New public transit encourages gentrification, lowers ridership, study says

Extending public transportation to underserved neighborhoods encourages gentrification and actually lowers ridership, according to a Northeastern University study.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

If you were to extend the reach of public transportation to an underserved neighborhood, you would expect ridership to increase and rents to drop, right?

Wrong, according to a new study. A new report from the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University says that the result may be the complete opposite -- that is, attract a population of wealthier residents who prefer private cars to public buses and trains.

The report, which can be found here (.pdf), found that new public transit investments can, in some cases, lead to gentrification.

That means renters and low-income residents -- you know, the folks you think would ride public transportation -- get priced out of the neighborhood and, once again, away from easy access to the very system that's thought to serve them the most.

Studying 12 metropolitan areas in the United States in which one or more new commuter rail stations was opened in the course of a decade, the researchers examined changes in population growth, housing units, racial and ethnic composition, household income, housing costs, migration, public transit use and motor car ownership.

Here's what they found:

  • For 64 percent of the neighborhoods around the new rail stations in the study (that's 27 of 42 total), population grew more quickly than the rest of the metro area.
  • 55 percent of those neighborhoods showed a "dramatic" increase in housing production.
  • 62 percent of those neighborhoods showed a faster increase in owner-occupied units than the rest of the metro area.
  • 50 percent of those neighborhoods showed an increase in the proportion of non-Hispanic white households relative to the rest of the metro area. (The other half showed no change or a decrease.)
  • 62 percent of those neighborhoods showed an increase in median household income; 60 percent showed a boost in the proportion of households with incomes of more than $100,000.
  • Perhaps most tellingly, 74 percent of the neighborhoods showed rents that increased faster than the rest of the metro area. A full 88 percent had a relative boost in median housing values, too.
  • In 40 percent of the new transit neighborhoods, public transit use declined relative to the rest of the metro area.
  • In 71 percent of the neighborhoods, ownership of a vehicle increased; in 57 percent, ownership of two or more cars increased.

Despite all this, "core transit riders" are predominantly people of color or with low incomes. Transit-served metropolitan regions are currently home to over half of all African-Americans, 60 percent of all Hispanics and 70 percent of all immigrants in the United States, according to the study.

The researchers' recommendation? Planners and policymakers ought to consider the unintended consequences of neighborhood gentrification when expanding or improving public transit, since investment may not cause the change desired.

“Transit planners frequently speak of the need for transit-oriented development to support ridership, but what transit stations need is transit-oriented neighbors who will regularly use the system,” lead author Stephanie Pollack said in a statement.

The report was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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