Transit-Oriented Development at Risk: TOD Minus the “T”?

Aviva Rothman-Shore

Courtesy of bradlee9119@flickr. Creative Commons.

The triple bottom line has become both a catch phrase and, increasingly, a realistic goal for everyone from investors to activists and urban developers. But in Massachusetts, aging MBTA trains and infrastructure coupled with proposed fare hikes and service cuts stand in the way of achieving the triple-bottom-line promise of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

TOD projects are generally comprised of mixed-use or mixed-income developments that are situated within a half-mile of a mass transit station. They provide residents with easy access to the places they want to go (jobs, doctors, movie theaters, etc.) and place businesses within reach of employees and consumers along the mass transit system.

One of the advantages of TOD projects is their potential to achieve triple-bottom-line returns, providing economic, environmental, and community benefits simultaneously. By encouraging people to use mass transit and rely less on automobiles, TOD projects help to reduce both noxious auto emissions and climate-altering greenhouse gases. In fact, people in highly walkable neighborhoods drive nearly 40% fewer miles than their counterparts in the least walkable neighborhoods, which can reduce traffic-related emissions by as much as 2,000 grams of CO2 per person per day. Furthermore, the increased walking (at least 10 minutes daily on average) reduces the risk of obesity, regardless of age, income, or gender.

So TOD opens up new opportunities for growth without requiring the costly, carbon-intensive infrastructure needed for cars, and contributes to healthful, walkable neighborhoods that attract both businesses and residents. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, there’s a hitch. TOD projects rely on the assumption that the transit system is capable of supporting them. Here in Massachusetts, proposed MBTA fare increases and service cuts, as well as our aging transportation infrastructure, may prevent TOD projects from delivering on their promise. This is a bad thing for Massachusetts residents, for our economy, and for our environment.

The MBTA is old. After putting off badly needed maintenance on the Red Line for several years, an entire section has been shut down on weekends for emergency repairs, cutting off access for parts of Cambridge, Somerville, and beyond. And faced with a $161 million budget deficit, the T is now considering drastic fare increases and draconian service cuts, including potential elimination of over 100 bus routes as well as weekend service on the commuter rail and some subway lines.

The MBTA’s proposed fare increases and service cuts are unacceptable for MBTA riders and could prove disastrous for TOD projects, past, present, and future. Discouraging people from taking public transportation—either by eliminating MBTA service or making that service prohibitively expensive for riders—undermines the triple-bottom line goals of TOD. It may sound obvious, but TOD requires a healthy, functioning, financially accessible transit system to realize its full potential.

CLF is asking the state legislature and the governor to find a comprehensive solution to the MBTA’s funding problems, not just a band-aid for the coming year’s operating budget. And CLF Ventures is committed to finding triple-bottom-line solutions, like TOD, where profitable developments can also yield environmental and community benefits. Without continued investments in our transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts and a comprehensive solution to the T’s funding problems, TOD could become a triple-bottom loss for the economy, the environment, and for MBTA riders.

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