Preserving and Promoting Diverse Transit-Oriented Neighborhoods (2006)

Preserving and Promoting Diverse Transit-Oriented Neighborhoods (2006)

It was not too long ago that our mass transit systems had become yet another symbol of disinvestment in urban America. As people exited cities for the suburbs, they left in their wake the decaying public amenities and assets that had given rise to cities in the first place —the schools, the infrastructure and the mass transit.

How times have changed. According to the American Public Transportation Association, riders in the U.S. took more than 9.7 billion trips on public transportation systems in 2005. Since 1995, public transportation use has increased 25 percent. There are 3,349 mass transit stations in the

U.S. today, and regions from coast to coast are building or planning to build new rail systems or expand existing systems. Over 700 new stations are currently under development.

A number of factors are driving this growth in transit use and construction. First, automobile transportation is increasingly expensive. Transportation — mostly fueled by the costs of owning and operating a personal vehicle — now costs as much or more than shelter in region after region. Studies show that expenditures for personally-owned vehicles drain household wealth and undercut community economic viability.1 Second, residents are looking for the convenience and access that alternatives to auto transportation can provide. And third, residents are tired of auto-related congestion and air pollution and are looking for alternatives.

For these reasons and more, people who can are choosing to use transit. But, as Hurricane Katrina painfully reminded the nation, “can” is the operative word. Not everyone has choices. Lower-income residents for whom cars can be an unaffordable luxury, who also often tend to be people of color, are disproportionately dependent on transit. The inability to quickly evacuate New Orleans was widely blamed on the fact that most residents were too poor to own cars, and were therefore too “transit-dependent.” But a short time later, when Hurricane Rita hit the Texas Gulf Coast, the roads were instantly clogged with people trying to evacuate by personal vehicles. Neither region was transit-rich enough to offer the kind of public transit services that worked so well in New York City after 9/11 and the Bay Area after the Loma Prieto earthquake. Unfortunately, New York and the Bay Area, along with a few other large cities, are the exception to the rule with regard to the quality of mass transit options. In the coming years, regions around the country will be challenged to offer more and better service like their New York and Bay Area peers and seize the latent opportunity offered by mass transit.

The renaissance of mass transit has coincided with a renaissance of communities and neighborhoods that are proximate to transit stations. More and more residents, of all incomes, ages, and races, want to not only use transit, they want to live near it as well. As demand for housing near this increasingly valuable piece of public infrastructure increases, how will its benefits be shared among diverse users? Will it give people more or fewer choices, and will those choices be broadly shared? What will these neighborhoods around transit look like in 25 years and what kinds of housing choices will be available? Will transit revert from being the lifeblood of those who need it the most to a mere perk of urban life for those who use it occasionally? Or could it become again what it once was, the glue that holds together the multiple facets — the diverse faces — of urban America?

To answer these questions, this report attempts to understand who lives near transit today and who is expected to live there in 25 years. This report also tries to lend a sense of urgency to a dialogue between those who want to ensure high-quality transit service, and those who want to ensure high-quality neighborhoods -- two sets of actors who have much at stake but do not often connect. This dialogue needs to be about how to use the increasingly hot market for housing near transit to serve the interests of many grassroots and community development groups working to build diverse, inclusive, opportunity-rich neighborhoods, and in the process increase support for transit systems around the country.

Preserving and Promoting Diverse Transit-Oriented Neighborhoods