The 30-year rise of TOD, and its role in creating a resilient region – Greater Greater Washington

RB Corridor by Arlington County licensed under Creative Commons.

This is the first article in a series exploring the history, current policies, and initiatives to create and maintain equitable transit-oriented development in the region.

America is facing a trifecta of issues all converging like streams into a giant river of troubled water. On one hand, there is the general housing shortage in the United States. Estimates vary, but one real estate and economic group concluded in a 2021 report that we are missing about 5.5 million housing units due to underbuilding over the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, the world is navigating unprecedented climate change. And while the US, and the Washington region, in particular, have targets to reduce greenhouse gases, it can’t happen without rethinking the way we go about land use. As a 2021 Brookings report states: “We must prioritize development in the kinds of neighborhoods that permanently reduce total driving and consume less energy.”

And right now, the vast majority of Americans are still car-dependent. A 2019 Census study found that nationwide 75.9% of commuters drove alone, compared to 5% who used some form of public transit. In the region, about 80% of commuters use a car, with about 15% using public transit according to a new study from the Center for Washington Area Studies. This number has remained relatively steady over the last five decades.

Low-income residents are doubly burdened with a shortage of affordable housing and high transportation costs. A journal report from The National Academy of Science noted that low-income Americans fork over about 17.8% of their annual income on transportation costs. And it can rise as high as 50% for extremely low-income households. But when reliable transit is nearby, those costs can drop to as low as 9% of annual income.

“These are the two highest household costs: transportation and housing,” said Mariia Zimmerman, a principal at MZ Strategies, LLC, and a leader in the transit-oriented development (TOD) space. She was pivotal in working with the Center for Transit-Oriented Development and Center for Neighborhood Technology on a transportation and affordability index that looks at the combined costs of housing and transportation when measuring how affordable a neighborhood is to a household.

“People, in our daily lives, we’re making trade-offs,” Maria Zimmerman said. “People move further out from the metro core because housing is more affordable, but then they’re paying a lot more for transportation.”

When done right, transit-oriented development (TOD) checks all the boxes for a walkable, sustainable, and affordable region, with transit options for everyone. And TOD is part of a regional strategy that lawmakers, regional transit agencies, and urban advocates are betting on when it comes to building out a resilient region. TOD, however, hasn’t always resulted in the level of inclusivity and affordability that champions hoped for.

The journey to creating equitable TOD is a complicated one and requires looking at several moments in history that converged to get the region and the country to where we are now.

What the heck is TOD, anyway?

Transit-oriented development is usually defined as a mixed-use development that is walkable and in close proximity – typically between one-quarter and one-half of a mile — to a transit station.

A couple of traits distinguish TOD from other styles of development, according to Chris Zimmerman, vice president for economic development for Smart Growth America, Director of the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, and former WMATA and Arlington County Board member. One, TOD is usually dense because 75% of the people who use a transit station come from within ¼ mile. That first one-quarter of a mile of land closest to a transit station consists of about 126 acres. The next 375 acres, within a radius of one-quarter to one-half of a mile from the transit station, experience a real drop in the propensity for people to walk, according to Zimmerman. So density is crucial.

Mixed-use is the other crucial component, Chris Zimmerman argues, because if you have just residences or just offices, the TOD site can only support commuter traffic in one direction and thus doesn’t do a very good job of maximizing transit use, or making it possible for people to handle most of their trips without a car.

EVERYTHING before it became trendy

While TOD may seem like a new phenomenon, it’s a concept that has been around since before better forms of transportation were even invented. “Basically what you want is what every city, town, and village was for 10,000 years or so before we invented cars,” Chris Zimmerman said. “Things have to be within walkable distance because that’s how people get to them. That’s TOD.”

Streetcars in front of The District Building. This undated photograph, found in the DDOT library, shows streetcars running on 14th Street, NW near the District Building, now known as the John A. Wilson Building. Image by DDOT DC used with permission.

In the late 1800s, an early iteration of TOD came about with the build-out of the rail system, first with trains and then with streetcars, bringing people together and back to their homes. In the Washington region, several neighborhoods sprang up because of the streetcar. Places like Fairfax and Arlington used streetcar/bus hybrids to move people into and out of DC for work. In DC proper, 16 streetcar routes and hundreds of miles of track crisscrossed the city from the 1880s to the early 1960s.

However, the popularization of the automobile changed the trajectory of how people lived. In 1900, there were only 8,000 cars registered in the US. By 1990, that number had increased to 133,700,497, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. By the end of World War II, the country was politically and economically ready for something new.

