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How do you create thriving, connected places? 5 ways to expand transit-oriented planning

August 17, 2023

By Rhonda Bell and Tom Young

Development focused on transit must first consider the community as a whole

The world of transit is full of acronyms—transit-oriented development (TOD), bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail transit (LRT), transit-oriented communities (TOC), equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD). They are all are topics we talk about frequently. While most of these terms are rather straightforward, the seemingly similar terms of TOD and TOC often leave communities wondering which path is best for them. Are they truly different? And beyond their naming, how do these ideas address community challenges? 

Many communities are now exploring ways to expand how mobility, density, housing, and retail intersect. And they are finding that TOC can pave the way for a new vision. We’ve seen municipalities like the City of Los Angeles, the New Orleans City Planning Commission, and the government of Ontario go beyond choosing between TOD and TOC. They are organizing around creating places that center the community’s needs. 

The Oceanside Transit Center in California was designed to enhance the public realm.

TOD and TOC are united by an emphasis on dense, compact, mixed-use, and pedestrian-friendly development near transit stations and points. When we examine TOD, it paints a picture of how communities can capitalize on transit investment. It starts with taller buildings with a mix of uses, consolidated parking, and narrower streets. Then fill in this picture with people walking and biking. It typically features taller buildings around transit hubs that transition to shorter buildings as they connect with existing neighborhoods. This concept has been successful in bringing more riders closer to transit for decades.

TOC uses the same ideas and toolkit but thinks more broadly. TOC flips the process and starts from the outside—the existing community—and works in towards the station. By changing the ‘D’ to a ‘C’, we prioritize the importance of looking at what the community needs, whether that is to fill gaps in local transportation networks, add missing shops and services, or improve the quality of public space.

We must expand our thinking. The priority shouldn’t be focused on development and redevelopment within a defined radius near transit—it should start with discussing how transit can create new benefits for the community at large. These include changes in citywide policy, progress toward housing equity, and promotion of climate and mobility goals. Focusing on TOC rather than TOD enables planners to include the essential parts of TOD while also thinking more holistically about the needs of all. We’ve tested these principles with projects like New Bern Avenue Station Area Planning and 25Connects: A Transit-Oriented Development Plan for West 25th Street. In those projects, we explored zoning, housing affordability, equity programs, first/last mile safety improvements, mobility hubs, and other topics. We also worked to balance the authenticity of the community’s unique attributes and opportunities.

Focusing on TOC rather than TOD enables planners to include the essential parts of TOD while also thinking more holistically about the needs of all.

5 critical factors for TOC planning

TOC planning is complex. By considering critical factors from the earliest stages, we can create projects that are feasible and attractive to development partners. We use five factors to guide our TOC planning process. They are:  

  • Transit: When designing TOC, transit is key. It helps provide sustainable and efficient travel options. Transit guides the planning process through mobility options. It also promotes walkability, alternative travel modes, and fewer automobile trips.
  • Development: TOC at its core requires a high-quality public realm. And it needs private development that orients, animates, and supplies the spaces for people to live, work, learn, play, and thrive. With careful attention, we can increase development permissions and streamline approval processes. At the same time, we enable more housing and speed reinvestment in communities.
  • Community: Oftentimes, development focuses on higher density, new housing types and new retail or office. This can create uncertainty or even concern for the existing community. When we focus on community, we get a look at what elements might benefit from this increase of density or influx of development. It requires engaging with residents, businesses, and organizations to understand their needs and goals. And it helps shape the design process to ensure that the community’s values, culture, and preferences are part of the plan.
  • Infrastructure: Assessing the infrastructure involves looking at the cost and benefit of all the proposed land uses and density. This includes carefully planning and adding upgraded underground services. Better local transit and cycling networks can unlock more potential. The process also includes testing ideas against market realities and opportunities. It will help the plan weather any economic cycle and still achieve its broader goals.
  • Equity: It is crucial to consider equity. That way, a project’s benefits and opportunities are there for all residents, regardless of income or background. We must manage gentrification, ease displacement, and promote transit ridership. It also requires using strategies to prioritize affordable housing options. This provides low-income residents with more certainty, stability, and access to jobs. 

25Connects in Cleveland, Ohio, is an award-winning project that incorporated TOC planning principles.

The next phase of integrated community planning

A people-first approach to TOC means helping the community visualize what the benefits might mean to them. Whether they are a resident, business owner, developer, transit planner, or politician who will vote on the final strategy, this approach gives them a better understanding of what it will mean for the everyone. This is easier when the entire process starts from the perspective of community benefits. 

TOC thinking provides a powerful roadmap for physical development to catch up with evolving needs and preferences. It improves the performance of existing and future transit. Even if a bus or train is only a glimmer of an idea, start planning now to maximize the benefit for decades to come. Join us in the next phase of integrated community planning.

  • Rhonda Bell

    A planner and urban designer, Rhonda works in all phases of the development process from initial entitlements to design and construction.

    Contact Rhonda
  • Tom Young

    Tom is an urban planning lead specializing in downtown redevelopment, mixed use precincts, smart cities strategies, suburban retrofit, and transit-oriented development. His priority is innovation through sustainable growth.

    Contact Tom
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