free to go out and buy a jumper. The market does what could be expected and produces a great variety of jumpers, some of which are relatively cheap (though still quite the investment given how complicated they are) and others that are quite expensive. But, as everyone knows, you get what you pay for and the cheap ones tend to not always jump when one needs to get up a wall or are sometimes rather unsafe (a jumper that throws one backwards instead of upwards is not unheard of). Therefore, in general, people spend quite a bit of money to assure that their jumper works relatively well. Still, people like their jumpers for all the space saved with sheer walls and they are not typically keen on constructing elevators or stairs because of the expense. We also need to imagine that they are not willing to “socialize” jumper ownership (talk about a government handout!). Even granted the existence of jumpers, there still seems to be little (if any) moral difference between the case of a disabled person confronted with stairs and the poor non-disabled person confronted with a wall; in both cases the person is unable to easily reach their goal. The non-disabled person must struggle to finance a method to scale the wall and in light of the ADA this seems unjust. The critical analogy that I want to describe is between this case and that of a poor person in a car oriented development; my argument attempts to do this.

2. An Argument for the government support of transit oriented developments

Formal Argument

I now present a formal argument based upon the premises I’ve described above along with a little more more argumentation. My claims are about generally shared values within the United States as reflected through its uncontroversial public policy. Of course some Americans will disagree with the values reflected by these policies, but if we are to worry about this then it would seem to follow that no American public policies reflect the values of Americans in a meaningful way; I think we can reject that sort of conclusion outright. Notice also that I make no objective moral claims; my argument only makes sense within the context of the American values because my evidence about these values is taken from an American legal context. The argument for construction of TODs from the ADA is as follows:

P1) There exists a coherent value system v.30

P2) It is consistent with v that the government has a mandate to guide city design in a substantial way.

P3) It is consistent with v that the government has an interest to prevent rights violations of any group within its jurisdiction.

P4) It is consistent with v that rights violations include unwarranted difficulties in accessing basic social goods that would not pose an undue burden on others.

P5) The car oriented development of cities causes an unwarranted difficulty of accessing social goods for set of people x.31

P6) The TOD method of city design does not cause rights violations for set x nor is there any other set of people for which TODs cause rights violations.

P7) The TOD method of city design does not necessarily represent an unreasonable financial burden for the government.


  1. In v, the government has an interest to support the development of TODs in so far as such support does not necessitate rights violations of any set of people and does not represent an unreasonable financial burden.


P1 is required for any moral reasoning because without a coherence requirement any moral statement (regardless of content) could be true in the value system; this would make moral derivation pointless. P2 follows from my section above on the role of government in urban planning; I think I have supported it enough there. P3 seems uncontroversial given how weak a claim it is; I would think that even such dichotomous views as early John Rawls in A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia would both agree with at least this conception of the role of government and probably something stronger. P4 follows from what I have argued for in the section on the ADA. P5 – P7 will take a bit more argumentation; I must show that car oriented developments are like the sheer wall that I described in the previous section and that they, therefore, present some group in society with an unreasonable burden. I must also show that TODs do not cause a similar burden and additionally do not burden others or cost an unreasonable amount to implement.

I think there is good evidence that car oriented developments present a hardship for non-car-owners as well as marginal car-owners who can barely afford an automobile. To begin with, basic attributes of a car oriented development make it such that optimal transportation requires a personal car. This is the only way that car oriented developments can gain dispersion without a subsequent increase in transportation time; points of interest are scattered over a city map which allows for low densities but require that every person have some sort of personal transportation method that can obtain high velocities. But, if one lacks the car needed for this design, such a dispersed development can be both hazardous and time consuming to use. For instance, car oriented developments are consistently dangerous for pedestrians.32 Also, mass transit cannot feature close stops, frequent service, and quick rides in a car oriented development because of its dispersed nature. The efficiency of mass transit that allows it to be available at relatively low cost compared to a personal vehicle requires that the amount of distance covered per rider be low. This simply isn’t possible in a dispersed development. These difficulties seem to meet the demand that I have set in my argument; a car oriented development is a substantial hindrance to those who cannot utilize a personal automobile.

