Despite the word rail in the title, Rail~Volution is above all a conference about transit-oriented development (TOD), hence its tagline: “Building communities through transit.”

Last week, 1,200 transportation enthusiasts, planners, engineers, and community leaders – call them “Rail~volutionaries” — descended on Washington, D.C., for Rail~Volution 2011, to hear about the latest TOD methodologies and implementations, swap war stories about community opposition, share successful case studies, and schmooze with other people who view compact development around transportation nodes as a necessary aspect of any future growth model.

This being my first Rail~Volution conference, I didn’t know what to expect. But during the first plenary, when Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution spoke of nearby Tysons Corner, Va., as “44 million square feet of unmitigated hell,” I knew I was among friends.

Tysons Corner holds a special place in my heart: My experience consulting there in a previous career was instrumental to my pursuit of a degree in planning. An ill-conceived attempt at walking the half-mile between my hotel and office led me to wonder: What had allowed this sort of human-hostile development to occur?

Fairfax County’s bold comprehensive plan for Tysons Corner, “Transforming Tysons,” was intently discussed at the conference, and lavished with well-deserved praise. But it’s not the only innovative transportation-led plan in the region. The Washington metro area is home to more examples of walkable urban places around TODs than anywhere else in the country, according to Leinberger.

Yet I came away from the myriad descriptions of well-designed, pedestrian-oriented, multi-modally connected developments feeling like something was missing amidst all the TOD fervor. There were few images or descriptions of people outdoors, simply enjoying their newfound central public spaces – let alone any talk about great spaces that non-locals are excited to visit.

In his session “The Fundamentals of Greatness: TOD + Transit,” G.B. Arrington, vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Placemaking Group, spoke of TODs needing “friction” to make people stop and notice the amenities, so that they aren’t simply transfer points between modes.  Placemakers have the tools to create great places — where people stop, linger, converse, and enjoy the company of others.  It’s these kinds of places that will bring blinder-wearing commuters out of their stupor. Placemakers need to be playing a larger, complementary role in the creation of TODs, because creating better places will benefit everyone involved.

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