Uncovering JAPA

Will We Zone For Transit?

In tandem with light rail and other transit projects, transit-oriented development (TOD) is key to curbing urban sprawl. Governments advocate for TOD to shift to denser, less car-dependent cities. Yet, light rail alone isn't enough for TOD. Realigning development around stations needs municipal land use rules. The question arises: Will local leaders change laws for TOD?

In "Zoning In on Transit-Oriented Development: Understanding Bylaw Reform as Critical Policy Groundwork" (Journal of American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 2) Aryana Soliz, Lancelot Rodrigue, Christian Peaker, Isabelle Bernard, and Ahmed El-Geneidy examine changes in municipal plans and bylaws alongside the 2023 Montréal light rail project.

Through a systematic policy analysis of 19 municipalities and boroughs near light rail stations, the authors compared 2022 zoning bylaws to those in place in 2016, when the project was announced.

Local policymakers had the chance to incorporate one of the largest public transport investments in North America. They were presented with an opportunity to integrate the implications of the Montréal light rail project into their planning and regulatory frameworks, potentially reshaping urban development patterns and transit accessibility in the region.

Figure 5: Land use zoning around Ile-des-Soeurs station in 2016 and 2022

Figure 5: Land use zoning around Ile-des-Soeurs station in 2016 and 2022

Planning by the Province

In Canada, provincial governments regulate planning. In 2011, Quebec aimed for 60 percent of residential growth around transit stations by 2031. The authors examine the alignment and discrepancies between the metropolitan government's recommendations and the municipal.

The study period commenced in 2015 with the announcement of a light-rail transit project serving four million residents. Valued at $7 billion, the infrastructure initiative targeted the burgeoning population growth in the Montréal area.

The authors analyzed changes in bylaws regarding density, land use, and parking requirements to support transit-oriented development (TOD) around light rail stations. They meticulously reviewed minutes from all municipal council meetings and public consultations, using a keyword-based method to contextualize legislative shifts.

Additionally, they responded to calls for a detailed evaluation of TOD plan implementation by focusing on rezoning efforts around two stations. This targeted approach provided insight into how local policies were adapting to align with the goals of the Montréal light rail project and promote sustainable urban development.

Takeaways and Context

  • Six years post-LRT announcement, there was minimal engagement with the zoning reforms needed to support TOD goals.
  • Various established and emerging TOD stations altered parking rules, lowering car parking minimums and favoring underground parking.
  • Bylaw changes were limited across the LRT network, with low-density zoning predominating, especially near suburban stations.
  • There are significant limitations to coercive metropolitan plans as the sole mechanism for promoting municipal zoning reforms. Successful implementation requires consideration of the multijurisdictional structure of planning regulations and the relational aspects of TOD.

Metropolitan plans aimed at improving design, density, and diversity were not mirrored in the practices of local municipalities. The authors corroborated previous research showing suburban resistance to policies that reduce car privileges.

Intentional densification and diversification around new transit stations were not solely reliant on available land but rather on various localized factors and broader sociocultural trends. As other scholars have indicated, TOD plans can be hindered by issues of NIMBYism.

Despite the metropolitan plan's call for denser residential areas, only minor zoning adjustments were made, primarily favoring low-density commercial and industrial development and the construction of detached single-family homes.

Legal enforcement of the metropolitan plan has been minimal in the region, with metropolitan actors initiating legal action against a regional county municipality only once at the time of writing, resulting in their loss (Vaudreuil-Soulanges RCM v. CMM, 2021).

This study highlights moments of tension within complex multilevel governance arrangements, impeding TOD plans developed by higher levels of government. It underscores the challenges of aligning disparate municipal and metropolitan goals and the limited effectiveness of legal mechanisms in enforcing regional planning directives.

Not the End of the Line

This study focused on the initial stages of LRT construction, and long-term development outcomes were not measured. Municipalities not currently promoting TOD through bylaws may do so after the system becomes operational.

Follow-up studies at periodic intervals could analyze zoning changes aligned with TOD goals, integrating interviews with policymakers and neighborhood associations to understand varying levels of success in rezoning for TOD.

Future research on areas receiving significant public investments should include a detailed assessment of affordable housing challenges. Researchers can identify potential policy shortcomings related to inclusionary zoning, affordable housing preservation, and other neighborhood stabilization strategies.

Top image: Axel Drainville via Flickr

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

May 2, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman