HIP Focus Area: Transit Oriented Development

  • Encouraging transit-oriented and transit-supportive development

What is transit-oriented and transit-supportive development?

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the creation of mixed-use centers to maximize access to transit and other non-motorized modes of transportation. TOD exists around high-capacity transit facilities such as rail stations, bus rapid transit stops or neighborhood transfer stations. Typically, a TOD project has the following characteristics: planning boundaries within a quarter- to a half-mile radius of a transit facility (a comfortable walking distance); compact development; mixed land uses, including neighborhood-oriented commercial, public services and spaces, and higher-density residential development; limited parking; and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly designs.

Transit-supportive development (TSD) is broader than TOD. It describes a development pattern intended to establish or boost residential and commercial densities to support existing or planned transit service. TSD is not limited to planning around a station or transit node like TOD, but more broadly intensifies compact and mixed-use development along transit routes and broader neighborhoods to facilitate and support transit services and lessen automobile-dependent travel.

Why is it important to plan for housing in transit-oriented and transit-supportive developments?

Housing should be a central consideration in any jurisdiction’s TOD or TSD plan. It is key to maximizing resident access to the transit services and local amenities around the transit center, node or corridor. Households, in turn, provide a customer base for businesses in the TOD or TSD, which further reinforces the vibrancy of a neighborhood commercial district. 

There are many benefits from planning for housing. The higher densities in transit-oriented and -supportive development allow for efficiencies in land consumption and utility and service provision. They can also help jurisdictions increase diverse and affordable housing options. Households that live near and use transit can save substantially on transportation costs compared to more auto-dependent households. The transportation and environmental benefits of shifting auto-based trips to transit and other non-motorized forms of travel are also well documented.

Jurisdictions play a key role in promoting and achieving affordable housing goals in TODs and TSDs, especially for households earning less than 80% of area median income. Planners can work with developers and other stakeholders to select and design incentives and other tools to encourage affordable units, e.g., density bonuses, multifamily tax exemptions, parking requirement reductions, developer agreements, or nonprofit partnerships. It is important to put these programs into place before the TOD/TSD develops to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Which communities should consider planning for housing in transit-oriented and transit-supportive developments?

Cities with existing or planned transit centers are the best candidates to implement TOD. Planning for TOD works most smoothly when done in concert with or ahead of a new transit station. It may also be incorporated through a neighborhood plan after a station’s opening. 

TSD is geared toward communities seeking new or expanded transit service. It can increase residential densities and mixed-use options, provide more housing choices and stimulate neighborhood centers. Communities can foster transit-supportive development in small-lot single family, multifamily, mixed-used zones, and in transit corridors.

Affordable housing can be included in any TOD or TSD plan. Similarly to market-rate housing development, affordable housing goals can be implemented at various densities and scales as appropriate. Communities experiencing any of the following issues should especially encourage affordable development in their TODs and TSDs:

  • Significant numbers of households paying more than 30% of income for housing.
  • Shortage of homes affordable to moderate- and middle-income homebuyers.
  • Relatively low supply of rental units available at fair market rents.

What are some strategies to promote affordable and diverse housing options in transit-oriented and transit-supportive developments?

Although the scale and outcome of transit-supportive development differs from transit-oriented development, the tools implemented to foster TOD and TSD mostly the same. Featured tools include regulatory incentives such as density bonuses, multifamily tax exemption, parking reductions, and incentive zoning. They are aimed at incentivizing affordable and diverse development through developer savings. Enacting a TOD overlay enables the construction of TOD housing outright, while outreach plans, strategies and design guidelines engage the community in shaping TOD and TSD.

Other tools enable transit oriented and supportive development through developer incentives such as fee waivers, credit enhancement, permitting priority, inclusionary zoning, and planned action EIS. Some tools enable TOD and TSD by allowing new, mixed-use and higher-density forms of housing development. They include flexible development standards, form-based zoning, infill development, mixed-use development, multifamily development, no maximum densities, performance zoning, townhomes, upzones, and rezones. Tools like affordability covenants, financial assistance programs, and preservation emphasize retaining existing or newly built affordable units, and keeping existing residents in the area as a station area develops.

What do I need to know to get started planning for housing in transit-oriented and transit-supportive developments?

Develop a housing strategy. A plan or draft policies to implement TOD or TSD should include language that explicitly addresses housing and affordable housing within the planning area. Developing a specific housing strategy related to the TOD or TSD signals commitment to providing housing within these areas.

