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Land Use


This section provides a brief overview of land use as they relate to transportation. Topics include the following:



Land use decisions can have important implications for transportation mobility, accessibility, safety, environmental impacts, and quality of life.  Transportation and land use are closely linked.  Transportation is a vital element affecting land use and communities.  Conversely, land use patterns affect travel demand and transportation performance.  In response to concerns over quality of life, development, and traffic congestion, communities are beginning to implement new approaches to transportation planning, such as better integration of land use and transportation; increasing the availability of high quality transit service; and ensuring connectivity between pedestrian, bike, transit, and road facilities. Communities are combining a multi-modal approach to transportation systems with supportive development patterns to create a variety of transportation options to support quality of life. 

The illustration below shows an approach that is based on an ecosystem foundation, integrating systems for transportation, land use, and natural and cultural resources. 

Source: Federal Highway Administration 

Coordination of transportation and land use is sometimes considered to be part of a “smart growth” or “sustainable development” strategy.  According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), transportation’s role in smart growth can mean: 

  • Establishing state and local land use strategies to increase population and housing densities and make transit more viable;
  • Managing and operating existing highway, transit, and other transportation modes to maintain or improve performance for each mode without adversely affecting neighborhoods or urban centers;
  • Knitting transportation improvement projects and public/private investments so that they merge as seamlessly as possible into the community;
  • Supporting the provision of mixed use development so that transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and ferry boats are viable options to driving; and

Accommodating the flow of freight throughout the country so that the economy can continue to grow.

(See Smart Growth and FHWA website.)

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Strategies to Coordinate Land Use and Transportation

Transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have historically been reluctant to take the lead in land use planning, which is typically done at the municipal and local levels.  Increasingly, though, transportation agencies are working to integrate transportation and land use through voluntary and incentive-based approaches such as coordination efforts, departmental policies, partnerships with local agencies, and transportation project funding criteria.  As state and regional agencies, in fact, transportation agencies, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Councils of Government (COGs) and regional planning organizations are in a unique position to facilitate coordination across the numerous local jurisdictions that typically make up a region.

Coordination of transportation and land use involves decision-making at multiple levels, and an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to land use is required that brings together competent experts within the decision process.  Developing a “vision” and integrating planning processes and efforts for intermodal transportation and land use are often the first step towards more detailed planning, project development, and implementation.  Visioning can be done at the level of a region, transportation corridor, community, or neighborhood.  This vision should be based on public and stakeholder input to ensure that it reflects community values, goals, and objectives.  The vision can serve as a basis for coordinating different agencies’ plans and policies, such as the long-range transportation plan, land use plans, a regional growth plan, local comprehensive or general plans, corridor plans, watershed plans, neighborhood plans, transit station area plans, local zoning ordinances, and conservation and environmental plans.

Key stakeholders in the transportation-land use visioning and integrated planning processes may include: local, state, regional, and federal transportation agencies; regional planning agencies; local jurisdiction staff and elected and appointed officials; interest groups, such as transportation system users, business groups, and environmental interests; the development community; and the general public.   

A multi-agency strategy to integrate planning and decision-making processes and partnering has been established within “Eco-Logical:  An Ecosystem Approach to Developing Infrastructure Projects.”  A multi-agency steering committee including FHWA and seven federal, environmental agencies developed and signed the “Eco-Logical” guide that establishes a conceptual framework and initiative to integrate planning and project delivery and use an ecosystem-based approach.  The “Eco-Logical” framework advances beyond project-by-project, resource-by-resource, site-by-site approaches toward a broad landscape, ecosystem-scale approach that spans across jurisdictions and geographic boundaries. “Eco-logical” is being implemented as a long-term, multi-agency initiative.   

