Transit-oriented Development

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Market-oriented

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is an urban planning strategy that directs mixed-use retail and residential development around public transportation lines. It emerged in the 1990s from anti-sprawl critiques of the social and environmental damage of auto-dependent fringe suburban development. TOD is part of a larger New Urbanism philosophy emphasizing walkability, density, mixed land-use, and regionalism. Planners, developers, and urban development scholars originally championed TOD as a way to promote regional interconnectedness. The theory is that mixing retail, housing, and public transportation will create lively communities with easy access to different urban regions.

Technical experts in planning and policy crafted TOD, but it has become a topic through which planners, politicians, and activists have discussions of broader issues, including residential segregation, lack of affordable housing, and gentrification. Two of the intellectual founders of TOD, Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero argue, “It is important to emphasize that transit villages are not just physical entities. There are important social and economic dimensions behind the transit village movement. Socially, the hope is that transit villages will bring people from many walks of life into daily face-to-face contact. Today’s auto-oriented suburbs have isolated people by age, class and race-the young from the old, the rich from the poor, whites from blacks.”¹ TOD is an economic development strategy, but it is also a sustainable planning philosophy linking economic, environmental and social equity goals.

The stakes are high for such new development, since current research reveals the remarkable racial and economic diversity that has historically arisen around transit hubs, and amongst transit riders, and that would need to be sustained for the principles of TOD to be realized. In their report for the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Pollack, Bluestone, and Billingham examine the impact of new transit stations on “transit-rich neighborhoods,” meaning neighborhoods that already have close rail and bus transit systems. These transit-rich neighborhoods contain more “core transit riders”, individuals most likely to use transit regularly (three of more days per week). These core transit riders are more likely to be people of color or low-income. Pucher and Renne (2003) found that Blacks are almost six times are likely as whites to travel by public transit. The Center for Transit-Oriented Development analyzed the demographics of more than 3,300 transit zones and found that 86% were either more economically diverse, more racially diverse, or both, than the average census tract in the same metro area. Nearly 60% of those living in transit zones were non-white and 65% were renters.

Yet the very racial and economic diversity of transit-rich neighborhoods also make them particularly vulnerable to forms of redevelopment that result in higher rents and home prices. Karen Chapple’s 2009 research on the susceptibility of neighborhoods to gentrification points out that “[T]he more non-Hispanic whites are in the area, the less likely it is to gentrify: the most susceptible areas are those where the majority is minorities.” Chapple finds that renter occupancy and high rent burdens are strongly associated with displacements, as current residents are priced out of their neighborhood due to the value created by new development.

Indeed several recent reports caution that, by spurring these housing and rent increases, TOD can have unintended consequences that fundamentally contradict the original intentions of these developments. Pollack and her team found that when a new transit station opens, it attracts wealthier residents and the housing stock becomes more expensive. “Hence, gentrification occurred in an overwhelming majority of the newly transit-served neighborhoods.” As this gentrification was also tied to the displacement of low income people, they found that in most of the transit-rich neighborhoods profiled in their study, a new transit station actually reduced neighborhood residency by those groups most likely to use transit in favor of high-income residents who are more likely to drive, thus decreasing overall ridership. What’s more, displacing low-income people to the urban fringe, where they are less likely to have access to public transit, can have the unintended consequence of exacerbating auto use and sprawling housing developments.

Dawkins and Moeckel (2014) at the national Center for Smart Growth use the term “transit-induced gentrification” to describe how the enhanced accessibility offered by proximity to transit is capitalized into land and housing prices, which can then displace low-income individuals who would benefit most from access to transportation. However, like Pollack, Bluestone, and Billingham, they point out that there are precedents for municipalities, states, and the federal government enacting policy interventions designed to produce or preserve affordable housing in areas close to transit stations.² In addition to such innovative policy interventions, the Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland is a site where collective action by neighborhood leaders radically shifted proposed transit development from a parking lot to a multi-use station with rich community resources and ties to affordable housing.

As TOD becomes an increasingly popular strategy for creating environmentally sound economic investment, it is crucial to understand how these developments impact the socially and economically vibrant neighborhoods nearby, as well as the diverse public transit riders they serve.

– Jen Gray-O'Connor

Published June 1, 2015

1. Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero, Transit Villages in the 21st Century (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 6.
2. At the municipal level, examples include a “TOD Fund” established in the city of Denver to support the creation and preservation of affordable housing through the strategic acquisition of properties in current and planned transit corridors. At the state level, California passed legislation to subsidize low-income housing in proximity to transit through direct grants and tax breaks. At the federal scale, an experimental initiative, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, brought together the Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency to study and dialogue about the environmental and social impact of linking affordable housing to TOD.