Smog, air pollution, traffic jams — few urban areas can claim they do not struggle with those problems. Some cities propose public transportation as the solution. Public transit advocates say that, if people would get out of their cars and into buses or trains, cities could reduce the number of cars on the roads, reduce accidents, make streets safer for pedestrians and improve air quality. Many cities have found, however, that simply providing public transportation is not enough to get people to use it.

In a growing number of cities, transit agencies and planning departments are trying to encourage residents to reduce their use of cars by creating places to live, work and shop around transit stations. The so-called transit-oriented developments (TOD) situate residential units, retail outlets and commercial space within a quarter-mile of transit stations. Cities and transit agencies say the arrangements have the potential to provide myriad benefits to individuals and metropolitan areas. Hence, they have enacted policies and have provided funding to encourage their development. Whether the developments will fulfill their potential remains to be seen.

Improving convenience, civic spaces

Transit-oriented developments provide a consolidated area in which to conduct daily tasks. Residents can drop off their dry cleaning, pick up breakfast and a newspaper, order a meal for dinner and walk to the train, all within yards of their homes.

After work, residents can ride the train back home, pick up their dry cleaning, pick up their prepared meals and take an elevator back to their apartments. “That's as good as it gets,” says Jeff Warsh, executive director for New Jersey Transit. “It's undeniably a rat race, but that's about as happy a rat as you could get.

“When you're living in [a densely populated area], you are an urban being,” Warsh says. “Your quality of life is more of an urban quality of life, and the only way that quality of life will be protected from further degradation is to make life more convenient. The way that happens is to eliminate the need for an automobile to get your basics done.”

In addition to making life more convenient, TODs can refocus development to keep urban areas from expanding. That is the main goal of the New Jersey Transit Village Program that launched in 2000. “We're attempting to attract urban in-fill development around infrastructure that has existed since the 1830s in New Jersey. [The program is] consistent with the New Jersey state plan, which seeks to slow down the state's rather alarming rate of suburban sprawl,” Warsh says.

The Transit Village Program, which draws on the resources of New Jersey Transit, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Community Affairs, the Office of State Planning and the Department of Transportation, has supported redevelopment activities at five transit stations so far. For one of the projects, the transit agency partnered with South Orange Village, which had been revitalizing its central business district since 1994.

The village had rezoned to increase the number of residential units near its viaduct train station in the center of town. At the same time, it made street and sidewalk improvements, installed old-fashioned light fixtures and planted trees.

The village received help from the transit agency in refurbishing the train station and dilapidated retail spaces. Additionally, New Jersey Transit built a commuter parking lot near the station and sold a nearby building to the village, which plans to convert it to a playhouse and cinema.

Although the downtown district is not filled to capacity, the improvements have attracted residents and new businesses to the area. “We have grown steadily and will continue to grow in terms of size and quality of the businesses that we have in town,” says John Gross, business administrator/chief financial officer for South Orange Village. “We are seeing an increase in rental values.”

Money matters

In addition to attracting in-fill development, TODs can provide other large-scale benefits. According to a December California Department of Transportation report, TODs can provide transportation choices, improve public safety around stations, reduce rates of vehicle miles traveled, increase households' disposable income, reduce air pollution and energy-consumption rates, preserve open space, decrease local governments' infrastructure costs, and play a role in economic development.

Lastly, TODs can increase transit ridership, according to G.B. Arrington, senior professional associate for New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas and co-author of the California report. “[By encouraging TOD, cities are acting] kind of like a bank that is looking at its fiduciary responsibility and asking how it can get a greater return on its investment,” he says. “Shaping development around rail lines helps you do that.”

To help attract development around transit stations, cities and transit agencies have a number of mechanisms at their disposal. Some transit agencies assemble or purchase land around stations and sell it to developers for market or below-market prices. Some local governments pre-zone land around transit stations for high-density, mixed uses and expedite the permitting process for TODs.

