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A new study of New York City finds that incomes do go up with subway access, but there are other crucial factors at play.

An intriguing new study by Michael S. Barton and Joseph Gibbons published in the journal Urban Studies explores the connection between mass transit access and household income in New York. The researchers wanted to see if the conventional wisdom on transit corridors—both subways and buses—held true: the idea that rising real estate values near transit stops contributes to the displacement of low-income households.   

New York is an intriguing case to address this issue for several of reasons. It has the nation’s most extensive transit system, and a high proportion of its residents use transit to get to work. New York is also thought to have witnessed extensive displacement over the past decade, not just in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn and now even Queens as well.

At first glance, Barton and Gibbons’ study of New York suggests the expected connection between transit access and income. Take a look at the maps that chart the location of high-income households (which they abbreviate as HH), low-income households (LL), and bus and subway stops for 2000 and 2010.

Figure 1. Household income and transit 2000

Specifically, higher-income households are clustered around subway stops in Lower Manhattan and adjacent parts of Brooklyn, a pattern that grew even more pronounced by 2010. The study’s initial cross-sectional analysis unveiled close correlations between higher incomes and access to subway stops in both 2000 and 2010, which appeared to get stronger over time.

Figure 2. Household income and transit 2010

Low-income households remain clustered in neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and Upper Manhattan. Some of these neighborhoods, especially in Upper Manhattan, are well served by subways and buses as well. And in fact, via detailed statistical models that control for individual and neighborhood level characteristics such as population density, education, marital status, racial segregation, renters vs. buyers, housing age, and proximity to a central business district, the researchers ultimately found no association between public transit and changes in median income between 2000 and 2010.

Although neighborhoods with greater access to subway stops were more likely to have high incomes, this more thorough statistical analysis found that access to the subway was not responsible for the difference in income levels between 2000 and 2010. As the authors note, the “concentration of bus and subway stops was not significantly associated with changes in neighborhood median household income over time. This suggests that areas characterized by greater access to public transit were more likely to feature higher incomes at each time point, but that access to transit was not an important contributor for the growing economic divide in New York City.”

What the researchers found is that changes in neighborhood income levels were driven by factors other than transit. Neighborhoods with declining incomes were associated with more renters, greater racial diversity, and faster population growth, while neighborhoods with rising incomes were associated with influxes of college educated residents, higher rates of marriage, and locations closer to a central business district or adjacent to other high-income neighborhoods and subway stops. “This,” the authors write, “suggests the role of transit, either buses or subway, was likely secondary to other larger processes taking place in New York during this time, including the great recession.”

The authors make sure to point out several limitations to their research. Their analysis, for example, is unable to parse out a connection between transit access and other neighborhood conditions that lead to rising incomes. And they note that, regardless of the factors that influenced their location, neighborhoods with higher-income households and better transit access seem to have “pushed” lower income people “further from transit sources that would facilitate commuting to work.”

The big takeaway: Even though the study suggests that access to transit is not a main driver of displacement, transit matters a great deal to less advantaged groups. As these groups are increasingly concentrated in the more isolated areas of a city, a lack of transit access can severely impede economic opportunities. This dynamic compounds the economic divides that shape and challenge our cities.  

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