Reversing decades of dominant urban sprawl in metropolitan centers like Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis isn’t going to happen overnight. But a gradual return to transit-oriented development that maximizes access to public transportation is happening in cities across the country.
Baby boomers, who originally settled in the suburbs, are now empty nesters and have a desire to live in neighborhoods where they can go to work and out to dinner without using their car.
These senior citizens live side-by-side with millennials — a generation born since 1982 — who have shunned cars and prefer to live in cities with available public transportation.
More than half of millennials surveyed said they would consider moving to another city if it had more and better options for getting around. Another 66 percent said that access to high quality transportation is one of the top three criteria they would consider when deciding where to live, according to a survey released by The Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America. This same survey, released in April, said almost all millennials (91 percent) believe that investing in quality public transportation systems creates more jobs and improves the economy.
There is a demand for transit-oriented development and more cities need to be identifying ways to put zoning policies in place to support this infrastructure, said Deborah Howes, director of Community Planning for AECOM Transportation.
“The marketplace is starting to understand that building single family housing units that are not near where people work and eat is not what everyone wants. Think about empty nesters. Think about people without children,” Howes said. “There is a much larger population demanding a different housing option.”
Creating vibrant, transit-oriented development in Chicago was the purpose of a 62-page report conducted by the Center for Neighborhood Technology. The 2013 report, “Transit-Oriented Development in the Chicago Region: Efficient and Resilient Communities for the 21st Century,” outlines the benefits of transit-oriented development, or TOD. The report states that “Individuals, communities, local governments and businesses in the Chicago Region all receive value from TOD.”
According to the report, well-designed, transit-oriented development has the following benefits:
1. Reduced household driving, and thus lowered regional congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Walkable communities that encourage more healthy and active lifestyles.
3. Increased transit ridership for trips to work and fare revenue.
4. Potential for added value created through increased and/or sustained property values where transit investments have occurred.
5. Improved access to jobs, and economic opportunity for low-income people and working families.
6. Expanded mobility choices that reduce dependence on the automobile, reduce transportation costs and free up household income for other purposes.
Transit-oriented development ensures sustainable densities, mixtures of uses, development patterns and physical forms that can support multiple forms of transit, typically high capacity streetcars, light rail lines and fixed lane buses, said Peter Van Dyke, with Detroit Future City.
“Additional positive benefits of such development include: profitable cost-to-revenue structures for public and private utilities and other services; greater pedestrian access and activity supporting a healthier and more connected population; cohesive social districts with population densities, diverse perspectives and shared ideas that drive greater investment and innovation; and environmental benefits resulting from reductions in private vehicular use, and more efficient use of land and water resources per person and per square foot, when compared to lower density development,” he said.
The benefits far outweigh the challenges of transit-oriented development, Howes said.
“We need to reimagine what our communities need to look like to allow for people to work, live, play and pay in an accessible area,” she said.
In St. Louis, the group Citizens for Modern Transit has been working for more than three decades to integrate affordable and convenient public transportation systems, including light rail, as a component to drive economic growth and improve quality of life, said Executive Director Kimberly Cella.
“Since its inception in 1985, CMT has led the establishment of quality community programs that help raise awareness about the benefits of transit, while increasing ridership,” she said.
The group aims to be on the forefront as a partner for transit-oriented development. It partners with community leaders and residents to “establish the needed tools and resources to entice development around the light rail system.” Efforts include the passage of form-based overlay zoning in Pagedale, the formation of 353 around the UMSL South Station, an RFP for development at the Belleville Station and the first draft of overlay zoning at Grand Station.
“CMT took the risk to secure funding to do a feasibility study to explore the possibility of adding a new light rail station in the Midtown/CORTEX area of St. Louis when no one else was stepping up to the plate,” Cella said. The Central Corridor Feasibility Study was recently presented to the public.
Citizens for Modern Transit introduced a new program to encourage the community to invest in transit-oriented development called CMT Metro Markets. This program visually showcases the potential possibilities in terms of shopping, eateries and entertainment at a specific MetroLink stop, and other MetroLink stations. More than 300 people attended the most recent event that featured three food trucks, information about alternative commuting options, a farmers market and live music. This event laid the groundwork for the community to demand more around their light rail stations than a sea of parking, Cella explained.
“Whether for work or play, the Metro Market has provided CMT the opportunity to meet with constituents through a live visioning session on the possibilities around the St. Louis light rail system,” she said. “It was exciting for those of us who think about this every day to hear ideas from neighbors and visitors alike.”
Transit-oriented development often contains an affordable housing component to the project, Howes said. Expanding affordable housing is a hot-button issue charged with racism and classism in many communities, and Howes said that in some communities there is a perception that this type of housing will create slums. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“We need affordable housing for teachers and police officers, people like you and me,” she said.
This type of development with a mix of office and retail space can be a boon for the artisan community. Transit-oriented development also reduces crime.
“When there are more eyes on the street, it makes places safer to live and work,” Howes said.
The challenges of transit-oriented development are the same in every community, Howes said. One challenge is getting the financial backing from local financial institutions. In many cases, it is difficult for developers to obtain a loan for this type of mix-use project. Banks must categorize a loan as either a commercial or residential project. But as the demand for transit-oriented neighborhoods continues to grow, she expects that this obstacle will cease to exist.
Cella agreed that financing and zoning are the two key challenges in the St. Louis market.
“In addition, proving to developers and elected officials the prime spots for development/redevelopment are those spots near transit,” she said. “Once we think outside the ‘box’ around transit, the possibilities are endless. City officials must think outside the proverbial ‘big box’ stores and strip malls when considering plans for development.”
Van Dyke outlined four main challenges facing the city of Detroit in regards to TOD. These include:
1) Availability of requisite capital for initial investments, especially when such investments spread across public, private and institutional contributors for fairly significant expenditures (and where the capitalization can include a range of fairly exotic funding and debt capital instruments).
2) Sufficient consensus and vision for such development up-front – particularly among stakeholders.
3) Challenging, long-term time horizons for investment and completion.
4) Limited understanding in certain markets of the inherent advantages of the development, contributing to a lack of confidence and vision among stakeholders.
Howes’ advice for city officials considering incorporating transit-oriented development is to communicate effectively and move cautiously.
“You’ve got to get everyone to the table and you got to expect it to take time,” she said. “That’s only going to happen if you have dialogue.”
Cities need to have consensus and buy-in from current neighbors, stakeholders and elected officials, Cella added.
“You do not want to have a revitalization projects with opponents right out of the gate,” she said.
Residents, developers and community stakeholders need to see a viable model. Share with them what is happening with transit-oriented development in other cities, Howes said. People want to live in mixed-use, median dense housing with access to public transit.
“They don’t want to spend hours a day in their cars," she added.