Over the past 25 years, The Lakota Group has planned and designed transit-oriented developments around the Midwest. And we continue to help communities to transform the areas around their stations into destinations, hubs of economic activity, and people-filled Places. These projects and our current work in Chicago, Naperville, Niles, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, and Deerfield – to name a few- have given us quite a few insights into transit-oriented planning work and what communities need to think about as they embark on this process.


It is no secret that the rental housing sector has been booming. In communities across the country, new multi-family residential development projects of all types and sizes are rising from the ground fueled by changing demographic and lifestyle patterns. The demand for these new units is also closely associated with renewed interest in living in or near walkable ‘places’—including those served by alternative modes of transportation—over non-descript, auto-dominated communities.

Though the idea of clustering development around transit has been around for about as long as motorized transportation itself, in recent years there has been a growing awareness of, and preference for, Transit-Oriented Development as a planning policy.

‘Transit Oriented Development’ or TOD, is an approach to land use and development that encourages increased residential or employment density within close proximity to public transportation, typically within a half-mile radius of a transit station. There is no one style or pattern that defines TOD, however most transit-oriented developments provide for a mix of land uses and emphasize walkable, pedestrian-oriented environments. And while subway lines, high-rises, and uber dense urban cores may be the first things that come to mind when many people think about transit and density; our experience at The Lakota Group has shown that transit-oriented development can be extremely effective as a catalyst for change when it is done within a suburban context.

Why Suburban Transit-Oriented Development? 

One major consequence of the extraordinary growth of the suburbs following World War II is that a large proportion of our communities were built in a homogeneous manner, dominated by single-family homes and auto-oriented commercial development. This may have fit consumer preferences at the time, but it has also made it difficult for many communities to adapt to the evolving needs and interests of both the Boomer and Millennial generations, which have demonstrated a growing preference for communities that offer an ability to Live, Work, and Play without spending long periods of time in the car[1].

In enabling a broader and more dynamic mix of unit types and land uses, while also helping to reduce dependence on car ownership and use[2], TOD’s can provide suburban municipalities with substantial benefits over conventional development patterns. For example, research by the Chicago RTA has shown that TOD’s can reduce infrastructure costs by 25% compared to auto-oriented development, while also generating roughly 50% to 60% more in tax revenue per dollar invested[3]. Combined with demonstrated public health and environmental benefits, and greater economic diversity, TOD policies can be highly advantageous to municipal finances.

Context Matters

As with all things related to urban planning, context is critical when it comes to understanding the unique opportunities that transit-oriented development can have in suburban communities, and how TOD strategies can best be applied.

In many traditional commercial districts centered around commuter rail lines, it is not uncommon to see large surface parking lots near the train station. While these parking areas do serve an important role in enabling transit ridership, they also create large ‘holes’ in the urban fabric and provide limited financial benefits. However, by utilizing a TOD approach, communities can turn an issue into an opportunity, as these sites are ideally suited for mixed-use, infill development. By locating near transit, the new development can accommodate lower parking ratios, increase residential density, and reduce overall development costs, allowing for a better-quality project. Commuter parking can still be incorporated within the new development or spread around the district, boosting local businesses through increased foot traffic. The Village of Mount Prospect has been pursuing exactly this type of strategy in their historic downtown core, which has facilitated the redevelopment of several highly-visible sites that have long remained vacant or under-utilized.

A second approach that is becoming increasingly common is the use of TOD as a strategy to help establish a unique destination within neighborhoods or communities that may not otherwise have a central “place” of their own. In doing so, these communities are looking to improve their brand and bolster a sense of community identity and pride. Creating walkable, mixed-use districts with access to transit—such as the Village of Wheeling’s new Town Center development—can also help to attract residents who are looking for a more urban lifestyle. In other cases, new transit-oriented development projects are being planned in existing neighborhoods where land is under-utilized and poorly representative of the surrounding community. Naperville’s 5th Avenue Development, which is currently in the design development phase, seeks to transform roughly 13 acres of land that is largely occupied by surface parking into a mixed-use node that better serves the needs of area residents and commuters.

Finally, TOD can aid both property owners and communities in efforts to diversify, modernize, and ultimately strengthen their commercial land uses and tax base. Much has been said about the so-called Retail Apocalypse, however the reality is that retail is not dying, but evolving—with authentic, walkable commercial centers or districts emerging as a preferred format[4]. Malls and shopping centers around the country are converting their indoor spaces into open air layouts and infilling their vast expanses of parking with multi-family development.  Deerbrook Shopping Center in Deerfield, Illinois, is an excellent example of how struggling retail centers can adapt to the modern retail environment through TOD and placemaking strategies. Though the shopping center abuts the popular Lake-Cook Metra Station, it has historically turned its back on the station in favor of automotive convenience. In recent years, however, the shopping center has been retrofitted into an open-air center, and Lakota is working with Reva Development Partners to design a residential infill project on land near the Metra Station.

Transit-Oriented Development is now firmly established as a best practice land use and planning policy, but realizing the value that TOD can offer is directly related to the specific context of the community and mode of transportation it is tied to. For suburban communities with access to public transit—especially those that may have been reluctant to allow multi-family residential development—TOD can provide an excellent opportunity to help adapt to changing demographic patterns, establish a unique sense of place, and strengthen overall economic vitality without diminishing character or quality of life.


[1] https://www.cnu.org/resources/growing-demand
[2] http://tod.org/
[3] Chicago RTA. TransitWorks_TODbrochure. https://rtachicago.org/index.php/plans-programs/guides-and-resources/transit-oriented-development
[4] https://www.bisnow.com/national/news/retail/turns-out-walking-to-work-is-healthy-for-a-retail-economy-as-well-87007
Top image courtesy of Nicholas & Associates