How Transit Villages Are Reshaping New Jersey’s Urban Landscape

Will the Garden State become Manhattan 2.0 in the next 50 years? Probably not. Will it look different from today? Probably yes.

7 minute read

August 16, 2023, 6:00 AM PDT

By Marcelo Remond @mremondm

Red brick historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, Liberty State Park, New Jersey with glass high-rise building in background.

The historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey. | TTstudio / Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, Liberty State Park

Ah, New Jersey, the state known for the Jersey Shore, pizza, and of course The Sopranos. The small state also happens to be the most densely populated in the country. Due to this, the Garden State has no shortage of thriving urban environments. Jersey City has been growing exponentially for the last several decades, and, along with Hoboken, has been nationally acclaimed for its great success in programs such as Vision Zero. But even though these cities are getting the spotlight, other towns in the state are making equally exciting progress in other topics.

Some background is necessary. Just like other older states, New Jersey possesses a traditional urban development pattern in several of its towns. One of the best examples of this traditional landscape is the famous streetcar suburb, a type of town that only came to exist due to train stations or streetcar lines nearby. The development followed transportation, creating dense communities around public transit. Yet like most of America in the mid-20th century, New Jersey started destroying its urban transit systems and ceding the landscape to the motor vehicle. Single-family homes and highways started to proliferate in the Garden State.

After decades of urban experimentation, a turning point occurred. It can be attributed in part to Jane Jacobs's masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or maybe to the fact that authoritarian urban planning was just not popular; it does not really matter as they all had the same effect—a shifting urban design paradigm. Accordingly, a new movement began in the 1980s, known today as New Urbanism. The movement was founded on three main ideas: walkable blocks and streets, traditional neighborhood development (TND), and transit-oriented development (TOD).

This last item—paired with the fast development of issues such as climate change and the housing crisis (and their connection with the built environment)—spurred a call to action to solve our most concerning urban issues. Therefore, the urban landscape started being seen as something that could not be ignored and needed to change. 

In 1990, New Jersey created an initiative called “The Transit Village,” with the main purpose of improving and revitalizing the surrounding areas of train stations. This would help the Garden State reduce gas carbon emissions by letting people live near the train station (and other amenities), and increase the number of housing units in downtowns across the state.

The initiative is simple enough. If a municipality gets the transit village designation, then the town is eligible for grants from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and can receive additional funding and technical assistance from state agencies. Additional resources, such as the Manual of Best Practices for Transit-Oriented Development, are always available and further help towns expand on their plans. Most of this does not come for free, however. According to the New Jersey Department of Transportation, towns can only be designated as Transit Villages if “These municipalities have demonstrated a commitment to revitalizing and redeveloping the area around their transit facilities into compact, mixed-use neighborhoods with a strong residential component.” Also, towns must comply with formal criteria and an application process.

This is not to promote bureaucracy or slow progress but to further ensure that the money and time spent are going to municipalities committed to improving their residents’ quality of life. In other words, the initiative is not for municipalities trying to get some extra capital for not-related projects, or who have not embraced New Urbanist thinking.

The program started with only five towns. Now, more than 30 towns are designated as Transit Villages, with Atlantic City being the latest addition, becoming the 35th member of the initiative. The program has achieved incredible progress on its mission of making areas near train stations more attractive. According to a special report from New Jersey Future by research director Tim Evans, “Transit station neighborhoods went from accounting for a meager 2.3 percent of total statewide population growth from 2000 to 2007 to accounting for a remarkable 38.3 percent of statewide growth from 2008 to 2012 ” (p.2). This means that in just over a decade, the urban growth in TODs has increased by nearly twentyfold. This shift towards transit-oriented lifestyles reflects the changing preferences of residents who are seeking the benefits of living in walkable, well-connected communities.

These changing preferences continue to trend in a positive direction. In an email exchange on August 7, 2023, Evans stated “There are 153 municipalities that host at least one transit station (rail, ferry, or major bus terminal). Those municipalities accounted for 70.8% of total statewide (NJ) population growth between 2010 and 2020, compared to only 27.8% of the state total between 2000 and 2010.” Even though this signals a broader trend (as this figure was at the municipal level and not specifically near transit stations), this shows the growing demand for walkable and transit-friendly spaces. Moreover, this data suggests the potential benefits that the Transit Village initiative could offer to numerous other towns across the state.

One New Jersey town that could rapidly benefit from these changes is Iselin. Iselin possesses the fourth busiest train station in the state, Metropark. With direct access to New York City through NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor and Amtrak lines that go as far as Washington D.C., the station sees movement all day long. When Metropark was built, it was planned for suburbanites who would drive from their single-family homes to the train station. Thus, giant parking decks were constructed, occupying most of the space. But in 2022, the future seemed a little brighter. Under a new plan, this station would convert from a park-and-ride into a prospering transit-oriented development. The concept calls for 230 to 250 housing units and 250,000 square feet of office space with ground-level retail. This would completely transform the suburban nature of Iselin into a more diverse environment, creating a prosperous transit-oriented development where people can live, eat, work, and access transportation without a car. Towns like this can then could opt for a Transit Village designation, which could further build on the potential of the TOD. For instance, it could create a better connection to downtown, which at the moment is separated by the high-speed, four-lane Lincoln Highway and further complicated by a lack of sidewalks.

All of this new growth in transit-oriented villages also means a win for the fight against climate change. According to a series of articles from the Land Use Law Center at Pace University, “Transit-Oriented Development increases climate-resilient development by reducing greenhouse gasses and the amount of land necessary to accommodate a growing population and economy.” And it makes sense—when analyzing the population growth, it can be appreciated that despite the fact that the 153 municipalities represent less than half of the total New Jersey 565 municipalities/towns, they still managed to account for 70.8 percent of the total statewide population growth!  It is clear that transit-friendly villages are synonymous with efficient land use.

The program has helped undo the terrible damage done to our downtowns in the past. Visibly significant undertakings, such as the transformation of parking lots into mixed-use developments, are just the surface of the Transit Village initiative’s achievements. Just take a look at another New Jersey town, Bloomfield. Less than two decades ago, most of the land near the century-old Bloomfield Station was parking lots. In 2023, the town redeveloped two parking lots near the train station into thriving mixed-use developments, and two more mixed-use developments are in the works. Now, thanks to the Transit Village Initiative, Bloomfield’s residents can easily live, shop, exercise, dine, and take the train within a radius of less than 0.2 miles.

Another great example can be found in Cranford, also a town with a historic train station. In 1997, Cranford Township was struggling to improve and rehabilitate its downtown. Despite a $3 million investment and a previous designation as a special improvement district, the magical moment had still not happened. The problem—as it was then shown in a commissioned report by Danth Inc.—was the suburban development pattern of Cranford’s downtown. Things needed to change. Accordingly, Cranford adopted the Transit-Friendly Village designation in 2003. Local officials knew that the train station needed to be the focus of the town. Since then, mix-used developments have been constructed in front of the station, with more planned for the future in other areas. The decision of challenging the status quo resulted in a vibrant downtown and thriving community.

It then can be said that thanks to the Transit Village initiative, more New Jerseyans have a chance to experience urban life. People in Bloomfield and Cranford are better off now than they were 15 to 20 years ago, and are enjoying the benefits of TOD. The program showed that demand for density was always there, it just needed the right vision and planning to flourish. At the same time, the initiative serves as a vital tool in the fight against climate change and the housing shortage by creating more efficient land use patterns. This success story serves as an example for other states who face similar issues and signals that the policies of the past, however ingrained, are not permanent. Most importantly, it shows that change is possible—and that it is already happening. 

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