Benefits of transit-oriented developments

Central Florida is a quickly growing region. In fact, it’s growing so quickly that meeting its housing needs would require the equivalent of a new 330-unit multifamily building each week. As part of its growth, it also has one of the country’s newest passenger rail lines – SunRail, a 47-mile commuter rail line that traverses exurban, suburban, and downtown areas. It adds a transportation option for thousands and opens up opportunities for Central Florida to have true transit-oriented developments (TOD) to address our housing issues as well.

But what’s the connection between the people who live and work in TODs and those who actually ride rail? MetroPlan Orlando and Florida State University conducted research to identify these connections. What did we learn from the data?

Generic feature image for transit-oriented developments


SunRail shares track with a freight railroad, which historically meant the land surrounding the stations had industrial uses or was devoted to single-family neighborhoods. The switch from industrial land use to transit-supportive land use, combined with the existing single-family neighborhoods, creates two distinct ridership catchment areas.

The TOD catchment area includes anyone within a 5-10 minute safe and comfortable walk to a SunRail station – roughly the Census blocks that directly surround a station. The Park and Ride catchment area covers anyone within a 5-10 minute drive to a station – roughly equal to the Census block groups that surround the station.

TODPark and Ride
5-10 minute walk to a station5-10 minute drive to a station
Measured by Census blockMeasured by Census block group
Residents are more likely to be rentersResidents are more likely to be homeowners
Residents are likely to have moved to their home after SunRail has openedResidents are more likely to have moved to their home before SunRail
More likely to use as many transportation options as possibleMore likely to depend on their car as a main form of transportation

Services required

In 2015, there were 4,000 daily commutes that started within one TOD station area and ended in another TOD station area. We estimate that SunRail is capturing a third of these commutes on a daily basis.

As part of this research, we surveyed more than 500 people who live in the TOD area or ride SunRail. We heard often that people were more likely to ride SunRail if their final destination – job, event, restaurant – was within safe walking distance, which emphasizes a need for more destinations, particularly workplaces, near stations.

Destinations are important, but so is frequent service. Until July 2018, SunRail operated 18 roundtrips a day. This leaves large gaps during potential high-ridership times, such as rush hour. The TOD areas likely need service that includes 15-minute headways at peak times and less than hour headways at non-peak, especially as the TOD areas continue to grow. TODs are permitted or under construction at most SunRail stations. An increase in dependable service gives all transit-oriented developments and Park and Ride residents more opportunities to ride SunRail.

We need better data

Research connecting oriented developments at a microscale and who rides transit is almost non-existent. Scant information exists for new rapid transit lines or in metro areas with historically auto-oriented development patterns. We learned a lot about what we do not know and truthfully, we probably did this research too early. We need more accurate data about who lives within the Census blocks around SunRail stations first.

In five years, after the 2020 Census, who will live in the TOD areas, what will the available transportation options be, and how will new development and better options affect SunRail? These are questions to answer and with better data, more data sharing, and more time, we should know a lot more about the interplay between the “transit” and “development” pieces of transit-oriented development.

What can we do with this information? It is great that we know more than we previously did, but what can we do with this analysis? We identified seven recommendations and four areas for future research. All are listed in the report, but here are a few key ones.

More destinations

Going forward we could continue with transit-supportive land use changes; address the lack of affordable housing in the transit-oriented developments; increase number of workplaces and jobs in the TOD areas; explore micromobility options; and see how SunRail’s late summer 2018 expansion impacted the TODs analyzed in this research.

While our research focused on Central Florida, other areas with auto-oriented development patterns and new transit lines might find our analysis useful. We still have a long way to go to significantly shift to a more balanced system with reliable transportation options, but we are progressing along the right track.

Elizabeth Whitton is MetroPlan Orlando’s Transit and Health planner. She is responsible for coordinating with federal, state, and local partners on matters related to transit and/or community health policy and planning. Her most recent projects include conducting applied research into quality of life and transportation planning, managing TOD and transit use research, and leading Complete Streets planning study. Elizabeth graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in Business Management and Florida State University with a Masters in Planning.

MetroPlan Orlando is the metropolitan planning organization for Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties in Central Florida. The agency establishes transportation policy and allocates federal transportation funding for the region.