Uncovering JAPA

Do Light Rail Stations Spur Gentrification?

Are Light Rail Stations a gentrifying force? In "Transit-Induced Gentrification or Vice Versa?" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 1) researcher Jyothi Chava and professor John L. Renne analyze if light rail transit (LRT) determines neighborhood gentrification.

Chava and Renne situate their study between 1970 to 2010 to provide a "broader vantage point" of the slow-moving phenomena of neighborhood change pre– and post–station openings. The researchers developed a Gentrification Index using economic and demographic data from 151 LRT stations in the United States to answer two driving questions:

  1. Is there evidence of gentrification in station areas before or after LRT stations opened?
  2. Is gentrification more prevalent in station areas characterized as transit-oriented developments (TODs)?
Figure 1. Change in the percentage of Black and white residents in transit and control census tracts.

Figure 1. Change in the percentage of Black and white residents in transit and control census tracts.

Transit-oriented Development Influences Gentrification Trends

Overall, Chava and Renne find that economic and demographic variables demonstrate signs of gentrification over time in TODs across national and regional scales. The data identifies changes in racial compositions and reductions in poverty nearly a decade before LRT installation, thereby highlighting that the market's anticipation and policy efforts related to LRTs could also have anticipatory impacts on gentrification trends. For example, Figure 1 demonstrates a positive rate of change of white residents contrasting the steady decline of Black residents proximal to station areas.

To their second research question, Chava and Renne ascertain no connection between gentrification and TODs, but rather find the defined inputs of TODs (density, walkability, and mixed land uses) as statistically significant correlations in their gentrification index.

Regionally and post-LRT, the proportion of gentrifying transit census tracts increased in almost all regions (Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and San Diego). Only in St. Louis did the proportion of tracts with signs of gentrification decrease. Table 3 displays the mixed findings between development type (TOD typology) and distance from transit stations, however in nearly all cases, gentrification was higher in tracts proximal to LRT stations.

Table 3. Region-specific proportion of transit census tracks showing signs of gentrification by station area development type.

Table 3. The region-specific proportion of transit census tracks showing signs of gentrification by station area development type.

LRT's Impact on Gentrification Varies

Chava and Renne contend that the "region the station is located in serves as an important overarching factor" in determining gentrification. I concur that future research should comparatively study how the socioeconomic impacts of LRT gentrification may vary due to regional differences in historic land uses, transit patterns, and built and social environments. Is LRT a more pervasive gentrifying force in dense urban areas than sprawled suburban environments? Is inclusionary zoning that incentivizes mixed-income TOD the field's most effective strategy to curtail LRT gentrification?

This discovery brings to light a common flaw in previous research, whose more narrow timelines yielded insignificant differences in pre– and post–LRT station openings. The authors acknowledge that while LRT may cause gentrification, both gentrification and transit investments may be a result of other neighborhood factors, such as a sports stadium constructed in the decade before LRT development. In practice, this study helps identify neighborhood gentrification near LRT stations over more extended periods and can better guide planning efforts by detecting likely TOD locations that could result in gentrification.

Top Image: Jeffrey Beall/flickr.com (CC by S.A. 2.0)

About the Author
Ellie Sheild is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

March 24, 2022

By Elizabeth Sheild