This article is part of a limited series exploring the history, current policies, and initiatives to create equitable transit-oriented development in the region. The complete series is available here. And then learn more by tuning into the series’ companion webinar, moderated by George Kevin Jordan, GGWash’s editor-in-chief.
As the Washington region decides how to build out its infrastructure and housing in the coming decade, planners have a new tool to help them chart the path — and a more nuanced philosophy that places equity as its central goal.
Over the past 30 years, there has been a growing understanding of how building around cars is unsustainable, and harms people as well as the planet. Now the increasingly mainstream notion of transit-oriented development (TOD), a framework that aims to address that car-dependency problem, is evolving to explicitly consider how to retain low-income people and others from marginalized communities, who can be pushed out of neighborhoods when investment flows in.
This idea of connectivity is central to the Region United Framework for 2030, created by the planning and policy nonprofit Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). The framework envisions the Washington region’s future built environment and lays out how to get there. It focuses on four areas — equity, transportation, housing, and climate — and accounts for the complex ways they interact.
The key update with the 2030 framework is its overarching goal to foster equity. This shift was informed by the pandemic, which brought a new understanding of the central role of front-line service workers, from food delivery to public health, COG Executive Director Chuck Bean said. While some planners advocated for including these workers before the pandemic, COVID’s disparate impact threw into sharp relief the need for a holistic view of sustainability and inclusion when planning built environments.
The 2030 framework shifts from TOD to transit-oriented communities (TOC), also referred to as equitable transit-oriented development, and is premised on the idea that people of all income levels belong together in the same communities. It explicitly acknowledges that action is needed to ensure that lower-income and more marginalized people don’t get priced out of their homes.
Silver Spring, Maryland, is a local example of TOC in action before the term was coined. A 2018 study conducted by Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau showed that Silver Spring is one of “the rare neighborhoods where Black and white boys appear to do equally well.” With its population of mixed incomes and racial and ethnic groups, as well as walkability and good access to transit, Silver Spring’s success seems to indicate a pathway to equity.
Equity emphasis areas are a key new tool
So how can the region move from TOD to TOC? Housing may pose the biggest immediate challenge to fostering communities where people of all income levels can live near transit. Since the Great Recession, the Washington region, like much of the country, has not built enough housing for the rising number of residents. A 2019 COG report projects a 75,000 unit shortfall in housing construction region-wide by 2030, and recommends that “at least 75% of all new housing should be in Activity Centers or near high-capacity transit.”
To encourage equitable development, COG has established a new tool called Equity Emphasis Areas (EEAs), which are census tracts with high concentrations of low-income people and “traditionally disadvantaged racial and ethnic” groups. As of 2022, 364 of the region’s more than 1,300 census tracts are EEAs. The regional framework targets these areas for additional transportation, housing, and climate-related support. Planning agencies will prioritize EEAs in grant programs that fund planning for housing near transit, access to transit stations, roadway safety, transit and other non-car modes of travel, and more, according to COG.
EEAs’ median household income, as shown in the 2030 framework, is only $70,000 a year, versus a region-wide average of $113,000. EEA residents commute heavily using public transit, 21% versus 15%. “[EEAs] occupy just 10% of the region’s land mass, but they contain 30% of the region’s population, 1.5 million people,” said Bean. That means they are prime areas for investments in affordable housing and transit.
Another tool in the framework is the Housing Affordability Planning Program (HAPP), which will award flexible grants of up to $75,000 to local governments and non-profit developers that are planning or developing housing near transit stations. COG will award a total of $500,000 through this program.
The 2030 framework is the successor to the 2010 Region Forward, the first of COG’s regional plans that aimed to lessen the sprawl that makes most of the U.S. dependent on car trips, according to Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. One challenge in fostering TOD communities that are mixed-income — in other words, TOC — is the market reality of the value a new transit center brings.
A new station can spark “real estate speculations, where land values start increasing, property values start increasing, landlords might decide they want to upgrade their properties and raise their rents,” said Schwartz. To accommodate residents of all income levels, he stresses being proactive about including enough low-income housing for existing residents, beginning when a transit center is first planned.
