Massachusetts’ “gateway cites” with commuter rail connections are full of untapped potential


The locations of MBTA commuter rail stations in some of the Gateway Cities profiled in a new report on TOD potential in cities connected to Boston by rail. (Graphic: MassINC)

The scores of midsize urban centers in Massachusetts outside of Boston but connected to the core of Boston’s metro area by commuter rail have a burgeoning opportunity. These “Gateway Cities” offer unrealized opportunities for redevelopment and employment, but existing regulations dampen the potential. However, if an effort was made to promote the housing and employment opportunities in these places as Boston and other major cities overheat, the state of Massachusetts could benefit for years to come.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the key to unlocking the benefits of these Gateway Cities, according to a report from MassINC, which discusses several ways in which these transit connections to the core region are important.

First, economic forces and consumer preferences are changing the math on what development types pencil out in these cities near commuter rail lines. During the most recent economic expansion, 42 percent of growth took place near rapid transit, in a stark contrast to the previous growth periods where just 6 percent of growth took place in transit accessible places.

Next, these cities have substantial amounts of underdeveloped or underutilized land and buildings. MassINC estimates that there is 116 million square feet of space potential within a half mile of the rail stations in 13 gateway cities.

Also, the existing transit service could accommodate the projected growth in ridership resulting from new development, even if completely built out. Adding up to 25,000 additional riders to the commuter rail lines would add only marginal costs. And increasing transit frequency would bring even more benefits: The report estimates a potential 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases at full build-out.

But none of this is possible without a plan of action that breaks free of the development status quo in these Gateway Cities and allows more development types. Coordinated public investments, targeted state funding, and focused TOD planning are all needed to realize the range of potential benefits.

In the library, we provide reports on regional visioning as well as planning for TOD at the regional scale. Initiatives like this one from MassINC show that metro regions feeling deep pressure from increasing economic activity and mounting housing costs have options that can help not only the core region, but the surrounding cities that might need an extra bit of economic support.

Recent TOD news

Here are a few things that have been happening this week with TOD projects across the country.

  • New Jersey Assembly passes bill requiring office of transit-oriented development (NJBIZ)
  • Chicago plans to expand TOD ordinance to frequent bus routes (Streetsblog Chicago)
  • The future of TOD breaks ground in Seattle (Next City)
  • Time to put up or shut up about dense housing near transit in LA (Los Angeles Times)