DC Townhomes

Neighborhood change near local rail service: demographic analysis in four US regions and recommendations for practice

Louise Veneble Coker Award for best Master’s project in area of housing and community development

Chris Bendix

Local rail transit infrastructure benefits people and communities by providing an alternate method for navigating congested roads, channeling growth around transit hubs, and allowing mobility for individuals without private vehicles in auto-dependent areas. Literature on the subject finds general agreement that local rail services serve as a tool for connecting communities and are associated with land and property value increases around the area. However, most US studies have not taken into account recent trends in infill development, thus it is difficult to analyze changes in land use and property values stemming from the impact of transit proximity. Furthermore, while local rail services offer positive attraction to the nearby area, rising property values and subsequent rent hikes may put significant pressure on low and moderate income renters and result in these individuals phasing out of the region.

Do demographic shifts exist in neighborhoods near local rail stations? If so, do certain groups benefit at the expense of others? Bendix looks at four different areas in which new local rail lines have been opened and/or expanded in the last decade: Los Angeles (Expo Line; passing through Los Angeles, Culver City, and Santa Monica), Twin Cities (Green Line; passing through Minneapolis and St. Paul), Denver (W Line; passing through Denver, Lakewood, and Golden), and Seattle (Ulink Light Rail; passing through Seattle, Tukwila, and SeaTac). Using half-mile radii as ‘station areas,’ Bendix measures changes in demographics (including racial background, median home value, median income, median gross rent, and population density) through census data from 1990 and 2000 combined with ACS baseline data from 2011 to 2015.

Compiled findings from the case studies above show that increases in median gross rent for areas near local rail stations are disproportionately high when compared to increases for areas outside half-mile station area radii (14% vs. 11% in 1990s; 26% vs. 15% between 2000 and 2015), with some increases surpassing the municipal average. Rising property values and rents allow for more real estate investment, which in turn broadens the tax base, with local governments being able to offer more services. However, low and middle income households suffer, and it becomes difficult to compare the cost of using nearby public transport and living in a high-rent area versus relinquishing this proximity and owning a private vehicle instead. As expected, individuals who would benefit most from local rail services may not be able to afford it, and residents near rail stations are replaced by those who can afford the increasing prices. Hispanic populations in particular show a trend of moving away from local rail areas to be replaced by White only households, which merits serious attention.

Understanding the reasons for and what benefits may stem from carrying out a local rail project beforehand ensures that concerns and needs are properly addressed and handled. Station area plans should be formalized and adopted before a transit line opens so that goals are aligned for developers and residents alike. Forming multi-agency partnerships (housing agencies, non-profit/for-profit developers, transit providers, land use/zoning planners, residents, etc.) may also prove to be beneficial so that long-term relationships can form between various agencies for continuous efficiency in the future. Lastly, proper attention should be given to familiarizing residents and including them in planning efforts, with an emphasis on reducing displacement risk, ensuring affordability, and understanding the community’s needs and wants.

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