Much of the conversation around gentrification essentially blames the people moving into urban neighborhoods. This feeling—that anyone who might be described as a gentrifier is doing something wrong—has even spilled into popular culture. …
But a comprehensive review of gentrification research by researchers at the University of California Berkeley and UCLA, published by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, helps us better understand the real underlying drivers of gentrification. While the location choices of advantaged groups provide its immediate impetus, gentrification—and the actions of these very groups—is also shaped by large-scale government policies and public investments.
Gentrification and Transit
The largest, most important, and most obvious example is transit—subways, light-rail, buses, and other forms of urban mass transit—which the study dubs “transit-induced gentrification.” It is no secret that affluent people in large, dense, congested metros are drawn to transit hubs. Numerous studies have examined the clustering of advantaged groups and neighborhood transformation taking place along subway lines, cable cars, light rail stations, and along rail lines out to the older suburbs surrounding large cities. Reviewing a large body of research on the effect of rail transit on property values, the San Francisco Fed study does find evidence of a small to modest premium for properties located near rail stations.
My own research has found a connection between gentrification and transit within cities and across metros. And my University of Toronto colleague David Hulchanski has documented the clustering of affluent groups along Toronto’s main subway and cable car lines as the city has become increasingly divided between affluent areas along transit routes and in the core, and less advantaged areas, which are being pushed yet further to the periphery. Back in July, I wrote about a recent study of New York City, which found that, while more affluent groups have increasingly clustered around subway stops in both Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, the role of transit is bound up with other structural factors, contributing to an influx of more advantaged people into these areas.
The Fed study suggests that there are two reasons why transit is connected to gentrification. On the demand side, transit allows more privileged groups—especially in dense, congested cities and metros—to trade arduous car commutes for transit. By giving up their cars, these affluent residents can devote more money to housing, which drives up its cost in these accessible neighborhoods. On the supply side, investment in transit—especially substantial investment in new or refurbished transit lines—signals a large-scale commitment to neighborhood upgrading, which attracts more affluent new residents and also drives up property values. …
The reality is that the revitalization of our cities and the very structure of urban areas have long been shaped by massive public investments. These are choices made by local and federal officials, business interests, and other advantaged stakeholders who constitute the urban growth coalitions that have long shaped investment in cities. The location decisions of gentrifiers are shaped by this broader context.