Transit and land use

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Successfully linking transit and land use can have a variety of benefits for a community. Source: Transit Cooperative Research Program


Land use decisions have a huge impact on transit, but groups other than transit agencies drive the process. Though not directly responsible for land use decision making in most cases, transit agencies need to actively work to ensure that they have a seat at the table for these important discussions. TCRP Report 182: Linking Transit Agencies and Land Use Decision Making: Guidebook for Transit Agencies gives agencies the tools needed to be effective players in the land use decision making process.

Preconditions for Success

Not all transit agencies are in a strong position to influence land use decision making. The guidebook identifies five preconditions for success that agencies should keep in mind. It also contains a self-evaluation rubric to help agencies understand where they stand.

  • Supportive transit agency board - Without a supportive board, an agency will struggle to effect change. If the members of the board are hesitant to getting involved with land use issues, education can slowly bring them on board
  • Dedicated staff - An agency is much more likely to be successful if it has a dedicated staff person working at least part-time on land use issues. This person should be familiar with the land use process and capable of liaising with stakeholders like developers and local government.
  • Coordination process - Land use decisions involve many stakeholders with different goals, constituents, and timelines. It’s important to start coordinating early on to promote mutual understanding. This can be accomplished through both formal and informal communication.
  • Common understanding - Different stakeholders also have their own terminology and viewpoints that can inhibit collaboration. On the site level “connectivity” may refer to a single transit stop, while at the municipal level it is about a large mobility network. Clearly defining terms helps avoid miscommunication.
  • Transit-supportive community - Maybe most important in linking transit and land use is having a transit-supportive community. Government, businesses, and the general public need to be confident in the agency’s work. One way to build a transit-supportive community is to partner with MPOs or nonprofits, who can help with education and outreach.

Building a Transit-Supportive Community

As one of the most important factors in effective transit agency participation in the land use process, building a transit-supportive community merits further discussion. There are three main strategies an agency can deployx: partnering, using strategic resources, and articulating costs and benefits.

  • Partnering - A transit agency needs support of other local stakeholders. This can be achieved through establishing multi-party working group, conducting outreach through workshops and educational programs, and building relationship with land use agencies to stay informed on upcoming issues.
  • Using strategic resources - Many transit agencies have found success in creating guidebooks to educate partners on transit-supportive development. Today these guidebooks often take the form of interactive websites. These resources give transit agencies the opportunity to guide a larger conversation around transit-supportive development.
  • Articulating costs and benefits - It’s the responsibility of transit agencies to educate land use decision makers on the full costs and benefits of linking transit and land use. Rather than formal cost-benefit analysis, this should be presented in a summary form that government officials, developers, and members of the public will be able to understand.

Key Partners

Four of the main groups that transit agencies work with are state governments, regional agencies, local governments, and developers. Each of these groups has different scopes of authority and opportunities for collaboration.

  • State governments - State governments are in charge of long-range, statewide planning and funding programs. These programs tend to be directly informed by local and regional plans. Transit agencies should work proactively with local and regional partners to affect the plans at that level rather than trying to intervene once the state government is involved.
  • Regional agencies - In regional agencies with at least 50,000 residents, MPOs are responsible for guiding the planning process. Federal mandate requires that transit agencies be involved in MPOs, but not necessarily as voting members. Assuming that an MPO is willing to take an active role in guiding transit-supportive development, the transit agency representative must step up to guide the conversation.
  • Local governments - Most transit and land use decisions take place on the local level. Transit agencies have significant opportunities to be involved at this level by reviewing plans or offering financial participation or service provision.
  • Developers - Developers and transit agencies can have trouble collaborating because they work on very different timelines - a development might only take 3-5 years, while a major transit project could easily take 10-15. However, transit agencies can get involved early in the predevelopment stage by forging alliances with developers on issues like density and parking minimums.

Planning Processes

Similar to how there are various partners that transit agencies can work with in different ways, planning processes vary at different scales of development: regional, municipal/county, corridor, subarea, and site.

  • Regional planning - At the regional level, planning tends to be much more broad in scope than what a transit agency can reasonably get involved with. An agency should focus in on specific elements of a regional plan to be most effective at this scale.
  • Municipal/County Planning - This is the level at which most land use decision making takes place. Transit agencies have a role in this process by educating decision makers on the importance of zoning (and particularly minimum density) to transit and by using potential transit provision as leverage in negotiations.
  • Corridor planning - Corridor plans are often conducted by transit agencies, and this is where those agencies have the most power over the planning process. Beyond local funding, transit agencies can often obtain federal funds for corridor planning, giving them even more influence in the process.
  • Subarea planning - Subarea plans are long-range plans for more restricted geographic areas than what is seen in regional planning. One form is the station-area plan. Station-area plans are usually led by agencies and can be linked to land use issues like transit-oriented development.
  • Site planning - While developers work on different timelines than transit agencies, there is still potential to get involved with site planning at the conceptual and predevelopment stages. This can best be accomplished by allying with the developer or local community over issues like parking minimums and VMT reduction.

Case Studies

While every agency faces a different situation, these case studies present some broad themes. In all four, one key factor in success was working early to sell partners on the importance of transit-supportive development.

NJ Transit

NJ Transit runs a legacy system passing through developed areas, but that doesn’t mean the agency takes a hands-off approach to land use. In 1999 it started the Transit-Friendly Planning Land Use and Development program in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of the system. With a dedicated staff, the program focused on community outreach and collaboration. The community was encouraged to generate ideas that the agency could turn into realistic plans. These consensus-based vision plans are currently being used to shape development along NJ Transit lines.

Smart long-range planning by TriMet created an environment receptive to the establishment of the Portland streetcar. Source: Ian Sane

Pace Suburban Bus Service

Pace operates in a challenging suburban environment, so internal clarity on its land use and transit vision is vital. It has built support for this vision through proactive stakeholder engagement in the form on an advisory committee formed of private and public sector representatives. Because internal coordination is so high, Pace staff are effective at communicating informally with various actors. Though these efforts have not yet turned into large projects, Pace is effectively placing itself to be at the front of upcoming change.

The Pearl District

The Pearl District is one of Portland’s hottest neighborhoods, but in the early 1990s it was home mostly to rail yards and light industry. TriMet played a big role in the revitalization of the neighborhood by advocating for long-range transit policies. By getting involved early, TriMet helped create a framework in which the Portland streetcar could be created and the street grid could be improved. The agency would likely have been less successful if it had waited and pushed these projects individually.

Cleveland Healthline

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) manages Healthline, a 6.8-mile bus rapid transit corridor connecting several employment and residential centers. The project, which has cut travel times substantially, was possible because GCRTA was able to secure the support of important anchor institutions along the route such as the Cleveland Clinic.


This report provides an in-depth look at strategies transit agencies can use to influence land use decision making. By recognizing the importance of building community support for transit, thinking carefully about how to best partner with other stakeholders, and using the right tactics for the right kind of planning, transit agencies have the potential to meaningfully shape land use decision to make them supportive of transit.

Linking Transit Agencies and Land Use Decision Making: Guidebook for Transit Agencies

Further Reading

Cervero, R. Transit-supportive development in the United States: experiences and prospects. Federal Transit Administration.

This paper examines United States transit-supportive development projects. It concludes that site-level features have little impact on transit demand. Transit agencies should focus on large-scale projects to significantly improve transit service if they want to really increase ridership.

Santasieri, C. (2014). Planning for transit-supportive development: a practitioner's guide. Federal Transit Administration.

Prepared for the FTA, this guidebook looks at the integration of land use and transit from the perspective of not only transit agencies, but also MPOs, local governments, and other stakeholders.