The tools to help preserve and create affordable housing, as outlined elsewhere in this series, are numerous. They include seed money for nonprofits to buy and renovate existing housing, a “right of first refusal” that allows low-income housing providers a chance to buy buildings, rent stabilization, inclusionary zoning that mandates a certain percentage of new units be low-income, and rezoning to allow “missing middle” housing, among others. Local funding, however, is still a critical component.
While the region is spending more on affordable TOD housing than in years past, the need still outpaces the investment. According to Schwartz, a large part of the problem is funding priorities — far too much is spent on highway expansion when building dense housing near transit is more sustainable, cost-effective, pleasant…the list of benefits goes on. For example, Northern Virginia recently proposed about $76 billion for transportation projects, at least half which involve road expansion and encourage driving,“yet it’s hard sometimes to get another $10 million for affordable housing,” Schwartz said.
Thankfully, awareness of the region’s housing shortage has been expanding, according to Bean, and with it has come more investment. In 2019, “If I would’ve said ‘we need a corporation coming in with $800 million in housing affordability in our region,’ it would have been total science fiction, but that’s what the Amazon housing equity fund has done,” said Bean.
Transit fundamental to sustainability
Besides ensuring housing for all, the other fundamental element of fostering TOC is funding quality public transit, walkability, and rollability in order to reduce our ever-expanding reliance on automobiles. Transit links neighborhoods and jobs, leading to economic opportunity, while studies show a lack of transit access increases poverty and entrenches car-dependence.
In the future, cities won’t be able to accommodate fossil-fuel-powered transportation, and energy must be supplied by the sun, wind and other renewable sources. Cars and buses must become electric, and jurisdictions need to install extensive charging infrastructure to enable that as quickly as possible. Still, transit access and walkability are at the heart of the long-term solution. Transit-oriented communities account for this reality. They “decrease auto travel and increase transit” while allowing “better building energy efficiencies,” according to the 2030 framework, all of which reduces climate-change emissions.
The Washington region is well on its way: there are currently some 150 high-capacity transit stations, Bean said, largely Metro, Marc, and VRE. With the addition of Purple Line and bus rapid transit (BRT) stations, that number is projected to increase to 225 by 2030. These high-capacity transit “nodes occupy just 10% of the region’s land mass, but will account for 55% of the region’s job growth,” said Bean.
Fortunately, of the Washington region’s 364 EEAs, 214 “are close or in a high-capacity transit area,” said Bean, and the future Purple Line corridor, the Blue Line corridor, and the Richmond Highway BRT have huge potential for future transit equity. Plans for these projects incorporate not just walkability and transit access, but also affordable housing.
Beyond housing and transit, TOC requires a comfortable built environment, including safe street crossings, wide sidewalks, and vegetation. Trees in particular help cool people below, and their ability to sequester greenhouse gasses makes them part of the long-term solution to climate change. Many underserved urban communities have less tree cover than wealthy ones and suffer from the heat island effect, rendering them uncomfortably hot and even physically dangerous. Ensuring adequate tree coverage is yet another important component of an equitable, sustainable city.
The EEA concept can help jurisdictions identify disparities in the region in ongoing and future impacts of climate change. Bean said that modeling heat islands and mapping tree canopy and areas likely to be flooded in future years will inform regional plans to mitigate environmental disruption in as equitable and effective a way possible.
Local jurisdictions must step up
Fostering such resilient, connected, and diverse communities inevitably presents a political challenge, and success is far from guaranteed. The 2030 framework does provide a blueprint to build a TOC future, but jurisdictions will need to actually implement it. Still, its existence is an important first step. Some initiatives already in the works, such as the Blue Line Corridor and Richmond Highway BRT, are moving the region closer to that reality.
“Sometimes having that regional plan provides some cover for localities to say, ‘well we should be doing that, too,’” said Bean.
Bean also sees help for local TOC projects arriving from the federal government in coming years, as funding from two recently-passed laws makes its way to states and jurisdictions. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides “up to $108 billion for public transportation,” with a priority for projects that incorporate equity, including improved station accessibility. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act has $25 billion related to affordable housing, according to the National Housing Trust.
“Now with once-in-a-generation federal investments from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, we have unprecedented opportunities,” said Bean.
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.