Transit-Oriented Development: What Does It Take to Make It Work?

Developing a New Methodology for Analyzing Potential Displacement is 415 pages long; and cost a pretty penny, according to the Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development.  This study on transit-oriented development (TOD), published in March 2017, was prepared for the California Air Resources Board and the California Environmental Protection Agency by U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Los Angeles.  In spite of its length, complexity, and cost, this study comes to the same conclusion about TOD as anyone could have done by simply looking at a map.  What is useful to the study's target audience, metro-planning agencies in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area, are the suggestions for greater bean counting that can provide these agencies with ammunition for doubling down on "mitigating strategies" for displacement:  land use control, transportation control, fiscal policies, and taxation.

TOD is one of the responses to California state mandates to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT).  TOD promotes population density in corridors ½ mile from rail transit.   For a quick view of TODs see the Nine-County Coalition’s article, Meet Your New Landlord: Bay Area Rapid Transit.  Our conclusion was the same as that of the ARB study:  TODs make housing expensive, folks who cannot afford to pay move away, and folks who can afford to pay move in.  Of course, there are token housing subsidies, which claim to do some good.

                     Map of Transit-Oriented Development in the San Francisco Bay Area.

                     Map of Transit-Oriented Development in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The study is divided into background, study and conclusions, and mitigating remedies.  We readily admit we did not go over the 415 pages with a fine-tooth comb (we are unpaid volunteers with day jobs), but managed to cull some highlights from each of the study’s sections that we hope are of interest.

Background (Abstract):

“This report examines the relationship between fixed-rail transit neighborhoods and displacement in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area... Overall, we find that TOD has a significant impact on the stability of the surrounding neighborhood, leading to increases in housing costs that change the composition of the area, including the loss of low-income households. We found mixed evidence as to whether gentrification and displacement in rail station areas would cause an increase in auto usage and vehicle miles traveled (VMT).”

The bottom line here is that the study could not really tell whether TOD succeeds in reducing VMT, but succeeds admirably in displacing lower-income residents.

Residential and Commercial Gentrification:

These bullet points on the report provide a very brief overview of study and conclusions.

"Neighborhood decline results from the interaction of demographic shifts, public policy, and
entrenched segregation, and is shaped by metropolitan context."

"Gentrification results from both flows of capital and people. The extent to which gentrification is linked to racial transition differs across neighborhood contexts."

"Commercial gentrification can also transform a neighborhood’s meaning, but research is mixed on whether it is positive or negative for existing residents and businesses."

"New fixed-rail transit, inasmuch as it has a positive effect on residential and commercial property values, may also affect neighborhood stability and composition."

The study discussed the many variables that can result in gentrification and subsequent displacement, such as quality of schools and parks, and includes proximity to rail transit as a significant factor.

Mitigating Policies:

As its title indicates, the point of this study was to look at methodologies for analyzing displacement given the status quo.  Nothing in the study suggests that the status quo itself could be (and perhaps should be) revisited and modified.  Therefore, the study simply reiterates that TOD contributes to displacement and summarizes current mitigating polities. 

Here is a chart from a streamlined presentation of the study by the Air Resources Board.  One side of the chart lists production strategies:  fiscal, taxing, land use controls, and assets and investments.  The other side lists preservation, tenant protection and support, asset building and local economic development.

Strategies to address displacement

The study also discusses "barriers at the state level [that] include changing voter thresholds for communities that want to raise their own funds.”  In some cases, the study indicates that strategies such as rent control and affordable housing bonus plans do not work as well as they should because they are not applied forcefully enough.

In summary, Transit-Oriented Development may or may not reduce greenhouse gases by reducing vehicle miles traveled when displacement is factored in, it contributes to the astronomical housing costs in California’s metro centers, and it promotes displacement of lower-income residents.  If TOD contributes to those negative effects, then so do Priority Development Areas and Priority Conservations Areas, which also concentrate population along transit corridors.

California's metro-areas are likely to see more inventory and control of land and transportation as a result of this study.  However, the study also provides evidence that TOD, and by extension other features of the current central planning, come with consequences.  What price mitigating strategies?  Time to scrap the current central planning itself?