How to prevent inequities in access? The relationship between local governments and real-estate developers on the affordability of transit-oriented development in four Canadian cities


  • Fanny Tremblay-Racicot École nationale d'administration publique (ENAP)




Transit-oriented development consists in a dense, diversified and pedestrian and bike-friendly real estate development located in walking distance of public transit stations. Recent data shows that the relationship between increased transit ridership and the reduction of total kilometers traveled by T.O.D. residents is not a direct one, wherein higher-income households are reducing their total kilometers traveled more so than lower-income households, but lower-income households tend to increase their utilization of public transit more than higher-income households (Boarnet et al. 2017). However, restricting access to T.O.D. by excluding transit-dependent residents not only infringes on principles of equity and equal access to jobs and services, but also deprives public transit networks of a significantly large potential clientele (Kuby, Barranda and Upchurch 2004, Boarnet et al. 2017). Since a large portion of public transit riders come from lower-income households, affordable housing and public transit reinforce one another: the necessity of preserving and growing affordable housing in proximity of transit stations is therefore key.

To what extent is the dimension of social equity and affordability considered in the implementation of T.O.D. in Canada? What strategies are employed by municipalities to ensure the collaboration of real estate developers in the production and implementation of T.O.D.? This communication presents the findings of a comparative analysis of the planning and implementation processes of T.O.D. projects, conducted in four cities (Halifax, Québec, Montréal, and Calgary) located in three Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia, Québec, and Alberta).

The results of our documentary analysis, complemented by a series of semi-structured interviews with public sector managers and real estate developers, reveal that although affordability is occasionally mentioned in planning documents, it is largely overlooked by decision-makers, with the exception of Québec City where the administration has allocated a dedicated budget for the establishment of a land reserve for affordable housing projects along its tramway project corridor. The issue of social and affordable housing was deliberately dismissed by the planning authority for the Réseau Express Métropolitain in Montréal, as it is believed that the new users of the transit line will contribute to financing the network, which is deemed to sufficiently serve disadvantaged areas.

In general, Canadian municipalities have a variety of public policy instruments to ensure the affordability of T.O.D., such as preemptive rights, inclusionary regulations, land reserve creation, bonus zoning, and waiving construction fees, although the extent of these powers varies between provinces. However, our interview results reveal a complex and sometimes opaque relationship between different levels of government and real estate developers. Provincial government intervention is sometimes necessary for certain mixed-use real estate projects to be built, as seen in the case of Halifax.

Ensuring the affordability of T.O.D. requires the systematic consideration of this issue in the planning or redevelopment of real estate development along new and existing corridors. The land ownership of buildings and land determines the instruments that can be deployed by the municipality. In addition to sincere political will, several conditions must be met to correct the market, including collaboration between municipalities and non-profit real estate developers, as well as a nuanced understanding of the for-profit private real estate market to properly calibrate the tools deployed.