The vision and integrated plan often result in specific implementation actions by each party involved and other relevant partners. Examples of transportation agency actions that support the implementation of an integrated transportation and land use plan or vision include:

  • Revising long-range transportation planning processes and transportation project selection criteria and funding specific projects consistent with the regional or corridor plan or vision;
  • Revising project development and design practices to support “context sensitive solutions” strategies that reflect local land use conditions and emphasize public involvement;
  • Undertaking education and outreach to communicate the outcomes of the planning or visioning process to the public as well as key local decision-makers;
  • Providing technical assistance for more detailed local planning and integrated planning. 
  • Creating financial incentives for adoption of local policies consistent with the vision
  • Undertaking demonstration projects, such as traffic calming, trail completion, or transit-oriented development on state or city-owned land, to prove the feasibility and benefits of projects that require further local action.

Specific examples can be found in the Case Studies section of this web site.

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Policy and Guidance

Section 6001 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) (Pub. L. 109-59, August 10, 2005) increased the emphasis on coordinating transportation and land use at the statewide and metropolitan planning levels. In February 2007, FHWA and FTA issued final regulations on Statewide Transportation Planning and Metropolitan Transportation Planning (February 14, 2007). These rules further detail transportation planning requirements that relate to land use planning.   These requirements can be summarized as follows:

  • New Consultations: MPOs and states must consult “as appropriate” with “state and local agencies responsible for land use management, natural resources, environmental protection, conservation, and historic preservation” in developing long-range transportation plans. Additionally, for the long-range statewide transportation plan, states must consult with Federally-recognized Tribal agencies responsible for land use management, natural resources, environmental protection, conservation, and historic preservation. In developing metropolitan transportation plans and transportation improvement programs (TIPs), the MPO should consult with agencies and officials responsible for other planning activities within the planning area that are affected by transportation, which includes state and local planned growth and other activities.
  • Consistency of Transportation Plan with Planned Growth and Development Plans:  SAFETEA-LU revises the previous planning factor related to environment, which is one of eight factors that must be considered in metropolitan and statewide transportation planning.  This factor (E) now reads, “protect and enhance the environment, promote energy conservation, improve the quality of life, and promote consistency between transportation improvements and state and local planned growth and economic development patterns.”
  • Visualization Techniques in Plans and Metropolitan TIP Development: As part of transportation plan and TIP development, MPOs shall employ visualization techniques. States shall also employ visualization techniques in the development of the long-range statewide transportation plan.

These new requirements must be met prior to MPO and state adoption/approval of transportation plans addressing SAFETEA-LU provisions. 

In addition to the statewide and metropolitan transportation planning processes, Federal guidance provides for addressing land use issues through linkages between transportation planning and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental review process. Appendix A of the Final Rule (p. 7282), 23 U.S.C. 139(f), provides additional focus regarding the definition of the purpose and need and objectives for transportation projects.  For example, the statement of purpose and need shall include a clear statement of the objectives that the proposed action is intended to achieve, which may include (among other things), supporting land use, economic development, or growth objectives established in applicable Federal, state, local, or Tribal plans.

According to FHWA, the Federal-aid transportation planning program supports efforts to coordinate land use and transportation decision-making and to foster “smart growth.” (See: Federal-aid highway programs (Title 23) that can be used to support coordinated transportation and land use planning and project development include:

  • Transportation Enhancements (TE) - Federal-aid funding for transportation-related improvements, including sidewalks, curbs, trails, and restoration of historic structures.
  • Transportation and Community and System Preservation Program (TCSP) - Federal-aid funding for innovative programs to link transportation and land use.
  • Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) - Federal-aid funding for projects with demonstrated air quality benefits.
  • Metropolitan Planning (PL) - Federal-aid funding distributed to MPOs to conduct metropolitan planning activities; can be used for transportation-land use coordination activities.
  • State Planning and Research (SPR) - Federal-aid funding distributed to states for planning and research activities; can be used for transportation-land use coordination activities.

The Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Section 5309 New Starts project evaluation criteria for major transit capital investments place a significant emphasis on transit-supportive land use. These criteria were extended to the Small Starts program authorized under SAFETEA-LU. FTA’s emphasis on transit-supportive land use plans and policies within the New Starts and Small Starts project evaluation process has created further incentives for transportation agencies to take a more active role in land use planning.  For more information, link to the FTA New Starts Project Planning & Development web page.