Additionally, there is a tendency for employment and commercial opportunities to cluster in wealthy areas. This was seen during the great exodus from American cities in the later half of the 20th century; as wealthy people moved out to the suburbs of many metropolitan areas, much of the social infrastructure followed them.33 In a car oriented development such an exodus would cause the poor to become isolated in the inner city, away from the goods, jobs, and services they need. This isolation occurs because of their poverty-produced lack of mobility. However, in a TOD such a movement would have only forced poor residents to use mass transit to access opportunities in the richer areas; in a sense, a well structured TOD is immune to the sort of social isolation that is so common in car oriented developments.

One may still object to P5 and argue that the cost of car ownership is not a serious enough burden to hinder a person from fully participating in a car oriented development. There are two ways I could reply to this; I could either mention those who cannot operate a car for whatever reason (elderly, young, and disabled persons) or I could further argue from the perspective of those who cannot afford a car. I will argue from the perspective of the poor because I think this argument is more difficult to make and applies to a larger group of people (the situation of the elderly and young more closely resembles the disabled case because they are truly unable to use a car). The first response to this might be to simply deny that car ownership is a burden for any one except the poorest of the poor (which is a very small group); this position is bolstered by statistics showing that, on average, American households owns 1.9 personal vehicles each and only 9% of American households have none.34 However, this only shows that most people find it necessary to own a car. And given that the average cost estimate for owning one car is around $7, 096 per year,35 this seems to be a rather serious burden on the 28% of American households making under $25,0000 per year and especially so for the 8% of households making less than $15,000.36 Even if we assume that there is only one adult in these households (two adults would require the support of two cars for a decent amount of accessibility), the amount of money required to support a car is a substantial amount of their total income. This money might be better used to buy higher quality food, to fund education, or toward any number of other expenditures on which low income people are often not able to spend enough. Households that are able to use mass transit would only end up spending a fraction of this amount; for example, assuming that a person spends about $138 a month on mass transportation expenditures (assuming 23 work days per month at $6 per work day with other trips taken out of this high daily estimate) that only amounts to $1,656/ year. In this estimate, car ownership costs more than four times the amount of mass transit use; this would be a very relevant difference for a poor household. The TOD system provides the basic transportation required for access to fundamental social needs to all; this is analogous to the ADA’s provisions for basic accessibility at costs that do not disproportionally burden the disabled.

I think P6 follows mostly from my discussion of zoning, city design, and the ADA; it doesn’t seem like the American value system gives someone the right to easily drive a car to any point in a city if governments with jurisdiction over city design deem that the sort of structure which optimizes car use in fact violates the rights of others. There clearly is a difference between simple preference dissatisfaction (you can’t build a little factory attached to your house because it violates zoning regulations) and a rights violation (you can’t build a factory in an area zoned industrial because the city government does not want African Americans to own businesses in the city). My contention is that car oriented developments violate the rights of a large group of individuals and the funding of TODs does not do similar harm to those who can afford car transportation; governments may make car use somewhat more difficult without violating the rights of those who own cars. This is apparent in the sorts of places where TODs have thrived in almost complete forms such as Stockholm, Sweden; the Stockholm metropolitan area is a thriving TOD that also accommodates car use at an adequate level.37 There is a second issue that can be raised about P6 and it relates to gentrification but I will wait to deal with that in detail in the next section; it is the best objection to the development of TODs.

The final premise, P7, is something commonly objected to; many claim that the sort of robust public transportation systems required for TODs are simply too expensive to be justifiable. It is true that quality mass transit systems cost a lot; for example, the Washington, D.C. Metro rail system cost a total of around $10 billion (in nominal dollars) by its completion in 2001.38 It is, in fact, rather famous for how far it ran over-budget. However, car related public works are also quite expensive. For example, the upcoming improvement of the capital Beltway in Northern Virginia is estimated to cost $1.9 billion,39 and this will be done along an existing highway right of way.40 There is also a misconception that car oriented projects are somehow self sufficient – meaning that road construction and maintenance are paid for entirely with user fees (such as gas tax, registration, and tolls); however, this claim of self sufficiency is simply untrue. Recent figures show that even if user fees were fully dedicated to highway projects (15% of federal gas tax is actually earmarked for mass transit and environmental projects), this would only account for 65% of funds spent on highways. The rest of the money used to fund highways in the US comes from non-user fees (such as general taxes) and bonds which may be paid back using all sorts of funds.41 These are simply costs related to highways; when we start tallying the resources we devote to our auto infrastructure, car oriented development actually isn’t as cheap as we thought it was.42 Additionally, much of the cost associated with urban public works arise from the difficulties of building within an existing city as compared to the open land that highway projects typically enjoy. But this can be expected no matter what mode of transportation we choose to build within cities. So, it is true that building just cities requires substantial resources, but a similar scale of expenditures is also required to build unjust ones; this fact does not distinguish TODs from car oriented developments in any meaningful way.

3. Gentrification – the major objection

The most compelling objection to my argument attacks P6 by making the claim that though TODs may solve one form of rights violation for the poor it produces another for that same group through increased gentrification and consequently a rapid increase in living expenses in the TOD. Gentrification is the process whereby the desirability of an area is increased in a substantial way such that area demographics shift to wealthier residents. This, in turn, results in increased property values and rents that can drive lower income residents out of the gentrified area.43 It is feared that the construction of rapid transit stops in a neighborhood could increase its desirability and lead to gentrification that would displace the same poor residents whom the transit stop was supposed to benefit most.

I want to deal with this argument in a few ways; first, we should notice the odd position the objection suggests about what is good for the poor. It seems to recommend the avoidance of accessibility and quality improvements in an area simply because such actions would increase demand for housing there. This suggests something perverse about our expectations for living conditions of the poor; if we follow these sorts of guidelines in order to avoid gentrification then the poor will never live in desirable conditions. It is true that if certain precautions are not taken then TODs could effectively push the poor out of the boundaries of its nodes and into isolated slums. But this hardly seems like a problem with TODs alone but more so with the issue of affordable housing in general. American metropolitan areas have huge issues with affordable quality housing and it is unreasonable to think that the TOD structure can entirely fix that problem. It is true that TODs create desirable areas that may be subject to unjust gentrification but this is simply the by-product of improvements by any means.44

Any just city needs to have a solution to the problem of affordable housing. However, I think TODs, if adequately implemented, would be able to do this far better than a car oriented design. The problem with car oriented cities is that they make quality mass transit a premium, whereas in a TOD this is a basic prerequisite to development. It is expected that a TOD will contain wealthier and poorer nodes and also that land closer to the transit stop of the node will be worth more than that on the periphery; however, all locations in a TOD feature similar access to all parts of the TOD.45 This also has the benefit of lowering transportation expenses for residents of the TOD which could be spent on housing instead; it is certainly the case that location is of greater value in a TOD than in a car oriented development but with a sensible affordable housing program this challenge too can be met.

The real concern with affordable housing lies not in a completed TOD but with one in transition; it is not immediately clear how people with low income can afford to live in a node while a development shifts from a car to transit oriented form. One answer that has emerged which seems most promising is for the government to take active steps to ensure that affordable housing is part of development plans in TOD nodes.46 This topic is beyond the scope of this paper, but it seems safe to say that TODs need not be sunk by transition issues; there are possible solutions to the problems associated with gentrification and the benefits of TODs for the poor far outweigh any growing pains that may result in the transition from the car oriented design.

