Transit-Oriented Development: vital to an interconnected system


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The Ronkonoma Hub project is one example of transit-oriented development moving forward but more needs to be done to continue to build the housing that is needed and in demand. Photo of proposed development courtesy: Town of Brookhaven.

(September 20, 2012)  If you have ever experienced back pain you often acutely focus on a problem that may exist with your spine.  Only later you find out it may not be your back.  Instead it could be your hips, muscles and joints which are all interconnected and are needed to support a healthy spine and quality of life.  By building that support system you may even eliminate the back pain that once plagued you.

In the New York Metropolitan area, transit is the backbone.  Transit-oriented development (TOD), in the urban areas and the railroad suburbs surrounding each station is the core muscle which keeps 13 million New Yorkers (plus 6 million in Northern New Jersey and Connecticut) moving in a productive fashion.  Transit is vital to the economy and quality of life downstate.

The Benefits of Transit-Oriented Development:

  • Revitalizes main streets, urban cores
  • Aligns with demand for rentals and condos
  • Supports existing transit service and makes possible transit enhancements
  • Environmental benefits from fewer vehicle miles traveled
  • Provides alternatives to single-family home for elderly, Gen-Y, low-income
  • Tool to improve fair and affirmative housing options

In the five boroughs,  6,300 subway cars and 5,600 buses, many of them manufactured in upstate, provide 7.7 million rides a day.  Metro-North connects cities such as Yonkers and White Plains with suburban locations, 121 different stations in seven New York State counties and two in Connecticut. On Long Island, 735 daily trains provide transportation for 265,000 each weekday.  Including regional bus systems and rail connections in neighboring states, the region is the quintessential hub-and-spoke system that makes Manhattan a global center for business and the region livable for all commuters, riders and drivers.

The transit system is most efficient in the places that have developed densely, with the stations located in the walkable core.  Pre-1950’s development, the traditional downtown, was very similar to what we consider modern day TOD; walkable environments with the mixing of uses, retail on the ground floor, with diverse housing options and offices above.

Then came the car craze.  Robert Moses’s highways and bridges facilitated suburban sprawl.  Neighborhoods were built lacking interconnected streets and paths for walking, forcing everyone to drive everywhere to do just about anything.  Creating more car lanes led to increased, perhaps paralyzing, congestion.

Focusing on TOD has the opportunity to solve many of the issues caused by inefficient land use in the past.  A combination of personal lifestyle choice and real savings —  American Public Transit Association found that New York families can save $14,340 annually by utilizing transit — continues to move a record number of people of all ages, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds out of the car and into the bus or train.

How $4 gas kills the middle class: courtesy The New America Foundation

The development community in New York has noticed the shift in housing demand.  The effort by the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council to provide financial support for water and sewer infrastructure in places like Ronkonkoma allows for the creation of a dense town center around the LIRR station; an example of when building new infrastructure is warranted.  Efforts by the MTA Metro-North to stimulate TOD in places such as Beacon and Harrison, as well as the work by the New York and Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium in places such as the City of New Rochelle, is evidence that New York is finally starting to rebuild the TOD our transit system needs.

But we aren’t there yet as there are some challenges that need be addressed.  Local policies from parking regulations, outdated zoning policies, lack of sewer infrastructure, to overly burdensome development approval processes still push developers toward the path of least resistance; to states with comprehensive TOD strategies or into sprawl development.  Even though TOD can improve the financial situation for transit operators, New York State does not have a coordinated strategy to assist with TOD planning or to defray costs that are associated with TOD compared to suburban development.

In part because of the higher cost of TOD in New York, many units that have been developed are luxury or higher end.  This results in fewer affordable and mixed-income options.  It does not adequately address the issues of displacement and gentrification.  This is an unacceptable side effect as projections indicate that low-income riders are most likely to be a transit systems greatest user; by 2030, it is projected that more than half of the potential demand for housing near transit will come from households below area median income.

The best examples of public support for TOD have come from local governments and states that develop holistic approaches to realizing the economic benefits of TOD while advancing social goals.

As highlighted in the 2011 report by RPA, Getting it Done, which offers strategies for Long Island to improve their TOD landscape, the City of Fairfax, VA was identified as a place that has been able to streamline the planning process for new development, creating one point of contact for all information and forms.

The Eddy & Taylor Family Housing project in the Bay Area received $7.2M in financing for a 14-story building with over 100 1-3 bedroom affordable units and retail space designed to attract a grocery store to the underserved community. Photo:

Two programs out west showcase the benefits of cooperation between government, non-profit and the private sector in funding TOD.  The San Francisco Bay Area Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing (TOAH) Fund is a $50m public, private and non-profit collaboration for the development of affordable housing, retail space and other critical services, such as child care centers, fresh food outlets and health clinics.  Eighty-five percent of the fund capital is dedicated to the creation of affordable units.  The fund, which closed in 2011, included support for  pre-development and acquisition among other activities that traditional financiers have shied away from.

A similar approach in Denver, the Mile High Transit Oriented Development Fund, is a $15m fund that is expected to create or preserve 1,000 affordable units.  Strategic land acquisitions promise future sustainable and equitable growth.

Creating environments that provide access to transit for those who want it is important.  It is necessary for those who rely on it to get to work, feed their families and receive medical care.  While certainly there exists additional challenges in an intensely developed region like New York, derivatives of these programs could create an easier path to the type of TOD desired and needed.  New York State can do more to support our transit, the people who rely on it, and the countless new riders across the state who are demanding it.

This piece was contributed by David Hogenkamp, Project Manager, Empire State Future

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