Three Ways to Put Equity into TOD

By Carmen Rojas | Living Cities | April 24, 2012

Urban leaders across the country are lifting up Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) as a land-use and transportation solution to connect people to their places of employment, key services, and the communities they care about. These leaders are also pointing to the environmental benefits of TOD. For example, building transit in close proximity to housing should be a driver to reduce reliance on private car use. That said, there have been missed opportunities to use TOD to expand opportunities for low-income people and the cities where they live. These missed opportunities include broadly maintaining housing affordability beyond specific projects, supporting neighborhood serving small businesses, and using transit projects to bridge historically segregated neighborhoods, cities and regions.

These missed opportunities are undergirded by the assumption that simply locating affordable housing near transit will result in greater opportunities for low-income people. Stephanie Pollack, Associate Director of Northeastern University’s Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center, points to the ways in which approaching TOD without specific equity outcomes in mind can actually result in increased car use, less job connectivity for core transit users, and, in many cases, displacement of long-term residents.

Bridging equity and the economy in TOD was the theme of Living Cities’ most recent TOD Learning Community. This convening brought together over 40 participants, including our newest TOD grantees from the Bay Area and Denver, and created an opportunity for these new sites to share, learn, and work alongside Living CitiesIntegration Initiative grantees from Baltimore, Detroit, and the Twin Cities. Each region brought a team of equity advocates, employers, developers, and financial institution partners. Discussions from the two-day convening resulted in three important insights:

1) Articulate the Return on Equity (ROE) AND the Return on Investment (ROI).Developers, planners, and advocates need to intentionally focus on the ROE alongside the ROI. This requires a “one-table” approach where decision-makers from across sectors can learn and work together to clearly articulate community and investment outcomes. Most developers and financial institutions spend time considering the return on investment in order to understand the risks and rewards to capital investments. This is necessary on the equity side as well. Equity advocates need to understand and articulate the risks and rewards they are seeking on behalf of communities. As communities start to pencil out the financial resources necessary to roll out projects, they should simultaneously build a realistic plan for the equity gains they hope to make.

2) TOD is not the Panacea. Throughout the Learning Community, we heard one consistent message: TOD is one of many tools available to revitalize and reconnect the economic fabric of our cities and regions. Each of the participating sites is moving beyond the traditional approach, which has prioritized linking affordable housing and rail. These sites are looking for a more comprehensive approach that uses multi-modal and adaptive transportation networks to connect the places people work, learn, and live.

3) Recognize Private Sector Diversity. In order to build a bridge between equity and the economy, it’s necessary to understand the diverse interests of both our communities and the sectors we are hoping to partner with. More often than not, equity and transit advocates apply a single undifferentiated strategy to engage developers, financial institutions, and businesses. However, though all of these are private sector entities, they have divergent interests and needs. Planning and implementation teams need to develop targeted and differentiated strategies to encourage employers to locate along transit lines, to make the case for financial institutions to invest in transit, and to encourage developers to build along transit. Similarly, supporting the different small, mid-sized, and large businesses during transit construction requires different resources.

Equitable TOD requires making explicit the various economic aspects of TOD, especially the trade-offs. In order for this body of work to have real impact, we need to establish a consistent forum for exchanging learning, sharing opportunities, and highlighting challenges in implementing TOD. Living Cities’ TOD Working Group, which guides this work, hopes that these communities will help the field move more fully towards identifying infrastructure and planning tools that create social and economic benefits for every resident of the cities in regions we live in.

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