Smart Growth / Smart Energy Toolkit Modules - Transit Oriented Development (TOD)

Learn about the Smart Growth/Smart Energy Transit Oriented Development (TOD) module.


TOD creates mixed-use, higher density communities that encourage people to live, work and shop near transit services and decrease their dependence on driving.

The Problem

Many Massachusetts communities are fortunate to have reliable transit service providing access to housing, employment and entertainment centers. Areas near public transit offer unique opportunities to cluster a mix of pedestrian oriented uses in close proximity to transit, thus reducing reliance on automobile travel.

However, in many instances, planners, local decision makers, and developers have overlooked new development and redevelopment opportunities in the vicinity of transit stations. Marginal uses often surround transit station areas in older urban settings and town centers, and large park-and ride lots that discourage pedestrian access often characterize stations in more suburban settings.

By failing to recognize and promote mixed-use development opportunities that create economic and pedestrian activity around transit stations, communities fail to capitalize on a key opportunity for achieving sustainable development.

Introduction to TOD

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is an approach to development that focuses land uses around a transit station or within a transit corridor. Typically, it is characterized by:

  • A mix of uses
  • Moderate to high density
  • Pedestrian orientation/connectivity
  • Transportation choices
  • Reduced parking
  • High quality design

TOD occurs within one-quarter mile, or a five to seven minute walk, of a transit station.

High density development around the Kendall Square Red Line Station.
High density development around the Kendall Square Red Line Station.

TODs may incorporate transit stations into a development, such as at:

  • Copley Place in Boston
  • Marriott Hotel in Kendall Square, Cambridge,

Some TODs focus on building reuse and infill, such as in:

  • Somerville's Davis Square
  • Alewife Station in Cambridge
  • downtown Brockton

In more suburban areas, TOD often takes the form of new development clustered around a station on underutilized or vacant sites. TODs use landscaping, street furniture, street lighting, and other urban design features that encourage pedestrian activity to integrate the station area into the surrounding community. An essential ingredient of any successful TOD is connectivity between street networks and adjoining uses, which can be achieved through:

  • landscape design
  • sidewalks and pathways
  • signage
  • building façade treatments
  • parking strategies
  • a variety of land uses.

Historically, bus transit stops have not generated TODs because bus routes and stops can be relocated at any time. The trend toward public investment in busways with a dedicated right-of-way and large bus transit centers may make bus transit stations more attractive for transit oriented development.

Characteristics that Support Transit-Oriented Development

Successful TODs happen when the following elements are present:

Supportive market conditions. To channel new development into or encourage revitalization of a transit corridor, a development market must exist at several levels. Station areas must have development potential. The station areas must be competitive with other sites within the corridor and region, and must have land available for development or redevelopment.

Commitment to transit: The transit agency, state and local officials, and policy makers must demonstrate a clear, long-term commitment to transit. The quality of the transit service is also important (frequency, cleanliness, safety, and reliability.) Local policies need to support and encourage transit usage. Pedestrian and bicycle access to transit facilities should be enhanced, and parking policies should discourage the use of the private automobile with the expansion of park and ride facilities.

Strong and respected local leadership: A successful transit strategy aimed at encouraging TOD requires strong leadership from both the public and private sectors.

Supportive public policies and tools: Successful TOD can only be achieved if supported by public policies and tools that channel development into transit corridors or encourage redevelopment and reuse of land for activities that generate pedestrian activity. Adoption of these tools is the most effective TOD strategy that communities can pursue. Regulatory and incentive-based strategies can include:

  • Station area plans. Many communities develop station area plans when new transit facilities are proposed, and plans can be prepared for existing station areas as well. Components of station area plans usually include some or all of the following elements:
    • a market study
    • a physical plan for infrastructure and utility needs
    • a land use plan
    • a phasing plan
    • redevelopment strategies
    • recommendations for regulatory changes and incentives to encourage TOD
    • Station area plans allow municipalities to address the unique characteristics of individual transit stations, whether located in rural, suburban or urban areas.
  • Higher density, mixed use zoning. Zoning changes are fundamental to encouraging TOD in station areas. These may take the form of changes to the underlying zoning, interim zoning while plans are prepared for the station areas, or zoning overlay districts. Components of the zoning often include providing for mixed uses, density bonuses, parking restrictions, reduced setbacks, and pedestrian amenities. The zoning should be tailored to respect the unique setting of individual stations.
  • Design standards/guidelines. Station area design guidelines can help ensure that new development of redevelopment of existing sites and buildings is pedestrian-friendly, attractive, and connects the neighborhood to the transit station. TOD design guidelines often address the design of parking, pedestrian furniture, signage, street lighting, sidewalk width and materials, ground level building façade design and materials, and respect for neighborhood spaces. TOD projects should also incorporate LID techniques such as multi-level/ covered parking structures and green roofs to reduce impervious surfaces and stormwater runoff. Small green-strip buffers (bioretention and grass swales) can also be utilized to treat stormwater runoff.
  • Public investment policies. The siting of public facilities near transit stations can act as a catalyst for attracting private investment. Policies that direct public investment to transit stations send a signal that the government recognizes the value of a location served by transit. Further, because these facilities attract a large number of employees and visitors, they provide a built-in market for retail and services.
  • Incentives. A number of public incentives exist for encouraging development and redevelopment near transit. These include sharing infrastructure development costs, providing for brownfield remediation, streamlining the development process, and adopting District Improvement Financing (DIF) and Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) districts. The public sector can also market tools such as location efficient mortgages, available through Fannie Mae, for people buying homes near transit.
The Newton Center Green Line station provides an anchor for a vibrant retail corridor.
The Newton Center Green Line station provides an anchor for a vibrant retail corridor.


