New Light Rail Stations May Not Increase Transit Ridership

A report (pdf) by the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found that new rail stations and transit-oriented development often fail to increase transit ridership.

New stations can sometimes lead to gentrification that prices out renters and low-income households. Since such households are core users of transit services, the new station may have the perverse effect of actually causing local ridership to decrease.

The study did not look at system-wide effects of such stations; I would expect new stations to lead to an increase in system-wide ridership over time, since the displaced renters and low-income households will most likely continue using transit in their new neighborhood, and many of the new higher-income residents will use transit for some trips that they would not have before they lived in a neighborhood with easily accessible transit.

Here are some highlights from the report compiled by Andrew Nusca at SmartPlanet:

* 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.

The report was published with a “Toolkit for Equitable Neighborhood Change in Transit Rich Neighborhoods” with several sensible suggestions for moderating the adverse effects (mainly on renters and low income households) of a new rail transit station, mostly related to planning and zoning.

Of course, a transit agency primarily concerned about increasing ridership and equity at the same time might simply consider adding more and better bus service in a neighborhood, something which can be done at much lower cost than adding a new rail station. In my mind, the ideal option would be to do some of both, with new rail stations complemented by frequent bus routes that bring riders to the station from surrounding areas.

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1 Comment

  1. Joy Hughes said

    This is fascinating… Just like adding new lanes to a freeway causes more development and bigger jams. Or adding transmission lines might concentrate solar development in places with the highest average sun… which then all get shaded at once.

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