Other local governments, like Metro, the regional government that encompasses three counties and 24 cities in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area, use federal funds to support the construction of TODs. That is particularly so in suburban areas where high-density, mixed-use developments are uncommon.

High-density, mixed-use structures are more costly to construct than lower density structures, meaning developers must charge higher rent to recoup construction costs. However, suburban renters typically try to get the most space for the least amount of money, which makes high-density structures unappealing outside the urban center.

Metro encourages developers to build mixed-use structures around light rail stations in suburban areas by giving them money to offset their construction costs. “If developers are building in an area without a lot of high density, they won't necessarily get higher rents for mixed-use structures, even though their construction costs are higher,” says Phil Whitmore, manager of transit-oriented development for Metro. “It's not just that the developers are taking a risk, they also have an added economic burden. So we try to offset that added burden and make that playing field more equal.”

Metro calculates the amount of money to allocate to TOD projects by applying a formula required by the federal government. First, Metro identifies the cost penalties developers would face were they to build a TOD instead of single-family homes or three-story apartments with surface parking lots. (Cost penalties include the additional costs of building parking structures; adding firewalls between ground-floor retail units and upper-floor residential units; including elevators in structures higher than three stories; and providing advanced fire suppression systems.)

Next, Metro calculates the development's benefit to transit. If a developer's cost penalties amount to $1 million, but the development would produce only a $500,000 benefit to transit, Metro can award a grant only for $500,000. “We generally try to line those up fairly closely,” Whitmore says.

In addition to the prospect of receiving federal funding, developers are attracted to sites around the Portland suburban area's light rail stations by property tax exemptions for high-density, mixed-use developments. Also, the Portland Development Commission creates urban redevelopment zones around stations and supports them with tax increment financing.

Portland officials have learned that financial incentives are an essential part of creating the development they want. “Our first mistake when we built the first segment of the light rail line was that we assumed we would build it and the development would follow,” says Connie Lively, senior project manager for the Portland Development Commission. “That didn't necessarily happen. Public agencies need to be proactive about acquiring good sites along the [transit] alignments where it makes the most sense to form a community center or higher density housing. It doesn't just happen on its own.”

Gathering community input

Lining up developers is only part of the challenge of creating a successful TOD. Transit agencies and planners also need to win the favor of the neighborhoods in which TODs are built.

When South Orange Village officials began revitalizing their business district, they wanted to establish a redevelopment zone that would allow for property condemnation if needed. In the process of creating the zone, village staff held several hearings to collect community input. “Whenever you take a drastic step such as creating a redevelopment zone, the public and, certainly, the property owners within that zone want to know exactly what that will mean to them,” Gross says. “At one point, there was a legal challenge to the establishment of the zone, but the village was found to be justified, and we won.”

Getting residents involved in the planning process helps avoid conflict between government agencies and residents and can ensure that the people who live in the area will be happy with the finished project. The San Francisco Planning Department has started an outreach program in which it holds intensive workshops with neighborhood groups. The workshops address what residents would like to see happen in their neighborhoods and how the Planning Department can help. “By holding a series of workshops, the Planning Department doesn't force the community to react and say, ‘We don't want change,’” says Peter Albert, manager of planning for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART). “[It gets] feedback like, ‘We want our neighborhood to be more of a hub of activity. We're tired of going to other neighborhoods to get to the interesting shops and the nightlife. We want that in our own neighborhood.’”

As a result of some of those hearings, San Francisco is planning a mixed-use development, including housing, atop the Balboa Park BART station. The area boasts the campus of the City College of San Francisco and is served by three light rail lines, in addition to BART.

Because tens of thousands of people use the Balboa Park station daily, BART officials thought the station's users would be a valuable source of information about the station's redesign. “We really can't go out ahead of everybody and say, ‘This is what we want to see happening on our property,’” Albert says. “We could, in theory, because we have somewhat of an immunity to local zoning, but that's not our philosophy.”

