Bill promotes housing development close to public transit hubs

Sen. Meghan Kallman proposes zoning designation that connects people with easy access to buses or trains

By: - March 30, 2023 4:00 am

A Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus en route from Newport enters Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

A bill promoting the development of housing closer to public transportation hubs aims to address the state’s housing shortage and reduce carbon emissions.

Sponsored by Sen. Meghan Kallman, of Pawtucket, the legislation would advance the state’s climate goals and strengthen housing production by creating transit-oriented development districts around train and bus stations. 

“Whatever we build now will set us up for the next 30 years,” Kallman said. “If we build around public transit, we’ll have better public transit.”

Sen. Meghan Kallman of Pawtucket has introduced a bill that would create new zoning districts to promote housing construction around train and bus stations. (Photo courtesy of Rhode Island House of Representatives)

The bill, S800, would require municipalities to create so-called transit-oriented development districts around transit hubs as defined by the Rhode Island Transit Master Plan. It would also reform zoning laws to reduce an emphasis on off-street parking and create a minimum population density of 10 people per acre around these hubs.

“We need to build a cityscape and townscape that are friendlier to people without cars,” Kallman said.

According to the transit plan, two types of mobility hubs would be host to the districts, regional mobility hubs — with higher traffic volumes and more modes of transportation passing through — and community hubs — which serve as access points to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s network of fixed route buses. 

Regional mobility hubs, as designated by the transit plan, include Kennedy Plaza; Providence Train Station; the University of Rhode Island; Newport Visitors Center; Downtown Woonsocket; Pawtucket\Central Falls Station;, Theodore Francis Green International Airport; and Wickford Junction. These locations provide access to multiple modes of transportation and see a heavy volume of traffic.

Kallman’s bill seeks to establish the districts within a quarter mile of regional transit hubs”and within one-eighth of a mile of “frequent transit stops.”

We need to build a cityscape and townscape that are friendlier to people without cars.

– State Sen. Meghan Kallman of Pawtucket

Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI, said that proximity to these hubs is crucial to the plan’s success. 

“The nexus to the transportation hub is critical,” she said. “We are trying to make walkable communities so people don’t need to have a car.”

The legislation would leave planning for the districts to local authorities and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority along with the state’s departments of transportation and housing.

It comes as the General Assembly has made clear that tackling the state’s housing shortage is a top priority this legislative session. About 60% of Rhode Island renters are severely cost-burdened, spending over half their income on housing, according to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

That report found that only 27,547 homes are available for 51,596 renters making less than 30% of area median income. The situation for these renters becomes ever more precarious as low housing stock for high demand puts upward pressure on prices. 

At present, Rhode Island housing production rates are not keeping up with demand. According to data recently presented by Rhode Island Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, the state ranked 38th in the nation when it comes to housing production, with a net of 19 units per 1,000 residents produced between 2012 and 2021. 80% of the state’s housing structures were built before 1980.

An old idea

Focusing development around public transportation to connect people to jobs and services is nothing new in Rhode Island, or New England for that matter, Clement said.

“We used to understand this connection between jobs and transportation,” she added. 

She said the idea of mill villages, where an economy sprung up around a factory producing a given product, illustrates part of the goals behind the bill. Workers would move close to the mill to ease getting to their job. Other services would then spring up around it to serve the general population. This included transit services — often provided by the mill itself.

“We have to understand that connection between jobs, business centers, and public transportation,” Clement said. 

Emissions and planning

Kallman said the bill’s focus on climate is just as important as affordable housing production.

“[The Transit Oriented Development Bill] brings a bunch of important issues together,” she said. “About 33% of emissions in Rhode Island come from passenger vehicles.” 

To this end, the bill would reduce or eliminate off-street parking requirements. Kallman said that parking lots create dead space which is unusable for other purposes, emit heat during the hot months, and is only used for parts of the day.

“If you build infrastructure for more cars, you’re going to have more cars,” she said. “Over 30% of emissions in Rhode Island currently come from passenger vehicles.”

In Rhode Island and nationwide, households headed by people of color are less likely than white households to have access to a vehicle. (Data source: IPUMS USA/National Equity Atlas)

According to the National Equity Atlas, as of 2020, 91% of Rhode Islanders had a car despite the high cost burden of car ownership on the poor. 11.4% of Rhode Islanders live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“Transit is where people get access to jobs and other programs they need,” Clement said. “[Proximity to hubs] reduces transportation costs which helps with housing costs.”

Yet for Kallman, the initiative is also a question of putting Rhode Island’s best foot forward.

“World class cities have something in common,” she concluded. “That’s good public transit and planning around that transit.”

The to go before the Senate Housing and Municipal Government committee, the legislation has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.  


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade covers education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.