Transit-Oriented Development, Philadelphia Style - Railway Age

Since its conception in the early 1980s, TOD has taken hold from coast to coast, with recent high-profile projects like Hudson Yards and One Vanderbilt in New York City. On the West Coast, the Bay Area is investing billions of dollars in TOD. So, what’s happening in the City of Brotherly Love, one of America’s oldest and most storied cities?

It’s important to take a step back and look at the founding of this city, when William Penn laid out the original streets, avenues, blocks and parks. At the time, transportation was dependent on horse and carriage.

While not all of Philadelphia’s streets still conform to such widths, many still do, and have the cobblestone paving to show for it. And the unique grid layout makes navigating the city center easy and logical, once you remember how the streets named after trees are ordered (from South to North: Pine, Spruce, Locust, Walnut, and Chestnut).

Because Philadelphia’s road network was laid in place prior to the advent of automobiles, it has a substantially different character from other cities developed with a car-first approach. Cities like Austin or Atlanta have walkable neighborhoods, but to move from one neighborhood to the next usually means getting behind the wheel.

Philadelphia, on the other hand, is a highly walkable city. Its compact size, coupled with an established public subway, streetcar and bus network that connects to the regional rail lines (all managed by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, affectionately known as “SEPTA”), can lead one to argue that all projects are essentially transit-oriented. But the wheels have been turning in recent years to put forth a greater emphasis on projects that increase access to mixed housing and decrease reliance on automobiles for getting around.

Philadelphia’s unique reality is illustrated by the District Standard, Philadelphia’s own unit of horizontal distance. Philadelphia’s City Plan used the standard for the groundwork of the city layout that mainly persists today, while the City of Philadelphia Streets Department manages the plan in its ongoing effort to maintain the character of the city, while developing for the future.

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