In another project, BART worked with the Contra Costa County Community Redevelopment Department to plan a TOD at the Pleasant Hill BART station. Both agencies participated in a weeklong public planning session to gather ideas.

The Pleasant Hill station poses a development problem for BART because it is surrounded by a park-and-ride lot with approximately 1,200 spaces. Although some housing and office space has sprung up near the station, it is separated from the station by the huge parking lot. BART gathered input from residents of the station's surrounding neighborhood, commuters and community leaders about how to develop the lot. The result is a plan to replace the parking lot with structured parking and to build 500 residential units, 300,000 to 500,000 square feet of office space, 7,000 square feet of civic space and some retail space on station property.

“At one point, BART was talking to a developer [that wanted to build] a multiplex theater and some high-density housing, and all that happened out of that was community opposition,” Albert says. “It was a situation where the ideas came from the developer first, and the community came in later. We think a good planning process will give a voice to [all interested parties] so they will understand each other better and maybe come up with a solution that will mutually satisfy [all] of them.”

The parking problem

No matter how much public input local governments and transit agencies gather, TODs may generate some negative reactions once they are constructed. For example, in October, the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute (CPI), a nonprofit research and educational organization, issued an article about the problems a TOD in Portland has caused since its completion in January 2001. Center Commons was built on a five-acre site of an abandoned state Department of Transportation complex across the Interstate 84 freeway from a light rail station. The 314-unit TOD includes a senior apartment building, a family apartment building with a day care facility, a market-rate apartment building with retail space, 26 townhomes, a pedestrian plaza and a playground. The project has a parking ratio of 0.6:1, which means that one-third of the residential units are without a parking space.

The development's low parking ratio has caused surrounding neighborhood streets and retail spaces to be crowded with parked cars belonging to the TOD's residents, according to John Charles, environmental policy director for CPI. Also, the development's retail space does not have any parking, which has made it a tough sell, according to a real estate agent quoted in the article.

Lively, the manager of the Center Commons development for the Portland Development Commission, says the problems identified in the article surprised her because the commission worked with neighborhood residents to plan the development. “They were with us at the table the whole way,” Lively says. “They were very supportive of the project — at least their spokespeople were.”

Lively concedes that retail leasing was slow because of the parking shortage, but she says a tenant has moved in recently. Also, she says that, before the article was published, she was not aware that parking in surrounding neighborhoods was a problem. “I would be the first one people would call if the neighborhoods were having trouble with cars parking on their streets,” Lively says. “I was very surprised at that.”

Despite the criticism the project has received, Lively says she still considers it a success. “People feel that it enhances the neighborhood,” she says. “There is a waiting list for people to get into the apartments. The townhouses aren't selling as quickly as we had hoped, but, generally, I think the project is successful.”

Measuring success

Because TOD is a relatively new practice, cities and transit agencies have little data that demonstrates whether TODs are meeting their goals. Currently, success of a TOD is gauged largely by completion of construction and by how quickly residents are occupying that space.

Cities and transit agencies are measuring quality-of-life benefits with several questions. “Is [the TOD] a beautiful place?” Albert says. “Do people feel comfortable? Is it safe? There are a lot of lifestyle changes that happen in a good TOD. People will walk more. People will drive less. People may own [fewer] cars. You'll start to see a successful TOD in the lifestyle that it creates.”

As TODs mature, there will be more opportunities to gather data and to quantitatively measure their success. Albert says that BART has applied for a state grant to study the development that has occurred around BART over the last 15 to 20 years and the travel behavior of area residents. Likewise, Metro has begun calculating the value of TOD residents' walk trips compared to the value of traveling by car. “We assign [the walk trip] the same cost benefit that we assign the transit trip,” Whitmore says.

Until cities are better able to measure the success of TODs, they are satisfied that, at the very least, the developments provide alternative housing and commercial spaces for residents. “We're recognizing that there are a lot of different families, and not all of them want to live the same way,” says Steve Dotterrer, principal planner for the Portland Bureau of Planning. “We're trying to provide more options.”