The Human Face: Rethinking Transit-Oriented Development

For decades, urban planners, designers, and policy-makers alike have sought to counter the negative effects of urban sprawl, the result of an amalgam of large social, economic, and political forces. Facilitated by profligate federal highway subsidies for highway construction as well an increase in economic opportunities and its parallel rise in automobile ownership during the latter half of the 20th-century, urban sprawl presented metropolitan regions with numerous problems including, but not limited to, traffic congestion, high levels of air pollution, concentrated urban poverty, racial segregation, and spatial mismatch. Urban planner and designer Peter Calthorpe developed the concept of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) back in the early 1990s as a counter approach to sprawling development. Garnering significant attention and emerging as the face of new urbanism, TOD calls for mixed-use, relatively compact and dense development typically within a half-mile radius of a public transit station or stop. Mixed-use development offers urban residents with the opportunity to conveniently live, work, and play without leaving their neighborhood. The community’s dense form and close proximity to transit also promote healthy living through walking and reduce the reliance on automobiles.


Support for TOD continues to remain strong today, with cities from coast to coast planning and launching TOD programs. The Transit Oriented Development Institute grants TOD Certification to development projects based on 10 TOD element criteria, which include well defined public spaces, a mix of uses, quality pedestrian experience, human-scale architecture, active ground-floor retail, tree-lined streets, easy bike access, reduced and hidden parking, affordability, and expandability. On its website, the institute featured cities with exemplary projects that satisfy the majority of the criteria elements, such as San Francisco; San Jose; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; New York; and Dallas. Moreover, governments at the local level have also worked to create the appropriate legal environment and economic conditions conducive to TOD. Los Angeles, for example, launched the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) in 2017 which “[aimed] to streamline the development process and incentivize affordable housing development (Herstik, 2017). With density bonuses and lower construction costs due to eased parking requirements among other economic incentives, developers are encouraged to redevelop communities close to transit systems while adding more housing and alleviating the city’s severe housing shortage.

However, as supporters tout the great benefits of TOD, their enthusiasm belies the criticism and adverse consequences associated with any development: Who benefits from TOD? Many have raised concerns over the consequent displacement of socioeconomically disadvantaged and racially marginalized persons—otherwise known as transit-induced gentrification—that accompanies the development of “fancy apartment buildings and condominiums that cater mainly to young professionals” (Turrentine, 2018). The UCLA-UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project released a report that explored the relationship between TOD and gentrification and displacement. The study reported that since 1990–2015, neighborhoods in Los Angeles surrounding light rail transit and subway stations showed an increase in White persons with relatively higher levels of educational attainment and income. Concurrently, the populations with low-income and low-educational attainment decreased in neighborhoods close to transit. The Downtown Los Angeles area has seen the greatest impact of TOD-induced gentrification and escalating rental costs; other neighborhoods experiencing similar patterns of development and displacement include Koreatown, Westlake, and Hollywood. Although there are measures in place mandating developers to reserve a portion of housing units for affordable housing, developers often only produce the minimum number of required units (Lynch, 2018). While the L.A. City government continues to promote and incentivize TOC, the demand for housing in transit proximate neighborhoods will continue to increase, with a commensurate rise in property values and rental costs, and price out disadvantaged populations from their place of residence.

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In addition, as rental costs increase in TOD communities where low-income individuals and families compose most of the neighborhood, the displacement of such populations may explain the phenomenon of repeatedly falling transit ridership in certain metropolitan regions. Most public transit riders are generally people of low-income. And, as redevelopment increases property values and rental costs, this transit-dependent population is faced with a double-loss, losing not only their home but their mode and proximity to transport. They are forced to relocate and perhaps even forced to find another job, for their job may have been easily accessible given the public transit they previously lived close to. TOD aims to generate transit ridership, though it appears to be pushing riders away (Rosenthal, 2018).

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The displacement of low-income communities appears to be at variance with the claimed advantages that TOD ostensibly brings to communities, namely the potential to eliminate urban poverty. Pike & Rose development in North Bethesda—a project featured on the Transit Oriented Development Institute’s list of exemplary TOD projects—unapologetically highlights the demographic composition of the neighborhood on their website. Screen Shot 2019-03-16 at 12.14.22 AMThe demographic table indicated that the TOD community has a median household income of more than $98,000 and an average household income upwards of $135,000. Although the table provided no mention of the change in demographics before and after the project, the demographic information represents a larger pattern of TOD community projects attracting and favoring college educated persons with ample financial resources. Rather than alleviating urban poverty, TOD seems to be redistributing urban poverty in other neighborhoods. Indeed, not all TOD results in the displacement of people, for TOD projects may be launched in already wealthy neighborhoods. However, it is important to recognize the potential risk involved with particular TOD projects in low-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are renters, not homeowners.

Perhaps, the race-neutral program of TOD intends to indirectly displace these vulnerable populations. The adverse effects that TOD has on marginalized persons bear some resemblance to urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, where developers plowed through and constructed new urban development projects or highways in primarily low-income, Black neighborhoods. In most cases, planners sited new projects in these poor neighborhoods and corridors to deliberately drive away Blacks. In fact, these projects were often justified and built on the premise “that the projects were required for the greater good and that the residents of such neighborhoods would in most cases be better off for their demolition” (Altshuler & Luberoff, 2003, p. 22). The construction of TOD may also be built on such a premise. I must admit that such a connection would generate much controversy and debate; nevertheless, with more and more TOD programs implemented in cities, I contend that such debates ought to be had, for more careful attention needs to be paid to the connection between TOD and gentrification and displacement.



Altshuler, A. A., & Luberoff, D. (2003). Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Herstik, L. (2017, November 10). Everything you need to know about LA’s new transit-oriented development incentives. Retrieved from

Lynch, D. (2018, December 24). LA gentrification strongest near Downtown transit-oriented developments: report. Retrieved from

Pike & Rose. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Rosenthal, T. J. (2018, February 20). Transit-oriented development? More like transit rider displacement. Retrieved from

Turrentine, J. (2018, June 1). When Public Transportation Leads to Gentrification. Retrieved from