SAFETEA-LU also expanded the definition of joint development (i.e., a development project on transit agency property that involves some form of public-private partnership). Intercity bus and rail terminals were added to joint development authority and excepted from the prohibition on supporting the construction of space for commercial, revenue-producing activities. FTA guidance issued in February 2007 implements this authority and provides further clarification for public transportation agencies undertaking joint development projects.

Federal transit (Title 49) programs that can be used to support coordinated transportation and land use planning and project development include:

  • Metropolitan Planning (PL), Section 5303 - Federal-aid funding distributed to MPOs to conduct metropolitan planning activities; can be used for transportation-land use coordination activities.
  • State Planning and Research (SPR) Section 5304 - Federal-aid funding distributed to states for planning and research activities; can be used for transportation-land use coordination.
  • Urbanized Area Formula Program, Section 5307 - Federal-aid apportioned funds for capital and operating assistance, can be used for transportation-land use coordination planning and activities, as well as for transit enhancements and amenities that support transit-oriented development (TOD); 1 percent must be used for transit enhancements in urbanized areas (UZA’s) over 200,000 population.
  • Section 5309 New Starts - Major capital investment funding program for transit; funds can be used for station area planning activities as well as for design and construction.
  • Section 5309 Bus and Bus Related Facilities - Federal funding for facilities including transit enhancements and amenities that support TOD.

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Case Law

State and regional transportation agencies have relied primarily on voluntary strategies to coordinate transportation and land use among different agencies and different levels of government. Nevertheless, some areas of case law are relevant to the involvement of transportation agencies in land use planning and decision-making. Particularly relevant topic areas include:

  • The extent of state vs. local authority over land use;
  • The condemnation of private property through eminent domain for the purposes of transportation facilities and/or economic development; and
  • Indirect and cumulative impacts analysis within the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

State vs. Local Authority Over Land Use

The constitutional right to control land use lies with the states. All 50 states, however, have adopted zoning and enabling legislation that largely relegates land use control to local jurisdictions. No state reserves all power to itself, and no state gives all power to the local authorities.

States vary in how they award planning authority, and may do so through a variety of means including home-rule provisions, state constitutions, legislation, and adoption of municipal charters.  Home rule means cities or counties can adopt the “plenary police power” of the state and legislate on any matter that affects the health, safety, or welfare of the citizens except for matters of statewide concern. For example, many states adopt a uniform building code for the entire state and prohibit local governments from adopting codes that are different from the state’s code.

Although land use authority is delegated, planning is not always required. About half of all states require municipal planning, while the other half of the states does not require it. States requiring planning also vary in the extent to which they impose conditions upon these plans. California, for example, requires each general plan to have certain key elements, including a transportation element. A 2002 report by the American Planning Association (Planning for Smart Growth: 2002 State of the States), identifies recent comprehensive planning reform initiatives at the state level.

A 2003 report published by the Brookings Institute, “Is Home Rule Really the Answer?”, examines the extent to which “home rule” authority precludes state involvement in land use planning. The report specifically examines the impact of Dillon’s Rule, a strict interpretation of state laws that allows localities to possess only such powers as are specifically delegated to them by state law. In the past, states have frequently been viewed as either “home rule” or “Dillon’s Rule” states. In this study, the authors categorize all 50 states by their overall interpretation of the state and local relationship. See:

The authors find that 39 states use Dillon’s Rule to define the power of local governments. Of those, 31 define the role of all municipalities in the state, while eight use the rule for only certain municipalities. The remaining 10 states do not use Dillon’s Rule to define the role of local governments at all. The authors further find that a state’s adherence to Dillon’s Rule in no way precludes strong local action to deal with growth-related challenges. Many Dillon Rule states, such as Maryland, Washington, and Wisconsin, maintain model growth management systems by giving local and county governments the tools and incentives to manage or channel growth. At the same time, Oregon—a non-Dillon state with one of the nation’s strongest home rule traditions—sustains the nation’s strongest state-mandated growth management program.

