IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Equity Moves to the Center of Transportation Planning in Austin

CapMetro in Austin, Texas, aims to put in place the kinds of public policy that will reverse gentrification trends with a blueprint to put equity at the center of its project planning process.

The Austin, Texas, skyline.
Widespread gentrification that has led to an exodus of longtime residents has prompted officials to include equity and a robust system of community engagement in a new plan to expand public transit.

CapMetro in Austin, Texas, has released its Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Study, a blueprint for putting equity at the center of planning as the region embarks on the first phase of a massive expansion of the agency’s light rail and bus system.

The project, known as Project Connect, includes $300 million to be used for “anti-displacement investments” in affected areas. These efforts place special emphasis on ensuring that transit improvements do not have the unintended consequence of furthering gentrification, and pushing Black, brown and underserved communities out of their neighborhoods.

“Putting public policies in place, in advance of the transportation infrastructure construction, is an attempt to arrest displacement and allow the current residents to continue to thrive and reap the benefit of this investment in their communities,” said Geeti Silwal, principal and western region urban design leader at Perkins&Will, an architecture and urban design firm leading the development of two station area vision plans that are focused on implementing the equity transit-oriented development study goals.

Austin’s population has grown 20 percent in the last decade, reaching some 962,000 residents in 2020, according to the report. Demographically, the majority of the new residents have been Asian and white. Job growth, which has spanned all sectors, but primarily the tech sector, grew 32 percent during the same period. Meanwhile, incomes for Black and Latino households declined nine percent to 14 percent between 1980 and 2016.

Transit-oriented developments, known in planning-speak as TODs, are often touted as ideal developments that bring together increased housing, density and transit, all benefiting each other, and creating a setting that is inherently less car-dependent. However, these developments have been known to lean heavily toward upscale housing and retail which then often out-prices existing residents. The plan offered by CapMetro — in partnership with the city, the Austin Transit Partnership and the Community Advisory Committee — places housing and transportation equity at the center of the planning process.

As part of the process, CapMetro developed the ETOD Policy Toolkit, made up of 46 policy tools to aid in the planning process of the areas around new light rail stations. These policy tools address small business and workforce development, housing, various forms of mobility and real estate.

Increasingly, the TOD planning process is placing equity in a more central role, said Madeline Fraser Cook, vice president of community building and resilient solutions at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit providing financial, technical and other assistance to developers working in underserved communities.

“For many years now we’ve had transit-oriented development funds that are very intentional about not only funding the work of TODs — funding buildings within a quarter-mile, half-mile from transit — but also being very explicit about this TOD investment being in affordable housing, and calling out that these communities have to have access for everyone. They can’t be displacing people,” said Cook.

Community engagement is often required of a number of funding sources like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in part, to guard against gentrification pressures.

“But that is very difficult to do. You need to be very intentional about how to do community engagement, and how to do it well,” said Cook.

“I work with a lot of cities, and I work with a lot of community organizations, and despite some of the best efforts, it’s very hard to get people to go to these community engagement meetings if that’s the only thing you do. You have to be more creative, more intentional in terms of outreach,” she added.

LISC has been involved in the development of Cycle House, an affordable and green development housing project in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The project is a four-story mixed-use structure with 15 rental apartments and commercial and retail space on the ground floor. The project will also be certified LEED Platinum, with an ability to generate as much energy as it uses, proving that energy efficiency — and the savings it can mean for residents — can be realized with affordable housing developments.

“By its nature being a net-zero building you’re addressing some of the concerns around long-term energy affordability,” said Cook. “The mixed-use nature of it too is important, in terms of fitting into the neighborhood fabric, making sure that there is the opportunity for more economic activity in the neighborhood.”

Back in Austin, the study by CapMetro and Perkins&Will is the changing nature of transportation planning, and serves as an example of how cities can meaningfully put equity in the transportation planning process, said Silwal.

“And more importantly, the need to embed an equitable land-use planning approach right from the very beginning of transportation planning studies,” said Silwal in an email.

CapMetro did not immediately respond to a response to comment on the report.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.