Transit Oriented Development can help a municipality achieve multiple sustainable development principles:

  • TOD promotes transportation choices, reducing auto usage.
  • TOD also results in efficient use of existing land, infrastructure, and services, and supports the revitalization of community centers and neighborhoods by encouraging reuse and infill.

TOD fosters a sense of place through the creation of mixed-use centers that combine residential uses with economic activity. By requiring high quality urban design and safe, attractive pedestrian connections between uses, TODs create a vibrant sense of place. TODs that combine a variety of housing alternatives with diverse economic activity provide both employment and living options for a wide range of people.

TOD advances state and local smart growth goals as shown by its consistency with Sustainable Development Principles including:

  • Concentrate Development and Mix Uses. TOD is synonymous with concentrated development promoting mixed uses and residential densities of at least 12 to 15 units per acre. TOD policies promote increased employment and population concentrations, and a mix of uses that encourage pedestrian activity throughout daytime and evening hours. TOD encourages infill and redevelopment around station areas. Many transit stations along the MBTA system and at inner-city transit stations outside the Boston area are located in already developed areas characterized by underutilized or abandoned sites and buildings. TOD offers a real opportunity to redevelop these properties into transit-supportive uses, or transform abandoned sites into new, transit-oriented developments.

  • Provide Transportation Choice. A major goal of TOD is to provide a concentration of living, shopping, entertainment, and employment opportunities within walking distance of transit stations so that people can easily use transit in place of cars. TODs include pedestrian amenities and bicycle facilities to promote alternative travel options, and encourage shared parking opportunities.

  • Use Natural Resources Wisely. Increased transit usage helps to reduce the rate of growth in auto vehicle trips and reduces the use of petroleum products. Fewer vehicles on the roadways translate into less congestion, lower amounts of vehicle emissions, and overall better air quality than would otherwise occur. Further, TOD principles discourage large surface lots that result in the transformation of land into impervious surfaces.

  • Expand Housing Opportunities. TOD promotes the development of townhouses, condominiums and apartments, which provide housing opportunities for a broader array of households, ranging from lower income families to empty nesters.

  • Increase Job and Business Opportunities. Beyond the businesses and jobs created within the TOD's, transit is recognized as an important investment for providing access to jobs for lower income people, the elderly and the disabled, as well as for suburban commuters. TOD enhances the role of transit in providing access to jobs by increasing opportunities for people to find housing and employment near transit stations.

  • Plan Regionally. Most often, transit agencies are established to serve metropolitan regions. Planning for new transit stations is driven by regional transportation patterns and travel needs. By concentrating economic activity and housing around stations, TOD plays an integral role in shaping regional development, including both public and private investment.
Offices in a re-developed mill adjacent to the town center commuter rail station in Andover.
Offices in a re-developed mill adjacent to the town center commuter rail station in Andover.

Financial Considerations

Sprawl leads to increasing:

  • Public infrastructure costs due to more roads, water lines, electrical services, and sewer lines.
  • Public service costs due to fire and police services, expanding road maintenance and snow plowing budgets resulting from additional miles of roadway, and increased school busing costs.

Conversely, TOD offers a development option that utilizes existing infrastructure, and can often be served by existing municipal services. For new, denser development at transit stations, communities may be able to realize economies of scale in new infrastructure investments. Further, by reducing dependence on the automobile, TOD reduces traffic congestion and its associated costs to municipalities.

Another financial benefit of TOD is its positive impact on property values. Research consistently shows that both residential and commercial property values rise with proximity to transit stations. This translates into expansion of the municipal property tax base, and a direct improvement in tax revenues in the very neighborhoods where public infrastructure and service delivery costs are reduced due to increased densities.

The Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works and the Department of Housing and Community Development offer financial support to design and construct TOD projects. The program is called the Transit Oriented Development Infrastructure and Housing Support Program - TOD Bond Program, for short. Eligible projects include:

  • pedestrian improvements
  • bicycle facilities
  • preliminary design for bike and pedestrian projects
  • housing projects (must be 25% affordable at 80% of median income)
  • parking facilities.

Grants range from $50,000 for design to $500,000 for bike and pedestrian improvements to $2.0 million for housing and parking projects.