How Equity in Transit Development Can Strengthen Regions

As transit oriented development and light rail projects take shape across the country, government and private developers realize there is money to be made at public transit centers. But what happens to equity? How do we ensure the economic benefits are distributed evenly to all residents?

History has shown that these mixed-use developments can sometimes hurt low-income communities by reducing bus service that residents rely on (see this story about complains made by the LA Bus Riders Union), and gentrifying neighborhoods making it hard for long-term residents to afford to continue to live there.

But BRR Network research shows that with a real focus on equity, these projects can result in stronger regions better able to thrive in the metro areas of the future.

In a forthcoming chapter, “Bringing Equity to Transit-Oriented Development:  Strategies, Systems, and Regional Resilience,” BRR network member Rolf Pendall, and BRR research associates Juliet Gainsborough, Mai Nguyen, and graduate student Kate Lowe examine how public policy, civic efforts, and private-sector interventions have shaped transit development in Denver, Charlotte, Miami and Boston.

The authors find that “new alliances can arise that help maximize the benefits and minimize the disruptions of new rail stations for low-income people, African Americans, and Latinos. But such alliances are rare and their successes fragile.”

Denver and Charlotte both successfully built social and income equity into their transit-oriented development projects. Miami, in contrast, has largely failed to bring new transit options to low-income neighborhoods or in building truly affordable or mixed-income development in places where rail already exists.

The report details the challenges these projects face as well as their successes. It shows how important community input is, the sometimes unintended consequences of public policies, and the inherent dilemma in asking an entire community for funding and support when only some parts of the community benefit. It also reveals the challenges—and promises– when multiple jurisdictions are at the table, including the concern that issues of equity may be swept aside in pursuit of regional consensus, resulting in fewer services in transit-dependent neighborhoods and more stations in the suburbs.

In building the new light rail system in Charlotte, for example, planners and city officials there did not target one disadvantaged group or neighborhood for investment, but rather tried to serve the greatest need while providing the greatest community benefit to the city as a whole. They built the first extension of the rail in an underused industrial corridor of the city. The new “Blue Line,” which opened in 2007, runs from Charlotte’s central business district to the southern edge of the city, connecting residents to their downtown jobs. The project was funded through a voter-approved sales tax measure designed to tie land-use planning to transit station locations while taking advantage of federal grant monies.

The public was highly involved in the planning process, and the Blue Line has been very successful both in terms of ridership and private investment. The rail line was projected to carry 9,100 passenger trips on an average weekday, but ridership has far exceeded expectations and by November 2009, average weekday trips reached 16,000, partly as a result of rising fuel costs.

An estimated $1.4 billion has been privately invested near the Blue Line and property values have increased by 52% near the corridor. The neighborhoods near the Blue Line are predominantly low-income with a high percentage of African American residents, and city planners say there has been very little residential displacement in the area since the rail development.

Further development plans continue to receive public support, despite some opposition from groups who prefer bus service. The city is encouraging the private development of affordable housing around transit stations, promoting mixed-use and mixed- income developments and providing opportunities for greater equity in planning documents and city policies. BRR researchers say it’s still too early to tell whether this will provide real quality-of-life improvements for low-income residents of Charlotte or the region, especially without mandates or specific goals in place.

We blogged earlier this week about the maps developed by the Center for Urban Research at CUNY that show demographic shifts in metro areas from 2000 to 2010,  including a dispersal of racial-ethnic minorities outward from the central hub in Charlotte. And as efforts to extend the light rail system beyond the city of Charlotte itself begin to take shape, there are lots of remaining questions about how these decisions will affect all of the region’s residents.

The case studies in this report point to several lessons for urban planners, including:

  • Communities that made a commitment more broadly to affordable housing are more likely to include it in their transit projects.
  • Engaging the public before, during, and after transit-oriented development planning is essential to its success. Helping the public really visualize how their hopes for greater accessibility to jobs and amenities, a smaller carbon footprint, and more sustainable living can be realized with transit-oriented development is also key to success.
  • In fragmented metro regions with multiple government bodies, the concerns for equity are weighed against the desires of other local governments in the region, which may not share the same set of issues.
  • Political imperatives rather than planning imperatives often rule the day. Forging a shared vision of transit in the region can help to overcome this fracture. In Denver, for example, the rail project got off the ground only after local mayors built trust working together on other issues. Who got the rail lines were not obvious choices from an urban planning perspective. But consensus-building required that the system included clear local benefits. In some instances, federal government incentives can spur regional planning.

In the end, rather than being a “shock” to a neighborhood or metro region by sparking gentrification and reducing affordability, light rail and transit-oriented development can provide a unique opportunity to construct a more sustainable region.

In light of predicted environmental, demographic and economic changes, metropolitan regions will need to adapt. Growth in the immigrant and senior populations, climate change, and the weakened economic structures will mean people will be less able to afford big suburban houses and high commuting costs.  Residents will need to be closer to each other and closer to transit. Developing the right mix of transit-oriented development that places equity at the center of the debate will be critical to truly smart growth.

“We therefore think the kind of region that can result from coalition-building around rail will be more resilient in the face of myriad challenges than the metropolitan model of the 20th century would be. That model—useful though it was in the construction of a prosperous nation in the 20th century—cannot now promise prosperity and general welfare. It separates people by race, class, occupation, age, and activity; it spreads them over too wide an expanse; and it presents too few choices.”

The chapter will be published in the forthcoming Regional Resilience:  Urban and Regional Policy and Its Effects, edited by Harold Wolman, Margaret Weir and Howard Wial from the Brookings Institution Press.

Photo by Doug G.

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