4. Conclusion

I presented an argument showing the legitimacy of the government taking interest in the development of transit oriented developments rather than car oriented developments. Put simply, the government, in its role as infrastructure and development planner, should advocate for and encourage infrastructure (primarily rapid transit systems) and development (mostly around transit stops) that are consistent with the transit oriented design. I argued from the perspective of social justice and more particularity from American values as reflected in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. My argument does not expand the role of government in city planning but instead expects it to act within its current (generally accepted) role. It is still unclear, however, how much we should be willing to spend to fix the injustice that car oriented developments produce; it seems that it should be on the same sort of scale (relative to other large public works projects) as that mandated by the ADA but that is all I can argue for here. Finally, the exact method that should be used to bring about TODs is also open for debate. There is a fear that the sort of city planning used to bring about TODs will be too coercive and comprehensive so that there will be no role for planning and design at a non-governmental local level.47 I understand this fear; it is clear that there needs to be a balance between too much city planning and too little. However, I don’t see this as a problem particularly for TODs as there are many theorists who advocate for them that call for extensive personal choice and citizen involvement in city development.48

It is also important to situate this argument within the wider landscape of possible arguments for TODs. Arguments from social justice (of which my argument is a member) are likely the most successful normative arguments for TODs but I don’t think they will generally be successful at convincing the political “machine” to build TODs. This is because public policy in a democratic society is undeniably linked (justifiably so) to the preferences of that society’s members. Therefore, although a normative argument like mine can be part of the justification for government action, it need also be backed up by some sort of cost-benefit analysis showing that people can derive about as much or more goods from a TOD than from a car oriented development. Other theorists have dealt with this issue in detail but there is typically the assumption that those accustomed to a car oriented development will have to make some non-trivial changes to their lives in order for them to derive the same amount or more goods from a TOD.49 It is still unclear (to me at least) whether people are willing to do this or whether they could actually derive similar goods from TODs as they currently do from car oriented developments. However, given the injustices that car oriented developments inflict upon many people there is certainly urgency to find this out and at least attempt a change.

Works Cited

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Cervero, Robert. The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

Congress for the New Urbanism. Charter of the New Urbanism. Washington, D.C.: McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Crawford, J. H. Carfree Cities. Utrecht: International Books, 2002.

——- Carfree Design Manual. Utrecht: International Books, 2009.

Curtis, Carey, John L. Renne, and Luca Bertolini, eds. Transit Oriented Development: making it happen. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009.

Fischel, William A. “An Economic History of Zoning and a Cure for its Exclusionary Effects.” Urban Studies 41, no. 2 (2004): 317-340.

Kennedy, Maureen and Paul Leonard. Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A primer on gentrification and policy changes. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, 2001.

Langerfeld, Steven. “What Main Street can learn from the Mall.” Atlantic Monthly 276, no. 5 (1995): 110-120.

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: building the Interstate Highways, transforming American life. Viking, 1997.

Metrorail Station Area Bicycle and Pedestrian Improvements Study, “Increases in population and employment density within three miles of stations, 2005-2030.” <>, 4 Dec. 2009.

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Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.

Pallakowski, Henry O. and Susan M. Wachter. “The Effects of Land-Use Constraints on Housing Prices.” Land Economics 66, no. 3 (1990): 315-324.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, 1971.

Register, Richard. Ecocities: building cities in balance with nature, New Society Publishers, 2006.

RITA – Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “DOT Releases New NHTS Showing Vehicles in Households Outnumber Drivers.” <>, 4 Dec. 2009.

Schrag, Zachary M. The Great Society Subway: A history of the Washington metro. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

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The Bureau of National Affairs. The Americans with Disabilities Act: a practical and legal guide to impact, enforcement, & compliance. Washington, D.C.: BNA, 1990.

The Pew Institute, “Analysis finds shifting trends in highway funding : user fees make up decreasing share.” <>, 4 Dec. 2009.

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1For more on this perspective see Cervero, The Transit Metropolis; Congress for New Urbanism, Charter of the New Urbanism; Crawford, Carfree Cities; and Curtis, Renne, and Bertolini, Transit Oriented Development.

2For an overview of New Urbanism, see Congress of New Urbanism, Charter of the New Urbanism.

