Chapel Hill: Opinion

Three problems transit-oriented development can help solve in Chapel Hill

The roughly 18-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham with 18 stops from start to finish.
The roughly 18-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham with 18 stops from start to finish. GoTriangle

Three of the biggest challenges facing Chapel Hill are providing affordable housing for people of modest incomes, bringing back tax-paying private-sector employers, and reducing the high cost of providing local government services that has resulted from policies encouraging suburban sprawl.

Transit-oriented development is a proven way to address all three of these challenges.

A transit-oriented development, or TOD, is a community with homes, offices, shops and restaurants, and public recreation space, integrated into a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of quality public transportation, typically light rail or commuter rail. TODs improve people’s health, since their residents naturally spend more time in their daily routines walking and less time sitting in traffic. TODs also improve the environment by reducing carbon emissions through reductions in car use. Transit-oriented development, however, is also crucial to solving several of Chapel Hill’s unique and systemic challenges:

TOD provides housing options that residents with lower incomes can afford. First, transit-oriented development provides the opportunity to create subsidized housing that traditional single-family subdivisions simply don’t provide, because with TOD come opportunities for municipalities to partner with developers to obtain those subsidies, something that is not available in traditional subdivisions. TOD also helps families of modest incomes save money because it provides access to grocery stores, recreation, and most importantly, employment centers, without the need to own a car. Walking is free and transit passes cost a lot less than car payments, insurance, gas, and auto repairs, putting money back in family’s pockets.

TOD attracts top-tier private sector employers. Half a century ago, office employees wanted offices in secluded bucolic environments. That’s why Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina built their iconic modernist rhombus on Chapel Hill’s edge in what was, at the time, the middle of nowhere. Unlike yesterday’s employees, who saw cars as a force of freedom, today’s young professionals view driving as an expensive burden. They also want to be in the middle of the action, not isolated from it. Top-tier employers are actively seeking office space in transit-oriented developments, which offer employees attractive alternatives to driving and environments with dining and recreational opportunities steps from their offices. With light rail access to three major universities, Chapel Hill is poised to bring major private sector employers back to town if our community plans now for TOD.

TOD lowers costs to provide local government services. From road construction and maintenance to water and sewer service to fire and police protection and waste and recycling pickup, the most expensive form of housing for local governments is the single-family suburban subdivision. The environmental think tank Sustainable Prosperity estimates that the typical sprawling suburban subdivision costs municipalities almost two and a half times what denser-style pedestrian-oriented development TODs would cost. Chapel Hill can spend more on parks, libraries and other quality-of-life amenities when the town isn’t spending to support more suburban sprawl.

With the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project now officially moving forward, Chapel Hill is on track to have a fast, efficient way to travel to and from UNC and UNC Hospitals, our community’s major employment hubs. We have an opportunity to reap even more rewards when we begin planning now to create new places for people to live, work, shop and enjoy life that take full advantage of the opportunity to live life fully in a place where driving isn’t necessary. Town leaders should begin planning now for transit-oriented development in the N.C.-54 and Old Durham Road corridors. It’s our best opportunity to expand affordable housing, bring back taxpaying employers and reduce the high cost of suburban sprawl.

Matt Bailey, Jason Baker and Molly De Marco are residents of Chapel Hill.


The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project is a 17.7-mile project that will provide over 26,000 trips per day to residents and commuters taking advantage of employment, health care and educational opportunities in Durham and Chapel Hill. The rail project will connect three of the top 10 employers in the state (Duke University, UNC- Chapel Hill and UNC Health Care).

The light rail will provide:

▪ 10-minute frequency during peak times, 20-minute frequency during off-peak times

▪ Operate in a dedicated guideway, separate from traffic

▪ Offer 18 stations, nine park-and-ride locations and connections to other transit services

▪ Provide relief to 17 bus routes that currently serve portions of the corridor, allowing them to be rerouted to serve other areas of the community

This project will help control growth; foster compact development; create vibrant, walkable communities; and connect residents to jobs, healthcare and education opportunities. The light rail project will connect current and future transit services, including the Commuter Rail project and the Bus Rapid Transit project in Chapel Hill.

Source: GoTriangle