Transit-centered communities that are dense, service-rich, and walkable are one of the pillars of 21st century sustainable development policy. But the challenge, planners say, is figuring out how to actually create them.
NJIT has risen to the challenge with the publication of Planning for Transit Supportive Development, A Practitioner's Guide, a 600-page tool kit of best practices, techniques, and transferrable "lessons learned" that highlights successes in integrating transit planning with local land-use planning.
"We present methods for identifying project champions, engaging the community, and ultimately, undertaking meaningful planning to realize economically and environmentally sustainable communities around transit," says Colette Santasieri, director of strategic initiatives for NJIT and the guide's principal author. "We stress the importance of taking a regional view in integrating transit and local land-use planning, with the understanding that transit investments, housing, and environmental policies must be coordinated more closely at the regional level in order to achieve the goals of sustainability on the local level."
A key feature of successful transit-supportive development is higher densities within a compact area, generally a quarter to half-mile radius around a transit station. But when some suburban residents hear "higher densities," they picture Manhattan, Santasieri says, when in fact rezoning around transit stations in the suburbs does not lead to city-scale development. That is why, she adds, community education and engagement activities are so important.
A major hurdle, she notes, is that historically the various levels of government, regional planning organizations, transit agencies, and developers often function as operational silos, leading to single-focus criteria and decisions. Additionally, communities often lack a local plan for transit-centered development and the zoning ordinances to support it, including regulations that promote mixed uses and higher densities.
Timing is also a challenge, as transit-project design starts years and even decades before the system becomes operational. Real estate developers, however, are market-driven and generally start to plan development projects two to three years before the system becomes operational, so there is a lack of coordination that is essential for the integration of transit planning with local land use planning.
And yet Sean Vroom, an NJIT researcher on Santasieri's project team, pointed to several success stories that serve in the guide as examples for other regions and municipalities to emulate. He cites the Portland Streetcar in Portland, Oregon, and the LYNX Light Rail Transit System in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Portland Streetcar is a great example of a grass roots effort to stimulate the economy and development using a transit mode, which was then supported by effective land-use planning," Vroom said. "The LYNX Light Rail System was a great example of the incorporation of land-use considerations simultaneously with the design of a new transit system – something that is not usually done."
Santasieri added, "Another underlying theme of the guide is that there are no one-size-fits-all or prescriptive methods for this type of integrated planning. That is why we chose to research successful transit-supportive developments and provide many well-rounded, detailed case studies. Each ends with a list of transferrable "lessons learned."
The guide, funded by a $2.2 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), is designed as a resource document for planners on every level, including metropolitan planning organizations, regional planners, transit agencies, local planners and local governments, who want to understand the many nuances of planning for transit-supportive development.
It addresses planning in the urban setting, as well as in the suburbs, where the existing grid often includes large lots, cul-de-sacs, low densities and car-dependent shopping that make redevelopment more complicated.
She adds, however, that attitudes towards the traditional suburbs are changing.
"The lifestyle that was so popular in the mid-to-late 20th century is not attractive to many young professionals and empty-nesters, among others, who prefer to live in areas where they can walk to public transit, do not need a car to access stores, recreation and other venues, and can reduce their environmental footprint," she notes.
Some New Jersey communities are now viewing large parcels of vacant or underutilized land that lie next to active passenger rail lines as opportunities to create transit-supportive development.
Federal government agencies have also joined together to promote it. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U. S. Department of Transportation (of which the FTA), and the Environmental Protection Agency formed a partnership for sustainable communities to help improve access to affordable housing, to create more transportation options, and to lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide.
"The basic principle of transit-supportive development is that convenient access to transit is or can be a key attraction to foster mixed-use development and that increased density in station areas not only supports transit but also may accomplish other goals including reducing sprawl, reducing congestion, increasing pedestrian activity, increasing economic development potential, realizing environmental benefits, and building sustainable communities," Santasieri says.
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The FTA has posted NJIT's Planning for Transit Supportive Development, A Practitioner's Guide (in 6 different pdfs) on its website at www.fta.dot.gov/about/12351_8850.html.