Transit lines are often planned without considering the destinations of their core transit riders and new affordable housing projects rarely consider connections to employment opportunities, fresh food, or other services. A people-based approach is a holistic plan for addressing the needs of its residents, beyond the hard infrastructure.

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is a land use and transportation strategy that emphasizes place-based solutions to connecting people to housing, transit, and other key services. While place-based strategies offer meaningful solutions, they can overlook the range of needs of low-income residents. For example, transit lines are often planned without considering the destinations of their core transit riders and new affordable housing projects rarely consider connections to employment opportunities, fresh food, or other services. A people-based approach is a holistic plan for addressing the needs of its residents, beyond the hard infrastructure. At Living Cities, we believe that a people-based strategy tied with a place-based approach is necessary in order to improve access to economic opportunity for low-income people. (To learn more about incorporating equity in TOD, check out an earlier post here.)

To further our thinking on this topic, we hosted a webinar led by Stephanie Pollack, Associate Director of Northeastern University’s Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center. Stephanie is a leading national scholar on equitable TOD and recently released a comprehensive analysis on equitable transit and TOD in the Boston area. During the webinar, she highlighted the challenges in executing equitable TOD while highlighting examples from our cohort of TOD-grantees: Baltimore, the Bay Area, Denver, Detroit, and the Twin Cities. As her research on tools and best practices develops, a number of overarching themes emerged:

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  • There is a difference between gentrification & displacement. It is important to understand these two concepts separately. Gentrification is primarily characterized by increasing property values – a placed-based success. Displacement is the involuntary movement of existing residents out of their neighborhood because of decreased affordability – a people-based failure. Equitable TOD means achieving gentrification without displacement. Ideally, we want the economic development success from place-based efforts paired with greater economic opportunity, such as affordable housing and middle-skilled jobs for low-income residents.
  • There is a difference between opportunity & access. Economic opportunity for low-income people results from the presence of affordable housing, businesses growth, effective public transit, and other important services, such as schools and health facilities. Creating opportunity can be mistaken as a placed-based approach, particularly if the desired “ends” include the number of housing units or new jobs created. On the other hand, access is focused on people and their “means” to opportunity. Increased access means there are low or middle skilled jobs, workforce training opportunities, and public transit options that take less than 90-minutes. While access is difficult to measure, it is critical to creating a people-based approach to our work. Such a strategy is most effective when we consider: 1) access to what, 2) access for whom, and 3) access by what mode of transportation. For example, attracting a new major employer to locate within a community is a great opportunity, but whether low-income residents have access to that employer’s jobs requires more work.
  • Clear & accessible data is the foundation of equitable outcomes. In her toolkit for equitable TOD, Stephanie elevates data tools as a prerequisite for engagement in equitable approaches. Data can help communities shape conversations geared towards social equity. For example, in order to determine where affordable housing is best located, clear and accessible data will help build the case for developers, residents, funders, and government. Data also enables clarity in other equitable TOD strategies such as: finance, housing, economic development, planning, and transportation management tools. Good data must be readily available and digestible to all. At its best, data supports equitable strategies like GreenTrip, a certification program for new development project that demonstrates the value of alternative modes of transportation. For more information on the power of data, see a previous blog post.

The distinctions between gentrification vs. displacement and opportunity vs. access ensure that equitable TOD meets the needs of people and places. The power of a clear narrative created by data helps integrate the needs of low income-residents into the TOD agenda. For more information on Stephanie Pollack’s research, click here to view the presentation and here to watch the video.