Transit-Oriented, But Affordable?

Planning and community development blogs are aglow with talk of transit-oriented development (TOD), which is just that: development clustered around bus and train stations. It’s the favorite buzzword of smart growth advocates looking to curb sprawl, protect open space and provide more affordable housing. The housing piece should be of particular interest to low-income advocates, but it’s controversial. Critics say they’ve seen plenty of cases where TOD caused a rapid increase in housing prices, offsetting whatever residents might save by storing their cars and riding the train.

Cities with an established network of transit lines are in an excellent position to gain revenue and revitalize struggling districts by concentrating new apartment buildings, retail and office space within walking distance of stations. Neighborhoods Now, a CDC network in Philadelphia, is seeking to create a zoning classification specifically for TOD locations. They are teaming with four CDCs to show the benefits of this kind of development.

It wouldn’t be all bad if TODs caused property values to rise, particularly in some of the long-depressed communities in Philadelphia that Neighborhoods Now is looking at. More income diversity in these areas would be a good thing.

Reconnecting America, a TOD think tank, says its studies show more of the people living and working within TOD boundaries are low-income than in surrounding areas. But some of the folks at Heritage Foundation and other conservative writers say TOD, like smart growth and land use planning in general, is exclusionary. Of course, Heritage recently went so far as to blame land use planning for the current subprime mortgage crisis, so maybe we shouldn’t take them too seriously.

Nevertheless, it could be that TOD is attractive to planners because it appeals to many middle and upper-income people who hate traffic and love living in densely populated city neighborhoods. Will it also serve people who are already living in transit-oriented places, or will it slowly drive them out?

This seems like a good issue for CDCs everywhere to pay close attention to, as part of a larger focus on smart growth and sustainability in metropolitan areas.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Six words: Inclusionary zoning, inclusionary zoning, inclusionary zoning. In New Jersey, the state’s public-private transit agency, New Jersey Transit, and a handful of towns looking to build transit villages, have done a decent job including an affordable component to new development. There need to be incentives, however, for the developer, particularly in a tough economy. A density bonus for more units, affordable units, is a good start.


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