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Growing Station Areas: The Variety and Potential of Transit Oriented Development in Metro Boston

Executive Summary

Transit oriented development has been a large part of Boston’s growth since the earliest horse-drawn railways. In fact, we live in a uniquely transit-oriented region, where 25% of housing units and 37% of employment is within a half-mile of a rapid transit or commuter rail station. Now Metro Boston is experiencing a new wave of growth near transit, with hundreds of residential and commercial developments underway and more on the horizon. Cities and towns are creating station area plans and updated zoning to unlock development potential; the MBTA is accepting proposals for major developments on prime T-owned parcels; state agencies are using transit proximity as a criteria for prioritizing infrastructure or housing resources; and the development community is finding a strong market for residential and commercial space near the T.

There are good reasons for this burgeoning interest in Transit Oriented Development (TOD.) New growth near transit stations can help reduce congestion, improve affordability, bolster the T’s bottom line, and satisfy the growing demographic preference for transit proximity. MAPC’s regional plan MetroFuture sees TOD as a key ingredient for a sustainable, equitable, and prosperous region. But with over 250 rapid transit and commuter rail stations in the MBTA system, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to TOD. Downtown Boston, streetcar suburbs, gateway cities, and village centers all present distinct and complementary opportuni­ties for growth near transit.

The region’s TOD activity reflects this diversity: within a half mile of MBTA stations there are over 30,000 housing units and 45 million square feet of commercial space planned or under construction, ranging from high-rise office towers and small-scale infill to entirely new transit dis­tricts and compact townhouse communities. Growing station areas are poised to be a major focus of the region’s residential and commercial development over the coming 25 years.

While TOD holds great promise, the sheer number and diversity of transit stations complicates efforts to plan for TOD at a regional level, to prioritize infrastructure investments and incentives, or to evaluate specific development proposals. A better understanding of this diversity will support context-sensitive policies to achieve the full potential of TOD. In response to this need, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has developed a new station area typology that defines ten distinct types, ranging from the Metro Core stations of Downtown Boston to Undeveloped stations in quiet country suburbs.

The Transit Station Area Types, illustrated on the following page, are distinguished by their population and employment density, transit service type, land use, demographics, and travel behavior. In addition to this infor­mation about existing conditions, the types also reflect nature and magnitude of devel­opment that could occur over the coming decades. Some station area types are more likely to see small-scale infill development or adaptive reuse that reinforces or strength­ens the existing fabric and character of the station area. Other types are amenable to large-scale “transformational” development that creates entirely new urban districts.

The benefits of TOD differ widely across these types. Around many stations, the density and diversity of land use contributes to high transit ridership and low auto use. But in low-density, auto-oriented station areas, proximity to transit has a more limited impact on travel patterns. This distinction is relevant to the many housing, economic, and transportation programs that use transit proximity to prioritize funding, incentives, or investments.

Based on current development proposals, existing land use, and redevelopment opportunities, MAPC estimates that transit station areas could accommodate more than 76,000 new housing units and space for more than 130,000 new jobs by 2035: nearly one-third of projected housing unit growth regionwide and more than half of projected job growth. Achieving this level of growth would yield substantial benefits as compared to a more dispersed growth scenario: fewer vehicle miles travelled, lower housing and transportation costs, increased economic vitality, and higher transit ridership: more than 60,000 commute trips per weekday, not to mention non-work trips. Additional ridership would also bolster the MBTA’s fare revenue, but only if the system has the capacity to transport those additional riders. If lack of transit capacity becomes a constraint on TOD, growth might shift to more auto-oriented locations (creating more congestion); residents will drive more; and employers may simply decide to locate in other regions or states.

While the development pipeline is strong, there is a need to pick up the pace. From 2000 – 2010, the region added more than 15,000 new housing units near transit. This demon­strates strong demand, but the rate of housing development needs to double in order to achieve the full potential of TOD in the region.

  • The transit station area typology can help advance equitable and sustainable TOD in a variety of ways:
  • Housing, economic development, and infrastructure programs can use the typology to establish funding criteria that reflect both local conditions as well as regional TOD goals.
  • Analysis of TOD financing needs and the design of potential new TOD finance prod­ucts can acknowledge the distinct station area types and the different finance/market conditions that exist in each one.
  • Technical assistance from MAPC and other partners can be targeted to station areas with strong potential for TOD but few developments in the pipeline.
  • Municipalities and stakeholders can use the analysis to evaluate specific development proposals against the range of densities and project attributes appropriate for the sta­tion area type.
  • The MBTA can use the analysis of TOD potential to plan for capacity expansion or to evaluate the potential development impacts of service changes.

All of the data developed for this report can be downloaded or viewed with our interac­tive data viewer at www.mapc.org/TOD