Convenient public transit can be a boon to property owners

Click to enlargeBy Peter Skosey

Think about the places where you’ve lived. Aside from your apartment or house, what do you remember most? Chances are, the surrounding neighborhood features prominently in your memories. The street you took on your way to and from work, the houses and buildings you passed on your trips to the store, the neighbors you waved at while out for a walk; these all form a collective memory of your home.

The real estate mantra of “location, location, location” holds fast and true: neighborhoods can turn a mediocre apartment into a great find, or a beautiful house into an unwanted property.

In a city with a public transportation system like Chicago’s, location is particularly significant. Proximity to well-used and easily accessible transit service, especially when combined with well-designed development around the transit station, can have far-reaching economic and quality of life benefits for homeowners.

After college, Chicago resident Ariel Diamond chose to settle just two blocks from the Sheridan Red Line station on the North Side. She quickly discovered that the city’s streets are laid out on a grid, making it a no-brainer to get just about anywhere on a bus. And she was thrilled to discover what she calls “the magical grocery store” located adjacent to “her” train station. Alta Vista Foods carries an abundance of fresh foods, including meats and produce, all packed neatly into a tiny storefront just steps from the Sheridan stop.

Diamond’s experience illustrates why more developers and homebuyers are embracing “transit-oriented development.” TOD is pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development built around – and shaped by – transit stations. Typically focused on capturing residential and retail opportunities within a half-mile of a transit station, TOD combines rental and for-sale homes with restaurants, grocery stores, office buildings and other commercial uses.

About 25 percent of all Americans shopping for homes in the next 20 years will want to rent or buy within a half-mile of a transit stop, according to Reconnecting America, a community development group based in Oakland, Calif. Economically, TOD can decrease transportation costs associated with automobile travel. The Texas Transportation Institute recently reported that the average commuter in Chicago spends two days a year in congested traffic. Living near a transit station provides transportation can decrease the amount of time spent stuck in gridlock and reduce money spent on externalities like gas. People like Diamond, who manage to eschew car ownership entirely, can shave more than $6,200 a year off their household budget, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

“It’s funny how people always think driving is so convenient, without acknowledging how much time they spend caught in traffic, looking for parking, and getting their cars repaired,” says Diamond. “No matter how good [their car’s] gas mileage is, mine will always be better – I don’t use any gas at all!”

In addition to saving money on transportation expenses, residences built near transit typically have higher property values. The assessed value of land near transit stations on the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Virginia, which has been the subject of intense TOD initiatives in the past decades, increased by 81 percent between 1996 and 2006.

With TOD, everyday errands – which constitute nearly 45 percent of all daily car trips, according to the National Household Travel Survey – can be replaced by a quick and easy stroll down the street. Bringing life to the streets makes communities more vibrant and safe – and even increases interactions between neighbors, which helps strengthen the sense of community and place.

Peter Skosey is vice president of external relations for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit civic group that advocates for sustainable urban development policies.

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