Collect and analyze data regarding: 

  • How many housing units currently exist in the proposed TOD or TSD area, broader community, and city-wide? How many are affordable? At what income levels?
  • Are there existing uses and buildings offering affordable housing choices that could be preserved or converted to affordable housing?
  • What are the current zoned and built-out densities? What density and intensity of development would best serve transit-oriented or -supportive development relative to the type of transit and needs of the community?
  • Do ordinances permitting mixed uses, denser multifamily buildings, townhomes, or small lot single-family homes need to be drafted? 
  • Are residential uses allowed in commercial zones in the planning area?

Important related planning questions include:

  • What levels of growth can the present infrastructure support? What additional infrastructure investments may be needed?
  • Do parking requirements need to be decreased? 
  • How can public open spaces be provided or preserved for residents and workers?

Incentivize affordable development. What policies or actions could be enacted or taken specific to your city to include affordable housing in TOD or TSD? Developers and nonprofit agencies can advise on strategies and incentives would meaningfully contribute affordable housing within TOD or TSD.

Developing an affordable housing strategy early in the TOD/TSD planning process is crucial to its success. It is easier to build relationships, enact policies and maximize opportunities for affordable housing before development plans are underway. Likewise, it may become more difficult to implement affordability measures after the development market takes off.

Spread the word. Citizens, land owners, and developers will be interested in the changes in policies related to density, mixed uses, and development standards that are a part of transit-oriented and -supportive development. Transit agencies should also be involved in the planning and implementation processes. See Citizen Education and Outreach for more information on developing effective strategies to involve and educate stakeholders and citizens

What are some key issues that may come up?

Planning for housing in transit-oriented and transit-supportive development requires working with elected officials, citizens, developers, and other stakeholders to address the following issues:

Resistance to increased density. Density is an essential component of TOD and TSD. A density of about four to seven units per acre is necessary to support regular bus service, and 15 units or higher per acre is necessary for high-frequency bus service or other high-capacity transit. These densities not only support transit service, but encourage active street life and commercial activities within walking distances. Resistance to changes in the allowed densities needed to facilitate TOD and TSD may arise. See tools listed under Citizen Education and Outreach Strategies to address these challenges.

Land availability and cost. In many areas where TOD is being considered, land for development may be at a premium, in quantity, cost, or both. Expensive land makes affordable housing more difficult to provide and maintain. Cities can provide incentives and exemptions that offset these costs. See tools listed under Expensive Housing Markets for more details.

Infrastructure. Areas designated for TOD or TSD may not have the infrastructure capacity necessary to support the increased densities cities are planning for. Costly water, sewer, and other utility upgrades may be necessary before development may begin. These investments may increase land or developer costs and interest, thereby reducing the affordability potential. If this is a significant issue, infrastructure expenses may need to be offset to stimulate development and support affordability goals.

Parking reductions. There is a balancing act in terms of how much parking is warranted for a TOD, or in an area that is evolving into a TSD. Too much parking defeats the concept of transit-oriented or transit-supportive development. Too little parking may push drivers to park in surrounding residential neighborhoods. The “right” amount of parking will satisfy TOD or TSD residents’ reduced need for parking and not send a signal to developers, residents, employees and visitors that the neighborhood is a “drive-to” destination. However, this is a difficult level to ascertain.

Public amenities. Because transit centers are located along high traffic corridors, many people may not see station areas as desirable places to live. Weak demand can hurt future investment in the TOD or TSD. It is important to address people-friendly amenities, like public open spaces, walkable streets and commercial retail and services when implementing a TOD or TSD.

Developer unfamiliarity. For some developers, TOD and TSD are newer concepts. Housing developers may shy away from these projects, perceiving the extra planning steps, such as working with affordability requirements or design guidelines, as complicated, time consuming, and thus, costly. This can be addressed through outreach to developers, education of building/permitting staff, and streamlined permitting and review processes for TOD/TSD projects.

Weak development market. Developing TOD or TSD relies on strong developer interest in a community. If the existing level of interest isn’t sufficient, it is important to consider development incentives, public investments and strategies for marketing development opportunities, but to keep them in balance with overall planning goals. A slow development market can provide an opportunity to carefully select and implement strategies to facilitate development that meets community goals. Communities are then prepared to shape the form of development when the market picks up.

Gentrification. Revitalizing and infusing new life into formerly underinvested areas can increase the values of neighboring properties and raise the costs of once affordable units or place them at risk of redevelopment. Ensuring that measures are in place to preserve affordable units, create dedicated affordable housing, and prevent displacement can offset this effect. Preserving existing businesses and other valued neighborhood institutions is important as well. Balancing revitalization efforts with mitigating gentrification can be a complex task; utilizing Community Outreach Plans and Nonprofit Partnerships can help to bring in the appropriate stakeholders to tackle these issues.