By Michael Brenneis
Cities are looking to the Smart Growth principles of walkability, gentle density, compact development, and multi-use zoning to bring destinations closer together and improve the lives of residents. Providing people an alternative to driving everywhere they need to go can improve a community’s safety and health. It can also distribute access to opportunities more broadly and equitably, and help communities become more economically sustainable. One such widely adopted policy that advances these principles is transit oriented development (TOD).
TOD may represent a return to form for cities that developed before widespread adoption of the automobile. Older cities like New Bedford, Massachusetts, value their remaining dense central areas for their clustered businesses, jobs, and housing. They also tend to produce a higher tax revenue per acre than the suburbs. In addition, developing walkable—rather than car-dependent—neighborhoods around transit stations can reduce the amount Americans need to drive to conduct their daily affairs.
TOD planning districts rely on favorable zoning requirements, including relaxed parking minimums, mixed uses, multi-family and affordable units, and design considerations for walking and bicycling. The initial stages can be awkward. In the case of New Bedford, a zoning requirement of 2 parking spaces per unit could scuttle plans for an apartment building slated to include parking spaces at one-third of that ratio. As reported by the New Bedford Light, while neighbors of this project are voicing concerns about preserving neighborhood character and parking, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority is requiring communities such as New Bedford to zone multi-family housing districts within one-half mile of stations.
Cities are also right to be concerned that transit improvements could displace current residents. Economists estimate a 5 to 7% increase in home prices within a 20-minute walk of Bus Rapid Transit stations in Vancouver, Washington. It’s not difficult to imagine residents being displaced as the land adjacent to new transit infrastructure moves from a state of disinvestment and lower rents to one of concentrated growth and wealth development.
There are numerous examples of communities overcoming such obstacles by relaxing zoning restrictions and maintaining affordable housing. In fact, New Bedford planners are optimistic that transit-oriented development districts around two forthcoming commuter rail stations will gain council approval next year, shortly after the stations are set to open.
“I think transit-oriented development will make New Bedford more like New Bedford,” says Chris Dempsey, former Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of Transportation, quoted in the New Bedford Light.