Transit-Oriented Development Shouldn’t Be A Coronavirus Casualty

California still needs more housing close to transit.

In recent weeks, California has emerged as one center of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it continues to face challenges that existed long before the disease reached the state.  Two serious ones: how California will meet its ever more stringent greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and how the state will manage to provide affordable housing for residents who are increasingly finding housing costs untenable.  As my Legal Planet colleagues Meredith Hankins and Ethan Elkind and I have written before, transit-oriented development is one part of a solution to these problems.  Siting dense development near transit in urban cores can both reduce the amount of time people spend in their cars (and thereby, greenhouse gas emissions) and bring more housing units online.

While state and local officials work to house homeless Californians in hotels and emergency shelters in an effort to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, any short-term solution doesn’t diminish the need for more, and more affordable, housing.  Yet, as Ethan writes, longtime opponents of high-density development are now pointing to the pandemic as evidence that densification is a bad idea.  But the coronavirus isn’t a convincing reason to abandon state transit-oriented development proposals (or local ones with similar goals, like Los Angeles’ Transit-Oriented Communities program).

As Ethan explains, while density can contribute to the virus’ spread, it has been government policies that have ultimately shaped the way the illness has moved through communities across the globe.  But it’s also worth noting that transit-oriented development proposals aren’t designed to “Manhattanize” areas like Los Angeles.  Instead, they’re meant to add targeted density where it counts most.  Taking Los Angeles as an example, even a modest upzoning boost would go a long way, since the City now contains a number of residents nearly equivalent to its current zoned capacity (and its zoned capacity has decreased as its number of residents has increased; 1960’s Los Angeles could have housed over twice as many residents as today’s can).  Adding duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes—buildings on the same scale as single-family homes—in residential neighborhoods would dramatically increase the City’s capacity while promoting neighborhood diversity, and a mix of medium-density buildings close to transit and designed to be transit-supportive could improve affordability and sustainability outcomes.

And adding housing stock isn’t necessarily a matter of inviting density—more housing is needed to appropriately support density that is already present.  As of 2019, California’s rate of renter overcrowding was more than double the national average, with nearly a quarter of Los Angeles County renters living in overcrowded conditions, and 4% of those renters living in severely overcrowded households.  In other words, California’s existing housing stock is already stretched thin and smart upzoning close to transit could offer housing to meet existing demand while promoting sustainability.

Transit-oriented development remains a powerful tool to increase housing availability and affordability and to meet climate change goals, battles California will continue to wage even after the coronavirus has been vanquished.  This current crisis shouldn’t be leveraged as an excuse to stymie efforts to thoughtfully densify.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Transit-Oriented Development Shouldn’t Be A Coronavirus Casualty”

  1. Quite good. It is amazing how many officials in the state do not seem to appreciate SB 375 and its Sustainable Communities Strategy.

  2. LA’s build out zoning capacity is 7,000,000 people because all commercial zones allow by-right apartment houses, most of which could be built on transit corridors. This data comes from the DEIR and FEIR for the General Plan Framework Element and is available on LA City’s Planning website. In addition, SB 1818 and TOC Guidelines bring this zoning build-out capacity to about 9,000,000 people, while LA’s existing population is 3.95 million people. Furthermore, upzoning may not produce any additional housing considering LA’s large amount of existing but unutilized zoning capacity. But, whether developers use existing zoning, density bonuses, or upzoning, the resulting housing will be expensive, with high vacancy rates. It will not be low-priced housing, which promotes transit use, because developers would go bankrupt if they built money-losing low priced housing. If one’s policy goal is to increase transit ridership, transit agencies should emulate Kansas City and make transit free. They also need to build transit oriented communities with full first-last mile public improvements, not expensive, transit-adjacent, auto-centric apartments.

  3. I agree that TOD shouldn’t stop bc of the virus. It should stop because it’s unrealistic and ineffective at any of the worthwhile aims it claims (which serve as cover for the more important underlying real estate lobbyist push factors).

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About Julia

Julia Stein

Julia Stein is Supervising Attorney for the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, and Project Director for the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment a…

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