eTOD Briefs

When Siting Affordable Housing, Transit Quality Matters

When it comes to the location of affordable housing, transit quality and access to jobs matter. Equitable transit-oriented development doesn’t just give lower income households more opportunities for a place to live. It also expands their choices for employment opportunities and transportation options for their commute. When residents live near hubs for high frequency rail and bus service, they can make easier crosstown trips to multiple industrial and retail corridors, where many jobs have lower barriers to entry and may require an Associate’s Degree or less. And when those routes run more frequently at off-peak times, workers at these jobs can better utilize transit to get to positions with second or third shifts. Higher quality transit opens up additional economic opportunities.

However, that access can vary dramatically. Frequently, affordable housing in these opportunity areas is constructed in out-of-the-way locations with real or perceived barriers that separate it from the rest of the community. Sites nearest to transit or other amenities face significant competition from the private market, so land can be more expensive to secure. Alternatively, a community might not zone its land nearest to train or major bus routes for multifamily residential development. And even when land near transit is secured and enabled for an eTOD project, stiff community opposition can arise when a development proposes affordable units.

As a result of any of these factors, affordable units may be located in locations isolated from transportation and economic opportunity. Even when a community possesses a rail transit station or frequent bus service, a long walk, a frightening intersection, or poor sidewalks can all discourage residents from walking to that transit regularly. And for residents with disability or mobility challenges, the disconnection can keep them from using transit altogether.

As a result, the access to jobs via transit can differ dramatically between two locations just a few miles apart. Take Chicago’s far northwest side, for example. The Jefferson Park Transit Center is a hub for 15 transit routes operated by CTA, Metra, and Pace. Riders can take these services to reach jobs in downtown Chicago, at O’Hare International Airport, Skokie Village Crossing, three industrial corridors, and several suburban transit-oriented locations. If an eTOD was built across the street, households would be able to use these routes to access nearly 750,000 jobs in half an hour. That number of jobs is equivalent to 30% of the total number of jobs in Cook County.

But if this same development were constructed 4 miles to the west, at the intersection of Lawrence and Canfield in Norridge, its residents would not be able to get to nearly as many jobs as easily. A single bus line, the West Lawrence 81W, runs east to west and no line within walking distance runs north or south. While the 81W connects the neighborhood to the Jefferson Park Transit Center and Cumberland Blue Line stops, it only runs every 20 minutes during rush hour and every 30 minutes on the weekends, so it can be an unreliable option for retail workers or for manufacturing workers on second or third shifts. And even if the 81W arrived more frequently, a resident could only access 88,867 jobs within a 30 minute ride, just 12% of the access to opportunity when compared to the first location.

Our eTOD Social Impact Calculator demonstrates this striking difference in transit quality and job access:

4850 N. Milwaukee

  • 15 transit routes
  • 736,298 jobs within a 30 minute ride
  • 365,008 jobs that require an Associate’s Degree or less

4747 N. Canfield

  • 1 bus route
  • 88,867 jobs within a 30 minute ride
  • 46,343 jobs that require an Associate’s Degree or less

The Calculator can also visualize this difference as well via the Transit Access Shed tool. It’s easy to select this overlay. On the right hand side of the screen, above the map of the view, select the “Map Layers” drop down menu. Then under the “Transit Overlays” category, select the “30 Minute Transit Access Shed” box. This will visualize the locations accessible within a 30-minute transit trip from a given parcel site. As the map to the left demonstrates, a transit rider near the Jefferson Park Transit Center can reach many areas of northwest Chicago and Cook County within a 30 minute ride.

The Social Impact Calculator can visualize a project’s 30 Minute Transit Access Shed using the drop down menu under "Map Layers".

So what can neighborhoods and developers do to expand transit access to opportunity to more lower income households? The first step comes through integrating affordable units when planning for transit-oriented development. But it is just as important to proactively target public investments, like Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Community Development Block Grants, and HOME grants, to locations with the best access to jobs. The Calculator can help pinpoint the best locations where these investments maximize worker access.

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