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6 guideposts for cities to create equitable transit-oriented developments

6 guideposts for cities to create equitable transit-oriented developments

With its ETOD Policy Toolkit Study, Austin, Texas, is striving to make communities centered on transit stops more equitable for current and future residents and local businesses.


By GEETI SILWAL, AICP, LEED AP BD+C | December 4, 2023
Austin, Texas, has devised a toolkit for creating 'equitable transit-oriented developments,' or ETODs.
Austin, Texas, has devised a toolkit for creating 'equitable transit-oriented developments,' or ETODs. Image: City of Austin, Texas

Despite the best efforts of city governments and their transportation departments, transit-oriented-development projects often unintentionally burden existing residents and small businesses in the area. The benefits that come along with TODs – new businesses, restaurants, retail, public amenities, and neighborhood services – also attract new residents to the area, leading to gentrification. With demand, rents and property values increase, and the people who called the neighborhood home before the infrastructure improvements took place are priced out. Original local businesses competing with the new shops and restaurants often see a decline in their customer bases and are also driven out of the neighborhood.

As existing residents move further away from economic centers to afford goods, services, and housing, the revitalized neighborhood takes on a new identity. However, there is a purposeful shift under way toward a concept that prioritizes equity at every step of the process to enable inclusive communities around transit stops.

CREATING 'EQUITABLE TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENTS

These “equitable transit-oriented developments,” or ETODs for short, plan ahead to enable thriving communities that benefit both existing and future residents and businesses. True equitable TODs should not only reduce and prevent displacement, but also create new economic opportunities for residents of all income levels and create transit-focused communities that are truly welcoming to lower income residents, communities of color, and others who have historically been pushed out by transit investments.

For many people, living car-free is not a choice. They have to commute, often to multiple jobs, and their day-to-day errands are not within walking distance or close to transit. They are car-dependent not car-oriented. ETODs prioritize those who depend on transit most heavily to accomplish their daily needs.

Developments that successfully retain the existing culture and residents of a place do this intentionally. In Austin, Texas, the city, its public transit agency Cap Metro, and the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP)  have been laying the framework to guide the development of Project Connect, which expands the existing transit system and adds more rail, light rail, and bus services throughout Austin. Voters approved funding for this program in 2020 with equity as a mandate.

To make sure equity is achieved, Austin sought lessons from the successes and shortfalls of other ETOD projects across the nation. The Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) Policy Toolkit Study outlines the resulting framework.

 Austin and Cap Metro began developing their plan with a deep consideration of how transit infrastructure has historically intersected with systemic racism, housing affordability, small business interests, economic opportunity, and health. This created an awareness of all the areas that needed to be addressed. When it came to envisioning the future of the impacted areas, Austin enlisted the community. This included a committee of paid community leaders representing community organizations and often-underserved communities.

Together, the community and the city of Austin co-created the guiding principles that are directing the project. These six guiding principles are specific to Austin, but they likely reflect the aspirations of many American communities. At key junctions, progress was measured against these six guideposts to ensure the program was staying true to its intention.

ETOD goals for City of Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas, has created a 6-point set of guidelines to make transit-oriented developments more equitable. Image: City of Austin, Texas

Guidepost 1: Enable all residents to benefit from safe, sustainable, and accessible transportation.

Austin’s ETOD is only a success if the new, high-quality transportation options and surrounding developments are accessible by those with the greatest need for the transit enhancements – including people with different physical abilities, people of color, the elderly, and people from all different income households. But this also means addressing existing gaps in the current system.

Guidepost 2: Help to close racial health and wealth gaps.

This comes down to providing opportunities for disenfranchised communities and reducing the barriers that have prevented them from participating in other communities. This could look like a mix of nearby grocery stores, goods, and services, such as healthcare and workforce development training and support. Supporting the development and growth of small, local businesses and ensuring ample affordable housing as well as legal counsel for homeowners and tenants.

 

Guidepost 3: Preserve and increase housing opportunities that are affordable and attainable.

This is a  two-pronged approach: first, protecting the existing affordable housing options from redevelopment as the area gains popularity; second, improving residents’ quality of life, in addition to producing new affordable housing developments. 

Guidepost 4: Expand access to high-auality jobs and career opportunities.

Increasing opportunities for easy-to-get-to living-wage (at a minimum) employment opportunities, and finding partnerships with industry anchors, institutions and skills-training organizations to locate close to transit to set the neighborhood up for long-term upward social mobility and economic prosperity. 

Guidepost 5: Support healthy neighborhoods that meet daily needs.

Neighborhoods around transit nodes are most successful when they incorporate commercial, residential, and public uses that support daily lives for people who live and work there – fresh food access, healthcare visits, and places to gather, play, and learn. 

Guidepost 6: Expand Austin’s diverse cultural heritage and small, BIPOC-owned, and legacy businesses.

Embrace the diversity of businesses, especially Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-owned businesses, that are invited to participate in these areas. This means making sure ground floor spaces are designed and structured to allow affordable leases.

The aspiration is to shift the paradigm of displacement into a future of impactful and lasting positive societal change. Ultimately, those with the greatest need for transit should be able to locate close to transit. As more cities look for opportunities to make sure capital transportation projects serve all residents, Austin’s guiding principles can serve as a starting point for delivering places that celebrate the existing communities and uplift the community by bringing new investment, new development, and new opportunities to that area.

The ultimate goal is to catalyze growth, jobs, housing options, and neighborhood services and amenities to keep people in place and grow from this investment. New, high-quality transportation options and the surrounding transit-served developments will be successful only if the communities are equitably accessible and affordable to everyone.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Geeti Silwal, AICP, LEED AP BC+C, is Principal and Western Region Urban Design Leader at Perkins&Will’s San Francisco Office.

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