Massive government subsidies for new highways and new suburban homes combined with (and shaped) consumer preferences of the day to reorient most of America around cars. But the advent of the car happened alongside, and contributed to, a string of complications that altered where folks resided and how they got around the District and cities across the country.

Southeast/Southwest Freeway 1968 Aerial view of the freeway construction site looking north. You can see the newly constructed freeway on the left edge of the photograph. Image by DDOT DC licensed under Creative Commons.

Redlining, racial covenants, and urban renewal

As Americans came to see homeownership as central to the American dream, redlining was one of the core tools used to deny many Black households access to that dream. Redlining, a common practice from the 1940s through the 1970s (with lawsuits continuing into the present day), is the practice of denying home loans in majority-Black neighborhoods. It contributed to racial segregation, an increased racial wealth gap, urban disinvestment, and the concentration of poverty.

Racial covenants were among the other tools used to keep White neighborhoods separate from Black ones. While language was included in deeds to restrict Black people from certain areas, many White homeowners also signed agreements not to sell their homes to Blacks. This legal and social cycle helped to keep African Americans in one area, while simultaneously devaluing the properties many Blacks did own.

At the same time, urban renewal, the process of government entities seizing so-called “blighted” private and public land for redevelopment, played a dominant role in the concentration of poverty and displacement of Black households in the 1960s. As GGWash contributor Nena Perry-Brown reported, urban renewal projects in Southwest DC displaced 23,000 people by 1960 as entire neighborhoods and communities were leveled.

Urban renewal plans were still on the books until 2019. From 1957 to 1977, the US Department of Transportation estimates the number of displaced households across the country to be 475,000.

Altogether, these policies and tactics ensured that patterns of urban disinvestment and suburban growth in the United States were heavily racialized. Today, leaders in the transit-oriented development space grapple with how to not only build neighborhoods that are physically different from sprawl, but also don’t further reinforce these longstanding inequities.

Metro and a movement back to cities

Long before WMATA became the third largest heavy rail transit system and the sixth-largest bus network in the US, it was part of a larger strategy, with planning dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, to bring more transit and walkable development to the region . This was happening, however, as the country continued to build massive freeways through downtowns.

But in the late 20th century, a new kind of movement burgeoned across the region and the country – one focused on targeting new growth into existing developed areas rather than sprawling into the countryside.

Areas like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, and downtowns Bethesda and Silver Spring in Maryland, began to focus on building transit-oriented development, and became early models for the country.

At the same time, Black and low-income families continued to deal with the effects of white flight, redlining, and urban renewal.

What does this all mean for TOD?

With high-income jobs to be had, more and more high-income residents moved to the DC region in the last 30 years. This coincided with the smart growth movement connecting jobs, housing, and transit, resulting in a boom.

A Federal Transit Administration (FTA) study shows that about 881 new transit stations have been built since 2000, an increase of 25%. Additionally, between 2000 to 2010 there was a 24% increase in the number of jobs located within a half-mile of transit, and by the end of 2010, transit systems provided access to over 1.3 million jobs. WMATA recently announced plans to increase joint developments, or partnerships between a transit agency and partners to build TOD, and create 20 new agreements by 2032 with the hope of creating about 26,000 new housing units. Since Metro opened the agency completed 55 joint development projects, according to the report.

In the Washington region, 54% of jobs are located within a half-mile of a Metro station or Metrobus stop, according to WMATA. And about 28% of the region’s property tax base is located within a half-mile of a Metrorail station.

“Well-planned TOD can benefit families of all incomes and enable those living near stations to benefit from increased access to jobs and other opportunities,” notes a report from the Greater Washington Partnership.

The keywords, though, are “done right”: to help rectify, and avoid replicating, past injustices, TOD has to be equitable. As explained in this report from Enterprise, a community development nonprofit, equitable transit-oriented development, or ETOD, is “compact, often mixed-use development with multi-modal access to jobs, neighborhood-serving stores and other amenities that also serves the needs of low- and moderate-income people.”

In our next article, we will look at how DC reinvested in its future and what that means for the region, TOD, and the prospect of equitable transit-oriented development.

This article is part of a limited series exploring equitable transit-oriented development, made possible with a grant from Amazon. Greater Greater Washington’s editorial department maintains editorial control and independence in accordance with our editorial policy. Our journalists follow the ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists.

George Kevin Jordan is GGWash’s Editor-in-Chief. He is a proud resident of Hillcrest in DC’s Ward 7. He was born and raised in Milwaukee and has written for many publications, most recently the AFRO and about HIV/AIDS issues for TheBody.com.

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