Zoning for Mass Transit: The Case of Miami-Dade County’s Rapid Transit Zone
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Planning a mass-transit system almost necessarily requires one difficult, politically charged decision after another. Route selection may be the most difficult and visible of them all. Mass transit is expensive and public resources are limited; a dichotomy that usually requires prioritizing one route (and therefore one neighborhood) over another. If there can only be one new route in the near future, which neighborhoods should benefit, and which must continue to wait in line? And while certain neighborhoods clamor for access to mass transit, others may fight just as hard to keep it away. Los Angeles’s gerrymandered Red Line is a particularly infamous example of NIMBYism’s negative impact on route selection, and ridership as a result.
Even assuming the system planners can obtain sufficient buy-in on a route, the choice in technology (heavy rail?, light rail, bus rapid transit, etc.) may be nearly as complicated. Not only must planners decide between ever-changing technology solutions, but they must also account at times for the actions of their predecessors. For example, perhaps expected ridership on the new route does not justify the cost of rail, but can the agency tell Neighborhood B, which has patiently waited in line for decades, to accept bus while Neighborhood A has enjoyed rail the entire time? It is a wonder that public agencies ever clear these hurdles, and when they do, there is additional consideration that is oft-neglected but of utmost importance to the success of the route: zoning regulations, which significantly impact both ridership and cost.
A successful mass-transit system transports people to and from where they live and work in a more efficient manner than available alternatives. Perhaps the most significant consideration is the door-to-door time to commute. If an individual lives and works within a block or two of a train station, mass transit is compelling. If an individual must walk 15 minutes on each end of the commute, a car starts to look a whole lot better. Said another way, if more people live in close proximity to a transit station, more people will leave their cars at home and take the train to work. The upshot is that the zoning code must facilitate increased density of residential units within walking distance of mass-transit stations: think high-rises above, adjacent to, and nearby the station. If a station is instead surrounded by single-family homes, only a handful of people will live within a short walk of the station. Of course, fewer riders means fewer revenues to support the operation and expansion of the transit system and everyone else remains in their cars, further contributing to traffic congestion.
New high-rises may be great for ridership and for their future residents, but future residents don’t vote, and they don’t show up to zoning hearings. High-rises are often not so great for the residents of nearby single-family homes – those facing the prospect of towers casting shadows over their yards, thousands of new neighbors, and—gulp—more traffic. And those current residents do vote, and they do show up to zoning hearings. Zoning decisions are often also made at a municipal, or even a neighborhood level, without regard for the regional interests served by a successful transit system. As a result, the ordinary zoning process is a major impediment to mass transit.
It the late 1970’s, with the approval of its heavy rail system, Miami-Dade County, Florida, implemented the beginnings of a solution to this zoning problem with the Rapid Transit Zone, or RTZ. Miami-Dade County is the regional government responsible for the delivery of mass transit in a metropolitan area that includes more than 30 individual municipalities, each with its own zoning regulations and processes. The RTZ preempts zoning and permitting jurisdiction to the County for all property under and around the heavy-rail system. To facilitate expeditious permitting for the actual tracks and stations, the RTZ makes those uses permitted, without the need for public input or hearings. And to facilitate higher-density development near the stations, the RTZ includes a public hearing process that is run by the County, not the individual municipalities or neighborhoods, for private development (including high-rise residential development) near the stations. As a result, zoning decisions at and around stations are made at the regional level, with a regional perspective, and are not driven by the handful of neighbors in opposition to new density, if not to a train station altogether.
This year, California adopted the same concept with the passage of AB 2923, which preempts zoning authority for certain development around San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations to the BART board of directors. The purpose of the new law is, like the RTZ, to facilitate dense new residential development near BART stations in order to encourage ridership.
Regional preemption of permitting authority in the RTZ also facilitates private investment in the transit system through public/private partnerships. Lenders and investors are typically wary of funding a project if the permitting processes are drawn-out and unpredictable, which is almost necessarily the case when the permits required to construct the track or stations are subject to the approval of many different jurisdictions.
A centralized, efficient permitting process reduces this “permitting risk” and increases the bankability of a project. As a result, project lenders will be more likely to allow the developer to accept additional permitting risks, and even lend into a project (subject, of course, to appropriate reserves and covenants), prior to the final authorization of all material project permits. The upshot is that centralized permitting can significantly reduce project costs and expedite project delivery.
However, for all its promise, the success of the RTZ has been somewhat limited. Although the RTZ did streamline permitting for the construction of the transit system itself, it has been less effective at facilitating high-rise residential development near stations. A clear oversight is that the RTZ captured the footprints of the tracks and each station, but very little, if any, of adjacent private property. There are some shining examples of successful development within the RTZ, such as the Dadeland developments at the southern terminus of the rapid-transit system. But without the benefit of private development on nearby private property, which remains subject to local zoning control, the RTZ has yet to achieve anything close to its full potential.
Fortunately, that is quickly changing. Over the past few years, the County has begun to approve expansions of the RTZ to encompass adjacent private property, and the County is currently evaluating additional expansions throughout the system. So far, the expansions have proven remarkably successful—the massive downtown station development for Virgin Trains USA (f/k/a Brightline) was zoned and permitted under the County’s RTZ jurisdiction. As a result, the future of Miami-Dade County’s decades-old RTZ ordinance looks very bright, and the Miami area’s transit system will be the primary beneficiary.
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Isn’t this a case of the density tail wagging the transport dog? In other words, to make a rail line pay (i.e. make it profitable enough for a private operator/funder), you need to permit enough value uplift from re-zoned density to pay for the costs of developing the line. This is nothing new, of course. Its basically how many cities grew in the 19th century (long before city planning systems) as rail companies bought up vacant/agricultural land along their proposed tracks and then made substantial profits in land sales for housing once the line was built. Nothing wrong in that, you may say. The big difference here, though, is that while our 19th entrepreneurs only needed to shift the cows off the paddock before building, their 21st century descendants face the task of shifting existing communities to get the density in place. The problem with democracy (as you allude to) is that while cows don’t vote, people do. If you want good examples to cite, then China really has this approach to transport development and densification down pat. Instead, I suggest you need to reconsider your position on this important issue and work out ways by which communities can be engaged and included in the replanning process so that they get to share in the potential benefits of the new connectivity mass transit can bring, not exclude and displace them by diktat from on high. It may be a more protracted and labor intensive approach, but I suggest the outcomes may be more sustainable and certain long term. While there are always some naysayers, most people will accept change if its undertaken with their input and transparently managed to take account of their concerns. Giving people more democracy is always better than taking it away from them.