3In the Washington DC metro area we can see examples of this sort of process in Silver Spring, MD and Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC.

4See Crawford, Carfree Cities; Langerfeld, “What main street can learn from the mall;” and Register, Ecocities.

5What modes are allowed is something I don’t specify because that can vary based upon individual needs of those living in the TOD. Some TODs might be as restrictive as to eliminate even cycling from most roads (as envisioned by Richard Register) whereas others (like the New Urbanists) may allow cars almost everywhere.

6In Carfree Design Manual, J.H. Crawford has made calculations that would allow for modestly sized two story single family homes with small front and back yards to comprise the entirety of a node, while obtaining a population size able to support a transit stop. The node would have a radius equal to about a 10 minute walk. This is, of course, dependent on the facts of the transit system and how efficient it must be; allowing for longer wait periods at the transit stop or lower efficiencies could allow for even lower densities.

7Some advocates of TODs (like Crawford) do call for the elimination of cars from the city. However, others such as the New Urbanists design TODs that include rather extensive use of cars.

8I take this to be a view similar to Nozick’s in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; this view would assume that almost any sort of redistribution (the sort that most policies claiming to be concerned with “social justice” require) is unjust unless that redistribution is being done to correct past injustices committed by the individual whose resources are being taken.

9Protective zoning is oftentimes developed as a response to the concerns of homeowners over decreased property values due to undesirable adjacent uses, though this effect can simply be derived from negative impact on living situations of the residents. See Fischel, “And Economic History of Zoning and a Cure for its Exclusionary Effects” and Pollakowski and Wachter, “The Effects of Land-Use Constraints on Housing Prices” for more discussion of zoning.

10This is especially true when large government projects must substantially change a local area in order to fulfill some larger societal goal. However, even in these cases, the conflict can be seen between a minority with some interests in an area and a majority that would be better off if some construction took place. In this sense, the government planners are acting on behalf of the majority in attempting to meet majority needs in the best possible way.

11Schrag discusses this process in The Great Society Subway, in reference to the construction of the Washington D.C. Metro system. Lewis also talks about this issue when discussing the construction of the interstate highway system in Divided Highways.

12Of course some do oppose carpool lanes, but this is typically done by first assuming that libertarianism is true. One notable example is the National Motorists Association that opposes all traffic calming methods. I think that this can be considered a fringe view given the widespread use of traffic calming among varied jurisdictions with limited opposition from the public.

13An incomplete list of these sorts of policies that reward socially beneficial behaviors could include: pretax pay deductions for mass transit spending (when no such opportunity exists for car expenses), government grants for education in certain fields, marriage benefits, and energy efficiency tax credits.

14See Lewis, Divided Highways for a history of the interstate highway system.

15Nivola, Laws of the Landscape, 13.

16The extent to which the interstate highway system led to the decay of urban areas because of its scale is another matter than whether the program itself was justified. There is an argument to be made that the interstate highway subsidization contributed to urban sprawl in many US cities, but it would be unwise to confound the interstate highway project and the eventual social dynamics that it produced. Here I merely want to deal with the project in its most basic form and not its aspects that may have become bound up in the trend toward sprawl.

17American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Division A, Tittle XII (1.5) & (1.6); although the act itself was somewhat controversial, the right of the government to make choices about what to fund was not.

18Title 42 US CODE Chapter 126 and Title 47 US CODE Chapter 5.

19The generally bipartisan nature of the ADA makes it a good example for my purposes. It is interesting to note that it was initially signed into law in 1990 by Republican president G. H. W. Bush and then clarified in a second law in 2008 signed by another Republican president G. W. Bush. This seems impressive for a bill that puts such stringent requirements on businesses;; something, that conservatives often seem reluctant to do.

20I do not try to make a legal argument here about the ADA but simply try to understand what its widespread acceptance means for our conception of the rights of people in American society. That being the case, the public conception of the ADA is far more relevant for my purposes than the exact legal usages; so, I will try to stick to a very simple conception in my argumentation here.

