Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Transit-Oriented Development Is Good Community Development

by John Robert Smith and Allison Brooks

Reconnecting America calls places that already have much of the foundation in place to build complete communities “opportunity areas.” Walkable blocks, compact development, and a mix of land uses are important building blocks in the foundation of a complete community. Opportunity areas can be found in the hearts of cities, suburbs, and small towns, and occasionally in outlying centers of economic activity. Reinvesting in opportunity areas is a great community development strategy because it is much more challenging to add the bones of a walkable community to a more auto-oriented neighborhood, although that too is a strategy community development professionals must embrace. In our research, Reconnecting America has identified opportunity areas in just about every one of the 366 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the United States. This means that just about every metropolitan region has a place to start.

Decades of transportation research have shown that places we have identified as opportunity areas are more likely to support walking, bicycling, and transit use than other, more conventional suburban neighborhoods. Although the elements that make these vibrant places—major employers, retail, services, and entertainment choices—may have declined or disappeared over the years owing to disinvestment or the siren call of cheap “big-box” stores at the fringe, these places offer the potential for regeneration because the bones of a walkable, mixed-use community remain. Such regeneration is particularly feasible if their connection to the regional economy is strengthened through good transit.

CONCLUSION

Despite the polarized politics that have stymied progressive action in our nation’s capital, unprecedented innovation and collaboration are underway in regions across the country that support TOD, transit investment, and development patterns that better serve the poor, the environment, and the economy over the long term. Given the economic downturn and housing crisis, changes underway in entire industries and employment sectors, the elimination of redevelopment agencies in California and potentially other states, and the demographic shifts transforming our communities, it is clearly time to step out of our comfort zones and standard ways of doing business, whether a housing developer, a transit planner, or a community advocate. In this new era of community development, we need to forge partnerships with unlikely allies, build collaborations that will stand the test of time and the vagaries of the political environment. In this new era we have the opportunity to redefine and build communities that are well supported by quality transportation systems and that will serve the life needs of today’s grandparents and tomorrow’s grandchildren.


Endnotes

  1. U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and the Frontier Group, “Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy,” April 5, 2012, available at http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/transportation-and-new-generation.
  2. American Public Transportation Association, Public Transportation Protects Americans from Gas Price Volatility (Washington, DC: APTA Policy Development and Research Department, May 2012).

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Investing in What Works for America’s Communities is a joint project of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

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