Some overall conclusions can be drawn with respect to state involvement in land use planning:

  • Land use authority is not solely an issue of local jurisdiction – land use power is initially vested with the state, although states have typically ceded most of this authority to local government.
  • The land use powers vested in local governments vary from state to state, representing somewhat of a spectrum rather than two or three distinct classes.
  • The perception that if a state is a “home rule” state, the state has no influence over land use planning, is incorrect. All state governments, to varying degrees, have various tools and incentives at their disposal to help municipalities plan for, manage, and coordinate growth.
  • State requirements for local land use planning (if any) vary greatly from state to state, and affect the extent to which state and regional transportation agencies can help coordinate or otherwise participate in such planning. 

Indirect and Cumulative Impacts

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (40 CFR §§1500-1508) define the impacts and effects that must be addressed and considered by Federal agencies in satisfying the requirements of the NEPA process. This includes direct, indirect and cumulative impacts. Indirect effects may include growth inducing effects and other effects related to induced changes in the pattern of land use, population density or growth rate, and related effects on air and water and other natural systems, including ecosystems. (40 CFR § 1508.8) Cumulative impact of a transportation action includes consideration of other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future impacts on the environment that in many cases are related to land use and developmental decisions at the local area.

FHWA notes that while transportation projects are not the only or primary factor in possible land use changes, the potential for certain transportation proposals to influence land use is undeniable. (See: Questions and Answers Regarding the Consideration of Indirect and Cumulative Impacts in the NEPA Process). Court cases have bounded the potential scope of effects considered, indicating that indirect and cumulative impact analyses are appropriately concerned with impacts that are sufficiently “likely” to occur, and not with the speculation of any conceivable impact.

FHWA further notes that “An appropriately thorough review of the probable direct and indirect impacts of FHWA actions and documentation of other cumulative effects on specific resources is essential to a reasoned and informed project decision and will assist in attaining FHWA’s environmental streamlining and stewardship goals.” Determining the most appropriate technique for assessing indirect and cumulative impacts of a specific project should include communication with the cooperating agencies and NEPA participants. FHWA, NCHRP, EPA and CEQ have published a variety of resources that provide further guidance on the analysis of indirect and cumulative impacts, including tools available for predicting these impacts. Many of these tools are discussed on FHWA’s RE:NEPA community of practice website.

Recent court cases highlight the importance of adequately addressing indirect and cumulative impacts, including land use impacts, in NEPA project reviews.

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Data Sources and Analytical Methods

Land use decision-making and forecasting methods span the full range from sophisticated, complex quantitative models to qualitative, expert panel approaches. They fall into three general categories:

  • Formal qualitative methods that rely on the input of experts through what is known as a “Delphi” or expert panel approach.
  • Simplified quantitative methods that have been applied that forecast land use change based on transportation accessibility or proximity (and possibly other variables). Simpler models are usually custom-developed sets of equations calibrated with whatever current and historical data can be obtained. Some predict growth based on transportation accessibility; others predict growth simply based on proximity (e.g., distance from highway interchange or roadway).
  • Complex land use models, which are typically regional-scale models that interface with travel demand model input and output (or may be integrated with a built-in travel model). Transportation accessibility and/or proximity are usually the basis for relating transportation and land use in integrated models.  However, these models contain a range of other variables and relationships as well.

NCHRP Report 423A (Land Use Impacts of Transportation: A Guidebook, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas, 1999) and EPA’s Projecting Land Use Change (Science Applications International Corporation, 2000) summarize existing land use forecasting models and methods and describe some applications, although they do not include the most recent developments.  A more recent reference is Johnston and McCoy (2006), Assessment of Integrated Transportation/Land Use Models: Final Report (Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California – Davis). Case studies, examples, and other documentation also can be found in various FHWA resources; see the Research, Documents, and Reports section of this website.

A new generation of GIS-based scenario analysis and community indicator models also has emerged in recent years. Examples include INDEX, Smart Growth INDEX, PLACE3S, CommunityViz, MetroQuest, and What-If. These tools allow planning agencies to examine the effects of future land use plans and developments on a wide range of indicators, including transportation indicators such as vehicle miles traveled per capita, transit accessibility, and pedestrian accessibility. Some of them also are designed for interactive use with stakeholders and the public in designing and testing future land use scenarios. These tools have been adopted for use at all scales, ranging from site-specific analysis to community and regional plans. More information on these tools, as well as case studies and examples of applications can be found in FHWA’s Tool Kit for Integrating Land Use and Transportation Decision-Making.

