Keys to success for regional transit-oriented development

Transit-oriented development by necessity brings a lot of people to the table, from state departments of transportation to metropolitan planning councils to business leaders, real estate developers,  nonprofit groups and community residents. But how does this collaboration jump beyond good intentions to effect real change? Two reports take on this question.

Transit-oriented development (TOD), according to a recent report by Reconnecting America/ Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) is a mix of housing, commercial development, and other amenities in a walkable neighborhood with high-quality public transportation.  The process of planning and executing those plans is often a complicated dance between competing interests on a regional scale. As the CTOD report, “Planning for TOD at a Regional Scale” says:

Coordinating all these TOD actors is difficult, especially when a decision that works well for one conflicts with the goals of another. Local governments often have competing priorities for TOD projects along transit corridors, and conflicts can arise over decisions about who should lead the TOD planning process and who has authority over implementation. Land use authority, for example, typically resides with local governments, but also plays an important role in determining whether a region will increase transit ridership, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve job access.

This statement got me thinking about a study BRR Director Margaret Weir and University of California Berkeley colleagues Jane Rongerude and Christopher Ansell did a few years ago. In “Collaboration is Not Enough: Virtuous Cycles of Reform in Transportation Policy,” they looked at two efforts to move transportation-related projects from drawing board to policy, one in Los Angeles and one in Chicago. The results were illuminating.

The study focused on the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), a 1990s law that aimed to reduce the harmful effect of transportation policy on urban areas (think sprawl). It deliberately brought many new voices to the table, including Metropolitan Planning Councils and a variety of nonprofit voices. As the authors write:

By mandating public participation in the planning process, the legislation aimed to elevate the concerns of ordinary consumers and rein in the powerful interests that profited from highway construction and expansive development. Reformers hoped the revamped institutional setting for decision making and the addition of new voices would alter the existing policy bias that favored outward development at the expense of cities and would prod policy makers to consider the broader social and economic impacts of transportation.

Through surveys, analysis, and interviews with participants in two cities, the authors sought to determine how effective those efforts were. Their conclusion? While it is important to have “horizontal” networks to knit together diverse groups and show how transportation affects them all, it is not enough. To really make a difference in policy, the “power brokers” need to be at the table and highly involved as well. Without the power to make authoritative decisions, the efforts to mobilize will likely whither on the vine.

As one Los Angeles activist put it, “Stakeholder groups can progress internally—reaching agreement, making recommendations—but there is no authority to implement them.” Or, to put it more directly, as a representative from the once highly central and now defunct California Futures Network put it, “Social equity groups are inspiring, but in political reality, groups need to have money or voters. The Building Industry Association has money. Labor has voters. CFN [California Futures Network] has moral righteousness on their side. That is the weakest kind of leverage . . .”

Indeed, as the authors find, the efforts in LA started out strong, but never had a strong impact on policy. In contrast, Chicago had more success. The key, the authors find, was the presence of movers and shakers at the table.

At the heart of the Chicago network were organizations tied to the city’s powerful business community, which enjoyed close connections to Chicago’s mayor (Richard Daley at the time of the study). The core players were Chicago Metropolis 2020,  and long-standing elite civic organizations such as the Metropolitan Planning Council, and a new political actor at the time, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, formed in 1997 and to find common ground among local governments throughout the entire Chicago region. It essentially brokers compromises among the 272 municipal governments in the region.

The paper details the ins and outs of how that influence was wielded to build support for a regional transportation policy–a pretty fascinating read. In the end, as the authors note:

The power at the core of the Chicago network and its ability to exercise influence in higher level political arenas produced an institutional reform long sought by regionally oriented reformers in the Chicago area. In a policy area traditionally dominated by the state and riven with conflict between the city and its suburbs, the reform succeeded in establishing an institutional focal point for regional planning.

Because regions have little autonomous political power, decisions are easily challenged in other political arenas (such as by the state’s Department of Transportation, for example).  At the same time, policy goals dictated from on high have little chance of success without local actors to push them forward.

Bottom line: When trying to implement regional change, the authors argue, “no matter how inclusive and collaborative the networks or innovative the plans for regional transportation, they will produce little real change if not backed by vertical power.”

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