21Title 42 US CODE Chapter 126, Subchapter III.

22There is a weaker mandate for existing construction of making alterations that are “readily achievable” in Title 42 US CODE Chapter 126, Subchapter III, Sec 12182 (b)(2)(A)(iv-v), whereas new construction requires adherence to a set building code that guarantees accessibility in buildings of a certain size described in that same subchapter.

23“…major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” Title 42 US Code Chapter 126, Sec 12102 (2)(A).

24In Title 42 US Code Chapter 126.

25Title 42 US Code Chapter 126, Sec. 12101 (b).

26In Title 42 US Code Chapter 126.

27The effects of current drug use are not considered disabilities under the ADA but drug addiction is. At the heart of this distinction lies the need of an employer to dismiss an employee if that employee actively uses illegal drugs, especially if that use interferes with job activities.

28The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. The Americans with Disabilities Act, 222.

29Notice that the ADA requires more than it to simply be possible for the disabled person to utilize a facility but that it not reach some level of difficulty. In the case of the stairs it is certainly possible for the wheelchair bound person to crawl up the stairs and thus access whatever services are in the building but to do so would be unfairly difficult and demeaning. So, when we talk about ADA accommodations it must be in terms of difficulty and not simply brute capability.

30I think it is likely the case that the coherent portion of the dominant American value system is quite small given that so many of those values don’t seem to perfectly cohere. However, I only need for it to be true that the values that are in my premises exist in this coherent value system.

31This could be a set containing one person but not the empty set.

32 Seymour, “A new epidemic of accidents.”

33Nivola, Laws of the Landscape, 45-48.

34RITA – Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “DOT Releases New NHTS Showing Vehicles in Households Outnumber Drivers”

35From AAA estimates for the year 2008 for an average vehicle; this assumes traveling 10,000 miles per year and includes all costs related to ownership. Depreciation/year is in the figure but the full purchase cost is not.

36US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey.

37Cervero, The Transit Metropolis, Chapter 4.

38Schrag, The Great Society Subway, 172.

39Virginia Department of Transportation, “Virginia HOT lanes : FAQ.”

40This comparison might be a bit deceiving, however, given that some of the Metro system was built when the dollar was worth more. But, this fact also played a huge role in inflating the price of the Metro; the project had been planned to be completed by the end of the 1970s but political and legal issues postponed the construction in dramatic fashion.

41The Pew Institute, “Analysis finds shifting trends in highway funding : user fees make up decreasing share.”

42The misconception that auto-infrastructure relies upon user taxes probably arises from the fact that the interstate highway system was built almost entirely with user taxes. However, there are far more highways in this country than just the interstate ones.

43Kennedy & Leonard, Dealing with Neighborhood Change.

44It is also worth noting that TOD nodes do not automatically lead to gentrification. For instance, NE and South Washington D.C. have numerous potential TOD nodes in the form of METRO stations yet development there has been slow to non-existent and is not expected to increase in the future (This is according to the Metrorail Station Area Bicycle and Pedestrian Improvements Study). Crime and poor image are likely the culprits for these areas, but it seems odd to say that this is more desirable than gentrification.

45Walking times to the transit stop will be longer for peripheral parts of the node but there is still a maximum distance allowed to ensure that walking from peripheral locations will not present a hardship to those living there.

46 Kennedy & Leonard, Dealing with Neighborhood Change; Cervero, The Transit Metropolis.

47Cervero, The Transit Metropolis, 75.

48J.H Crawford in Carfree Design Manual is especially explicit about how we might involve citizens in city planning.

49Cervero, The Transit Metropolis; Crawford, Carfree Cities; Register, Eco-cities; Carey, Renne & Bertolini, Transit Oriented Development.

This essay was written by me for a graduate course at the University of Maryland.

