What is it?

Transit oriented development (PDF)

Transit oriented development (TOD) is a planning and design trend that seeks to create compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented communities located around new or existing public transit stations. Over the past decade or so, there has been tremendous growth in demand for compact housing near transit: between 2000 and 2030, upwards of 9 million additional households will live within a half-mile of transit stations. A variety of different groups—transit and smart growth advocates, community-based developers, business leaders, planners, and more—have embraced TOD as a powerful strategy for smart growth, urban revitalization, and creating access and opportunity for low-income residents. 

TOD is a “back to the future” approach to creating healthy, connected neighborhoods. Public transportation used to be highly integrated into the physical and social fabric of many neighborhoods. Streetcar suburbs and many older areas of American cities originally developed around rail or trolley stops. These stops served as neighborhood centers, anchoring a range of services and shops within walking distance and providing residents with connections to the downtown area. Since 1950, development patterns became increasingly auto-centered. New neighborhoods were located along highway routes, and transit systems catered to drivers, creating “park and ride” routes catering to suburban commuters, and enclosing commuter and light rail stations with large parking lots. Decades of sprawling metropolitan development left many suburban residents with arduous, costly commutes and many low-income urban communities isolated from jobs, transit, and services.

TOD integrates transportation back into the neighborhood to achieve a number of different objectives. By facilitating public transportation use, TOD can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower residents’ transportation costs, promote walking and health, ease traffic congestion, and improve environmental quality. TOD can also be a catalyst for revitalization, bringing new retail and residential investment into the community, connecting residents to jobs and services located throughout the region, and providing economic, ownership, and housing opportunities to low-income residents.

But the synergy between economic, land use, transportation, environmental, housing, and equity goals made possible with TOD is not automatically achieved. Thus far, many projects marketed as TODs are not fundamentally different from traditional residential suburban developments: they are not well-integrated with the station or the surrounding community, they include excessive parking, and they are neither mixed-use nor mixed-income.

Even fewer TODs attain social equity goals. TOD is unconventional, complicated, and expensive to develop, and the demand for housing near transit is expected to exceed the number of homes that can be built in TODs. These trends increase the likelihood that TOD housing will be unaffordable to low-income households. Properties within a five- to ten-minute walk to a transit station already sell for 20 to 25 percent more than comparable properties farther away. Investments in new or enhanced transit stations in low-income neighborhoods can spark rapid appreciation in the costs of land and housing in the community—leading to gentrification and the displacement of lower-income residents.

The extension of the Red Line of Boston’s subway system to Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1985 and the TOD around the Davis Square stop, for example, dramatically changed this working-class community. Housing costs have soared, and new condos are being built or converted from former rentals at a rapid rate: since 2000, 1,394 condominium units have been placed on the market, some of them topping $1 million. According to Warren Goldstein-Gelb, director of The Welcome Project in Somerville, strategies could have been put in place to protect low-income renters from high housing cost burdens and displacement: “Had people been sensitive to the fact that there would be an impact on land values when they were planning and opening [the Somerville] subway station, there could have been some prevention.” Given the experience with the Red Line, the planned extension of the Green Line to Somerville has sparked major public debate among city officials, community organizations, and residents around the potential for gentrification.

This tool focuses on how to implement TOD in a way that achieves equity goals. Across the country, equity advocates working in neighborhood groups, organizing networks, nonprofit and private housing developers, local and regional governments, and transit agencies have engaged in the TOD process to ensure that current residents and businesses benefit. Their strategies and lessons learned are presented here so that you can also advocate for equitable TOD.

Last Updated: April 2008