Getting There: The Case for Ensuring That All Transit-Oriented Development Is Equitable

by Veronica Gaitán

How people get from place to place shapes every aspect of a community for better or worse—from its economic development, to its social and cultural structures, to its policies and politics. Transit-oriented development (TOD) can enable or provide incentives for the colocation of services, businesses, and housing, creating opportunities to boost social and economic activity. This form of placemaking can draw new investment into established communities or create new destinations on previously underused land. But ensuring that all residents benefit from increased housing choices, jobs, public spaces, local services, and safety measures is a key component of neighborhood change that takes deliberate planning.

As transit-oriented neighborhoods add amenities, the demand for housing rises, driving up property values by as much as 150 percent and increasing housing cost burdens, which can displace low-income renters. The households most likely to face displacement as neighborhoods change are households with low incomes and weak credit scores—in other words, the members of the community who would benefit most from avoiding the cost of vehicle ownership. Equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) bridges this gap for TOD by ensuring that mixed-use developments create and preserve affordable housing and community-oriented businesses to account for the needs of low- and moderate-income people.

Benefits of eTOD

Research shows that equitable communities foster economic and social advantages for all, not just for residents of affordable housing. More than three-quarters of jobs in the 100 most-populous US metropolitan areas are in neighborhoods with transit services, signaling that creating affordable housing near transit can expand employment opportunities for low-income workers. Meanwhile, studies have shown that when low-income people lack access to reliable transportation, they sometimes miss checkups, forgo necessary medical treatment, and skip prescription refills—all scenarios that can lead to poor health outcomes and incur great costs to society. Further research shows that high transportation costs are associated with high rates of foreclosure and mortgage default, suggesting that transportation costs can affect household gains. Therefore, eTOD can reduce costs of living for low- and moderate-income households, allowing them to save money or spend on other necessities.

Lowering commuting expenses and increasing access to employment, child care, schools, stores, and critical services can expand mobility options while boosting a region’s local economy.

Barriers to eTOD

Enterprise’s policy analysis and research highlight several factors that can make eTOD difficult to accomplish:

  • Land-use restrictions, such as a limited supply of land that can be developed near transit stations, zoning that restricts mixed-use development, and density limits
  • Limited or poor-quality transit service in some regions
  • Traffic or parking standards that limit walkability
  • Development costs
  • Limited housing supply

Any region considering an eTOD project should consider how it might address and overcome these obstacles.

What ingredients make for successful eTOD projects?

  1. Partnerships with aligned interests. Partners—such as local residents, business owners, community developers, major employers, philanthropies, financial institutions, local and regional agencies, and state governments—should be engaged during the planning phase to ensure that missions are aligned and desired outcomes are determined from the onset.
  2. Ongoing coordination between public and private partners. Public- and private-sector financing partners should work together through ongoing coordination to support mixed-use developments and businesses regionally.
  3. Regional-level policies. Placing equitable policies such as inclusionary zoning at the regional level, rather than local level, makes them stronger.
  4. Measurements of racial equity. Focusing on and tracking changes in racial equity through eTOD (e.g., the impact of policies on black homeownership, housing and job access for immigrants and refugees, and minority entrepreneurship) can demonstrate the importance of a more complete view of eTOD and help ensure that no one gets left behind.

Every community that undertakes TOD should add equity building into its plan. TOD is a public investment, and eTOD ensures that this investment yields returns for all players involved.