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Thoughtful Zoning Policy Could Revitalize Urban Transit

Changes to land use zoning, parking requirements and other areas could make way for some 500,000 new housing units in neighborhoods around transit stops in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

Land use changes, particularly those related to housing near transit stations, could add thousands of new homes in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

Increasing housing near transit helps to alleviate housing availability shortages in the Northwest metro, while also placing more people in close proximity to transit and easing the dependence on private cars. These are some of the findings in a new study by the Urban Institute. The study calls attention to parking, density and other policy areas cities can address to begin to make neighborhoods around transit more urban and housing rich.

“Public transportation investments are ineffective unless combined with developments that encourage higher densities. Because that gives the people the opportunity to use the transit lines themselves. Without that, it’s not going to work at all,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute, and one of the authors of the report Making Room for Housing Near Transit: Zoning’s Promise and Barriers.

The Puget Sound region, anchored by Seattle, is made up of 37 jurisdictions across four counties — all with their own local zoning and building ordinances. The area is home to some 4.2 million residents and 1.7 million housing units. The region is not on track to meet increased housing needs due to population growth by 2050, according to analysis by the Urban Institute.

If all of the recommendations put forward in the report — namely around increasing density, and easing parking requirements — the region could add about a half-million homes, mostly in the form of infill development near transit.

“The report that we did was really focused on zoning policy, which frankly, has the most influence on where the private developers can invest,” said Freemark.

Some cities like Bellevue are already thinking about the potential for locating housing near transit or proposed transit infrastructure.

“In 2021, the City Council adopted lower minimum parking requirements for housing developments near frequent transit,” said Amanda Rich, public information officer for development services in Bellevue, in an email. “In general, new multifamily housing located within one-half mile of a frequent transit stop is now eligible for reduced minimum parking requirements."

The city has also given approval for an affordable housing and mixed-use project near the BelRed light rail station, adding 600 housing units, with 40 percent of those available to residents with incomes at 80 percent of area median income.

“As a regional employment center, the city of Bellevue continues to actively pursue a wide range of new housing policies, initiatives and other strategies and actions to maintain a balance between new jobs and housing units,” said Rich. “The city has prioritized housing and affordable housing production and has been preparing for this transition by planning for multimodal transportation infrastructure and a mix of land uses around the city’s six light rail stations, as well as significant high-capacity transit and rapid ride routes.”

Parking policies are a ripe area for change and innovation, and could be thought of in concert with policies around micromobility, said Matthew Yglesias, the co-founder of Vox and author of the book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, who has written extensively about the intersection of housing and transportation.

“We have developed, in the United States at least, a regulatory norm, that says, we are going to require enough parking to come with all new construction, so that everybody can park their giant cars around where everything is,” said Yglesias, speaking at the Micromobility World Conference on Jan. 19.

“It creates these very unpleasant neighborhoods that people don’t like to be in, nearly as much as they enjoy spending time in more traditional neighborhoods that don’t have these huge conglomerations of parking,” he added.

A policy area for cities to explore, said Yglesias, is a much more flexible parking requirement system where “people should be allowed to build as much or as little parking as they think is suitable to the neighborhood, to the economics of the situation, then you get more pleasant places to be, even though it is going to be more challenging for some people to get there.”

The proposed changes offered in the Urban Institute study are clearly aimed at addressing housing availability in a part of the country where housing costs have been creeping ever higher. Renters in the Puget Sound region spend on average more than 35 percent of their income on housing, up from 31 percent in 1999, according to the report. And a staggering 130,000 households spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent.

But more housing near transit stops can also be a win for public transit, which has struggled to regain pre-pandemic ridership levels.

“The transportation space — especially in the last decade or so — has really focused on changes in technology, new information technologies related to things like ride-hailing and potentially the future of autonomous vehicles,” said Freemark. “But I do think the reality of most cities is going to continue to be making sure that they can be walkable, livable places. And ultimately, that’s a lot more about whether you have made sure that the land uses in the surrounding environment really match up with your goals as a community ..."
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.