How Transit-Oriented Development Can Help Get America To Work

To help get America back to work, there is one critically important element that is often overlooked: the fact that today, simply getting from home to work and back again has become a growing challenge for many Americans.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

To help get America back to work, there is one critically important element that is often overlooked: the fact that today, simply getting from home to work and back again has become a growing challenge for many Americans.

Over the past several decades, jobs in general have moved away from city centers and from mass transit. Today, some three-quarters of all jobs are located outside the city center, and lower-skilled workers bear the heaviest commuting burden as their jobs have moved to outer urban rings that often lack access to public transportation. Low-income workers increasingly must buy cars and gasoline they can ill afford or spend hours on circuitous commutes.

This places a heavy burden on American families at a significant economic cost to the nation: $100 billion lost each year in time and fuel because of lengthy and inconvenient commutes, according to the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. Even for families that try to cope with financial difficulties by moving to lower-cost housing, 77 cents out of every dollar saved is still consumed by the costs of commuting back to their jobs. Many are spending more money and more time getting to and from work. And, as commutes become longer, more demanding and increasingly expensive, some will decide they simply cannot get to available jobs and drop out of the workforce, creating additional costs for the U.S. economy.

To truly get America back to work, we have to focus on more than jobs, jobs, jobs. It is about integrating jobs, transportation, housing and community services in ways that work equally well for lower- and upper-income families.

Vibrant communities where residents can walk to shops, restaurants, grocery stores and community services; and where public transportation provides convenient connections between home and work can be built. Planning community development with public transportation as a central consideration -- transit-oriented development or TOD -- can spur economic growth, sometimes dramatically. But that approach has not been systematically applied to communities of all income levels.

For these reasons, it is important for government, public transit agencies, nonprofits, foundations and the private sector to come together so that thriving communities for families of all economic levels can be created.

While coordination seems obvious, in practice it can be tremendously difficult among disparate stakeholders accustomed to -- and best at -- planning and executing their own mandates rather than integrating their efforts with those of other agencies and firms. This is especially challenging when trying to create affordable and accessible communities for families of all economic levels. Pulling these players together to create an integrated plan requires leadership and tenacity, particularly in incentivizing the coordination and co-location of different stakeholders' developments.

In the Bay Area, several stakeholders, including the regional transportation authority, local nonprofits and foundations and private investors, came together to create the Bay Area Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing (TOAH) Fund in 2011. The TOAH Fund was the result of several years of negotiation and strategic planning -- a specially structured fund that made possible large-scale land acquisitions needed to develop mixed-use/mixed-income projects around transit stations.

Within a few months of its formation, the TOAH Fund's first community loan was originated -- $7.2 million for a project in the Tenderloin district. This loan will support an attractive, affordable 150-apartment development just two blocks from the Bay Area Rapid Transit station. It will provide families with community services, housing and the ability to hop on public transportation to work. The project also includes convenient access to fresh food through the first full-service grocery store in the Tenderloin.

We can work together to envision a new era of American life, in which families of all economic levels have convenient, safe, affordable access to transportation systems -- and in the process, save the nation $1 trillion each decade in lost time and fuel. By pairing transportation investment decisions with plans to create affordable housing and essential services, such as schools and childcare, health care, healthy food stores, libraries and retail services, we can help communities grow in a balanced manner, with opportunities for families of all economic levels.

Note: To learn more about equitable transit-oriented development and the authors' report "How Transit-Oriented Development Can Help Get America to Work," please visit

Nancy Andrews is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Low Income Investment Fund. Audrey Choi is Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley Global Sustainable Finance.

Morgan Stanley is a pledge company of A Billion + Change.

Popular in the Community