Homes, Not Offices: Researchers Recommend Changes to Transit Station Area Development After COVID-19


A new report offers lessons for post-pandemic transit policy and planning. Notably, it calls for planners to downplay the role of offices in transit station areas and increase the opportunity for people to live in them. Researchers Arthur C. Nelson and Robert Hibberd published "Transit Station Area Development and Demographic Outcomes (PDF)," updating their longitudinal analysis of the impacts of development near transit stations.

The new report includes a foreword by U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer. An excerpt reads:

"In this report, Arthur C. Nelson, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning and Real Estate Development at the University of Arizona, and Robert Hibberd, a doctoral student, chronical numerous economic and demographic changes that occurred in transit station areas between the Great Recession that ended in 2009 and the pandemic that started in 2020. Through detailed analysis of 57 transit systems operating in 42 metropolitan areas, they find that station areas accounted for more than 20 percent of regional job and household growth. This 20 percent growth occurred on less than one percent of the urbanized land base. 

The benefits of that 20 percent growth on a tiny amount of land are significant: reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced farmland and open space loss, increased walkability, increased access to transit, and more time with family and friends instead of burning a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk. Can this trend be sustained in the post-pandemic era? Yes. But sustaining it will require new approaches, new ways of thinking, and new ways of investing."

The research, conducted at the University of Arizona, was supported by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), a U.S. DOT-funded university transportation center headquartered at Portland State University (PSU). Nelson and his wife Monika, both PSU alumni, recently established the Nelson Endowed Doctoral & Scholar Awards to support emerging scholars in PSU's College of Urban and Public Affairs.

Key Findings: A Wealth of Data

The report offers a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which transit station areas:

  • Attract jobs, people and households, 
  • Influence commuting mode choice, 
  • Reduce driving, as well as transportation costs, 
  • Influence real estate value, and 
  • Engender gentrification.

The report also outlines policy approaches to help mitigate adverse gentrification outcomes. The principal danger of gentrification is that existing lower-income households are pushed out of their homes and replaced by higher income households because of transit investments. As demand grows for development near transit stations, gentrification pressures will increase. 

Make Living Near Transit Easier For Families

Most people moving into transit station areas are established households, including many with children. The National Association of Realtors' 2023 Community Preference Survey revealed that more than half (53 percent) of respondents would choose to own or rent an apartment or townhouse if they had an easy walk to shops and restaurants and a shorter commute to work. More than three-quarters (78 percent) would be willing to spend more to live in such a community. 

It's clear that the demand for living in walkable communities far outweighs the supply. About 70 million households in 2023 stated their preference for living within walking distance of restaurants, shops and services; yet only about 17 million lived in those kinds of communities now. This leaves a gap of 53 million households. To bridge this gap, the researchers put forward several initiatives.

Planners should:

  • Reimagine transit-oriented developments (TODs) as including retail, food, arts, entertainment, and recreation for those who live there.
  • Increase opportunities to walk and bike within transit station areas, and between them.
  • Downplay the role of offices. The concept of working from home often means working in “third places” such as local coffee shops, libraries, and open-air venues among others.

Local governments should: 

  • Step up their efforts to facilitate residential and complementary development in transit station areas, especially those outside of downtowns.

Why is this research important?

Station areas—meaning land within 800 meters of light rail transit (LRT), streetcar transit (SCT), bus rapid transit (BRT), and commuter rail transit (CRT) stations—added millions of new jobs and hundreds of thousands of new households during the study period. Nelson and Hibberd offer important insights and considerations for ensuring that these areas are developed to best meet the needs of people in these communities.

Want to learn more? Watch a recorded webinar from March 2021, or read our earlier recaps of the research that delve into how transit stations impact the locations of jobs; where people live; and the costs of real estate rents.

Investigations into this topic by Nelson (and more recently Hibberd) span more than a decade:

Job-Worker Balance & Polycentric Transit-Oriented Development: Toward Indices and Spatio-temporal Trends

Robert Hibberd received his doctorate from the University of Arizona in 2024. His dissertation examines how transit-oriented development (TOD) affects employment access and addresses urban equity challenges, particularly in the context of essential workers and the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about the research.

This research was funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, with additional support from the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Photo by themorningglory/iStock

The National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC) is one of seven U.S. Department of Transportation national university transportation centers. NITC is a program of the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University. This PSU-led research partnership also includes the Oregon Institute of Technology, University of Arizona, University of Oregon, University of Texas at Arlington and University of Utah. We pursue our theme — improving mobility of people and goods to build strong communities — through research, education and technology transfer.

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