With gasoline prices hovering around $3 per gallon, home prices in the region
climbing and average commuting times lengthening as well, the capital region
has a real opportunity to create an alternative to the car-centered life.
It's called transit-oriented development, or TOD.
The basic idea is simple - use transit stops, whether busway or commuter
rail stations or enhanced bus stops, as the nucleus for a mix of housing,
retail, offices and street enhancements.
Cities and private developers from coast to coast have been investing in
transit-oriented development, from northern New Jersey, where aggressively
upgraded train stations have attracted retail and housing, to significant
mixed-use private development occurring along the Pittsburgh West Busway
and well-established urban fabric around downtown Portland's transit stops
The benefits are plentiful. TOD offers
an attractive choice for residents who might want to live closer to their
jobs or to city amenities. It's a way to reuse urban land, reduce auto
use and enrich the built environment. When done well, TOD enhances affordability
of housing not only by building a mix of housing types but by decreasing
a household's transportation costs. Financial institutions are beginning
to offer location-efficient mortgages that explicitly credit households
that locate near transit. TOD can set up a "virtuous cycle" with
transit patrons attracting development and that development attracting
more transit riders.
Here in the capital region, we have a number of opportunities to move forward
on transit-oriented development: the proposed New Britain-Hartford busway,
the proposed Springfield-New Haven commuter rail, and even some existing
The stars may be aligning. The 2005 General
Assembly passed a revised planning law that includes six growth-management
principles, one of which is "concentration
of development around transportation nodes and along major transportation
corridors to support the viability of transportation options and land reuse." The
act goes on to require that municipalities, regions and the state "identify
areas where it is feasible and prudent to have compact, transit-accessible,
pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development patterns." Transit-oriented
development puts legs under these planning principles.
With a little luck, the U.S. Department of Transportation will give the
go-ahead to the New Britain-Hartford busway in March. The busway, with a
roadway dedicated for buses only and 11 stations, offers great promise for
development. Preliminary station planning showed numerous opportunities for
cleaning up polluted sites, intensifying use on underdeveloped sites and
redeveloping old and abandoned properties. Similarly, enhancement of the
Springfield-Hartford-New Haven commuter rail service offers prospects for
upgraded stations and nearby development.
Transit corridors, even without busways or rail, can be used for transit-oriented
development. Minneapolis has focused housing, retail and offices in designated
bus corridors both inside and out of the downtown areas. One clear possibility
here is Farmington Avenue from downtown Hartford to West Hartford. This former
trolley line with its mix of land uses and frequent bus service has good
TOD potential. If designated as a TOD corridor and with some enhancements
in transit service, it could be the focus of investment in housing, businesses
and improved streetscapes.
Experience suggests that transit-oriented development does not happen spontaneously
but instead responds to public actions and polices. It needs a push in the
same way that the market is pushed by transportation investments such as
highways and arterials combined with zoning ordinances that permit and encourage
So how do we capitalize on these opportunities? Do we need a public/private
authority? Do we need a stronger state planning law? As a state and as a
region, the time is ripe for a conversation on how we can make TOD happen.
TOD is not a silver bullet for all of our urban development needs, but it
is a very promising tool for the region. The opportunity is clear.
Lyle D. Wray is executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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