Bodies of water were the original transit lines that served our world’s oldest cities. Rivers, channels and, later on, oceans connected people to resources and opportunity and populations grew around them. In cities with older public transportation infrastructure, we see dense clusters of development along rail transit stops and corridors built to support and connect as many people as possible to these “rivers” of resource. So how do communities orient around transit, when new rail lines are being built today, in Los Angeles County’s sprawling and mostly low-density communities?
Everyone drives in LA (or not)
It is hard to miss the surge of rail transit development around Los Angeles lately. Major streets in South LA, the Westside, Downtown LA, and the San Gabriel Valley have been getting torn up and put back together with the new addition of Metro rail lines sewn in. This is the result of voter-approved countywide sales taxes, such as Measure R and Measure M.
These infrastructure investments have the potential to change neighborhoods in a way that traditional bus lines don’t. Rail construction establishes fixed stations that developers and investors foresee remaining in place, potentially impacting land use and land value. Bus routes, in contrast, can be changed. Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD, can be briefly defined as dense, mixed-use development within walking distance of transit stations. In Los Angeles, Metro has long identified its role in TOD and is now committed to scaling this concept beyond a single development parcel to Transit Oriented Communities, or places with development and infrastructure that allow people to drive less and access transit more.
On paper, TOCs have potential to address some of our signature problems in Los Angeles by simultaneously getting more people into homes and out of their cars. Congestion and pollution goes down; housing supply goes up. That’s the theory, at least.
By encouraging TOCs, more residents could be inclined to take transit instead of driving to their jobs, and those who are already taking transit could better access and enjoy neighborhood-serving amenities such as grocery stores, childcare, and health services. This serves as a domino effect leading to healthier communities. Shorter trips means more walking and biking, which means fewer tailpipe emissions. More people on streets and sidewalks means more vibrant public spaces and social interactions.
If you build it, what comes after?
It turns out that the real world isn’t so simple. The intention of facilitating Transit Oriented Communities may be to reshape neighborhoods around rail stations, but everything new replaces something that was already there and it impacts the existing community in positive and negative ways. For example, these changes can open up communities to speculation. Rapid and concurrent investments from both the public and private sectors can increase the monetary value of land and property, which can lead to one of the most notorious words in urban planning: displacement.
Further, there’s huge demand for car-free living, and people are moving into existing neighborhoods with a long history of high transit use and low car ownership. Millenials have shown a preference for living in cities with affordable and reliable public transportation. And the increasing older adult population in Greater Los Angeles will need a diversity of travel options if they want to continue to age in place.
That leads us to an important question: how do we encourage healthy development without displacement? There are local and state efforts aiming to answer that very question. Following the leadership of the Alliance for Community Transit – Los Angeles (ACT-LA) and 2016’s Measure JJJ, the City of Los Angeles has recently passed its own Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program, which incentivizes developers to include affordable housing in developments located near transit in exchange for reduced parking requirements, density bonuses, and other attractive incentives.
At the state level, Senator Scott Weiner of San Francisco also recently proposed legislation (SB 827) that would make it easier to develop near transit stations, though it was originally written without clear safeguards against displacement nor affordability incentives. SB 827 is currently going through revisions to address this, in part due to strong public opposition to the bill from affordable housing and social justice advocates.
TOC at Metro
Metro is in the process of developing their own TOC policy. While mostly recognized as the countywide transit agency, Metro is much more: the primary planner, funder, designer, and builder of the County’s multi-modal transportation network–and a real estate developer. Metro’s TOC policy would have several key mechanisms:
- Establishing a TOC definition for how Metro plans and implements high quality transit corridors
- Defining TOC activities within a designated distance of high-quality transit stops (rail stations and/or the intersection of two or more bus lines that service the stop at a frequency of 15 minutes or less). TOC activities must serve a transportation purpose or demonstrate a nexus with improving transportation access.
- Using that definition to determine what activities cities and jurisdictions can implement and spend their Measure M Local Return funds on.
- Distinguishing between Metro’s direct funding and implementation role versus the role of local jurisdictions in TOC activities.
This is a huge deal. Up until now, TOC was an experiment – hence Metro’s “TOC Demonstration Program”. An official TOC Policy will cement Metro’s status at the cutting edge of transit agencies willing to embrace their broader role in community development. (Investing in Place also wrote an analysis on Metro’s existing policies relevant to TOC last year here.)
The image above shows the four most populous cities and jurisdictions in Los Angeles County and how much each jurisdiction is expected to yield annually in Local Return (in $ millions).
The Los Angeles region currently has no countywide land use policy but Measure M and other regional transportation investments tend to impact countywide land use decisions. Still, cities and jurisdictions retain control over their planning, zoning, and land use policies, therefore Metro cannot force jurisdictions to build and plan for a certain type of development, or any development at all. Metro can provide planning grants, and add incentives and requirements that align with its TOC policy to competitive capital funds. The rest is up to the local jurisdictions and their policymakers.
Although the amount of Local Return dollars that can be leveraged with this policy is a relatively small share of Measure M, a well-crafted TOC policy can advance transportation equity, by addressing affordable housing opportunities, residential/commercial displacement, transit ridership and access, first/last mile investments, development guidelines and other related issues.
A critical component of the TOC policy hinges on defining a “TOC activity,” which needs to demonstrate a nexus with transportation access. There is strong research correlating lower household income levels with higher transit ridership. And Metro’s core transit riders are disproportionately low-income. This means availability of affordable housing near transit (including the definition of “affordable”) can directly impact transit ridership and access.
What could all this mean for low-income households? Here are some examples the TOC policy could potentially support:
- Affordable housing development near transit, directly or through land-use planning
- Subsidized transit pass programs
- Renter retention strategies to keep core riders near transit
- Small business retention strategies that promote economic diversity that serves core transit riders
- Planning and design for safer and greener streets
How do we keep the “community” in Transit Oriented Communities?
While Metro is rapidly working to complete its TOC policy this spring, the draft is still in progress. Metro staff is currently (March 2018) working with a subcommittee of the Metro Policy Advisory Council (PAC) on the draft. The draft will then be presented to the full PAC committee at the April 3 meeting. After any revisions, Metro staff plans to present the draft to the Metro Board in May, with the final policy scheduled for a June 2018 adoption.
At this point, the PAC is the best entry point to diverse voices weighing in on the development of Metro’s TOC policy. Investing in Place hosted a #JustGrowth work group meeting on Monday March 12 to collect recommendations from partners. This week the PAC TOC subcommittee will finalize recommendations for the draft TOC policy before it goes to the full PAC on April 3. If you are interested in lending your voice to the conversation, please contact us at email@example.com before March 21.