2 thoughts on “Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments”

  1. Interesting. You sold me, for the most part, but I did have a few thoughts.

    1. Please cite the actual House/Senate Report, rather than just mentioning that there was one.

    2. I agree that the ADA section seems the most tenuous. I’d tend toward describing the ADA as anti-discriminatory rather than advocating an affirmative value (other than equality). You seem to be discussing civil rights or natural rights more generally. If so, the Civil Rights Movement might be a more compelling point of reference. But I think your argument works on a discriminatory level as well. The immobile poor seem to be de facto walled off into a poor, badly serviced ghetto. Car oriented societies exile them into these poverty areas that aren’t very escapable.

    3. On the drug use disability: Of course Congress has the power to do this, but you’re arguing the values. It doesn’t seem very persuasive that just because Congress at one time adopted those values I should consider it valid. (Civil Rights might be a better example here too. The whole movement was pretty wide-spread, rather than a single bill).

    4. You were arguing values, but you mentioned costs of mass transit v. highway. I wonder if there’s a significant difference in the maintenance costs of these systems. Seems like mass-transit is more of an upfront cost, but highway is a continual drain. I’ve never seen any figures, though.

    5. Generally, the dichotomy seems to be gov’t should (activist) v. gov’t shouldn’t (libertarian). Inaction seems the weaker position here, but it doesn’t seem like the main objection to mass transit funds. The dispute to me seems more a local autonomy v. metropolitan well-being. Rather than not being gov’t business, it isn’t MY gov’t business, because I’m in the suburbs. You kept referencing “the gov’t,” which made me think “which gov’t?” While fed. funding can easily be allocated, the decisions remain largely local. It doesn’t invalidate your argument, but that seems to be the problem in a lot of metros in implementing this stuff, at least from my perspective.

    All in all, an amusing read for when I’m not paying attention in my Smart Growth class.

    1. 1) Note 28 cites something that was written about the report – I could have dug up the report but it was for a class and I was short on time.

      2)I’m trying to use a group that has different needs and capabilities than the general (car owning) public so that is why I used the ADA over civil rights more generally. The civil rights movement was about giving equal access, not about giving equal consideration to different groups’ capabilities when we design public works (black people didn’t need any special accommodations).

      3) Well, this element of the bill has been maintained in the 2000s version of the ADA, so it seems to represent something stable. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like most people take the cause of someones disability as determinant of whether we accommodate their needs. I agree that we feel less obligated to help out the alcoholic who has drunk himself into a wheelchair but we still feel like they should have the minimum benefits afforded by the ADA (at least this is my feeling).

      4)I’m not sure about this and I want to do some more cost/benefit type analysis of this issue in the future (I think this is the only way we can convince the public of the merits of TODs anyway) but it is hard to know the answer of this a priori. Certainly, highways are expensive to keep up but so are mass transit systems. Though we have to remember that if we are building rail systems we will have far less of them than highways so that should decrease the cost. Also, all costs associated with travel are included in the upkeep of a rail system, whereas a lot of the upkeep associated with car travel are paid by private car owners (in all of the costs associated with car ownership). So, I suspect that rail systems are a lot cheaper to maintain than car-oriented systems but I really need to take a serious look at the numbers.

      5)This is a good point, but the level of government that I’m mostly talking about is federal; the federal government has to give local governments incentives for building mass transit just as they do for car-oriented infrastructure like freeways. One original argument for the interstate highway system relied upon the fact that it would not benefit locals as much as those traveling across the country (so it would truly benefit the nation as a whole and not just local municipalities). This is not what happened; today the interstate highway system (all of which is funded 90% by the feds) carries immense commuter traffic. I didn’t describe this much in the paper, but at some point most policy makers decided that this was an acceptable use; so, it was the place of the federal government to support certain types of local commuter infrastructure. This is largely not seen in the case of mass transit systems. I’m not sure if this is what the federal government should be doing in the first place, but if they are supporting commuter infrastructure then it should be mass transit.

      And do you seriously have a smart growth class? I thought you just learned how to make sentences hard to understand….(which IS a very valuable skill)

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