Visualization techniques can strengthen public participation in the planning and project delivery process and specifically aid the public in understanding proposed plans.  Through visual imagery, the complex character of proposed transportation plans, policies and programs can be portrayed at appropriate scales -- state, region, local area, project architecture, etc. and from different points of view.  The effective presentation of projects’ impacts to the public has become an increasingly essential part of the planning and design of transportation system.  Examples of visualization techniques include sketches, drawings, artist renderings, physical models and maps, simulated photos, videos, computer modeled images, interactive GIS systems, GIS based scenario planning tools, photo manipulation and computer simulation. For more information, see FHWA’s Visualization in Planning website.

Some additional land use data sources and decision support tools include:

  • NatureServe VISTA GIS-based Decision Support System to support land use:  NatureServe is a not-for-profit organization with more than 30 years of expertise.  NatureServe spearheaded the development and released VISTA, a new GIS-based decision support system to support land use and integration of decision processes. 
  • Sources of Maps and GIS Data Clearinghouses:  Geo-Spatial One-Stop.  National clearinghouse of available GIS data and data sources with web links to data and clearinghouses at the federal, tribal, regional, state, county/parish and local levels.  GIS maps and data and metadata posted and coordinated with the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), the National Map, and the Federal Geographic Data Committee.  Most GIS maps are downloadable at no cost.  Geo-spatial data can also be posted for data sharing and exchange using the NSDI.  Also available are standards for data development, data delivery, and data sharing.  NSDI contacts are generally available for each state.  
  • Uses of Maps and GIS Data for Land Use:  Land use efforts have capitalized upon GIS and map layers that have been available for 20 years with examples including the National Land Cover Map by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), soils maps by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of USDA, hydrography (surface water and streams) maps by USGS, orthophotography (aerial photos corrected for terrain and spatial location) by USGS, elevation maps (digital elevation models – DEMs) by USGS, as well as others.  Additional maps and data sources are available at the federal, tribal, regional, state, county/parish, and local levels. For more information, link to
  • National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) and contact person for each state and geospatial activities and information.

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Related Topics

Linkages between transportation and land use planning are critical to supporting many other transportation environmental topics discussed on this website.  For example:

  • context sensitive solutions approach to project development typically considers the existing and planned land use context within the study area when selecting preferred transportation strategies and designing specific projects.
  • Indirect effects and cumulative impacts of projects are largely driven by land use impacts. Coordinated transportation and land use planning at the regional (long-range plan), corridor, or project level can minimize negative impacts through the development of land use policies as well as through the selection of transportation project concepts that are consistent with land use and environmental objectives.
  • Project development/streamlining – Project proposals that result from a coordinated transportation and land use planning process, including comprehensive public and stakeholder involvement, can help to streamline the project development process by demonstrating that indirect and cumulative impacts have been considered and addressed through land use planning strategies.  Consideration of land use and environmental issues at the systems level represents an integral component of linking planning and NEPA. Evaluation and mitigation of cumulative impacts in particular is most efficiently addressed at a systems planning level.
  • Wildlife and ecosystems – Coordinated transportation and land use planning, especially at a regional or systems level, is an especially important aspect of an ecosystem-based approach to establishing goals that deliver multiple benefits for quality of life including habitat preservation and wildlife protection and sustained functioning of ecosystems. Integrated, systems level planning and efforts that establish multi-purpose goals can proceed to implement the requirements of the Clean Water Act and FHWA policy of “sequencing” as a hierarchy to first avoid adverse environmental impacts with the last resort as compensatory mitigation for unavoidable adverse impacts.  Coordination of transportation and land use planning has further importance for supporting multiple, positive outcomes in other environmental areas and for quality of life, such as the following topics on this website: air qualitywater quality/wetlandsenvironmental justicehistoric preservation, and invasive species.

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