UCLA and UC Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project

UCLA researchers have created an online tool to track how adding transit changes neighborhoods.

Public transit can’t cause gentrification. As Richard Florida notes, this much-discussed phenomenon is the result of a complex interaction of factors—population density, education, marital status, racial segregation, housing age, and proximity to a central business district. But studies have shown a correlation between transit access and gentrification. Adding this amenity to a neighborhood can bring on changes in the local housing market, which in turn, can price out lower-income residents. Even though these poor Americans stand to gain tremendously from living near a bus stop or train station, it’s the richer folk who can ultimately afford to pay the premium for living in these areas.

There’s arguably no better place to examine this kind of transit-adjacent gentrification than in Los Angeles, a city that’s been trying to expand and strengthen its public transit apparatus since the 1990s. And that’s precisely what researchers UCLA have done in a new map, which shows where neighborhood change is taking place in the city, and how it relates to transit.

"L.A. has historically been the city of sprawl, the city driven by car culture, but we're seeing the beginnings of an appreciation for a more dense, diverse of neighborhood,” Paul Ong, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, tells CityLab. “Those [changes bring] many positive things… We want to make sure that those changes are occurring in such a way that doesn’t place the majority of the burden on the most disadvantaged populations."

This is the second map by the Urban Displacement Project, an initiative by UCLA and University of California, Berkeley, in conjunction with the State of California’s Air Resources Board (ARB). It’s based on different datasets and has a slightly different methodology than the first one, which focused on gentrification and displacement in the San Francisco Bay area. The new L.A. map visualizes two types of spatial analyses: “upscaling” and gentrification. In the first one, researchers tracked changes in economic and demographic characteristics in all Census tracts through indicators such as levels of education and household income. The gentrification analysis, similar to one conducted by Governing magazine, focuses on changes in rental markets, racial and ethnic composition, and economic health of low-income tracts.

The result on these analyses is striking. Between 2000 and 2013, transit-heavy neighborhoods generally became costlier compared to areas with limited transit access, and its residents became whiter, richer, and more educated. These neighborhoods also saw greater losses of low-income, working class residents during this time.

In the upscaling maps (in the left window, below) the red Census tracts have seen more upscaling between 2000 and 2013. That means higher increases in income and education levels, among other things. The blue ones have only changed moderately. The maps in the right window show Census tracts that gentrified only in the 1990s (green), only since the 2000s (blue), in that whole period (red), and those low-income tracts that may gentrify in the future (yellow).

These changes are particularly stark in the downtown area, Long Beach, and Pasadena, which are now served by the city’s Metro Rail system. The researchers explain why, on the website:

“The impacts of changes vary across locations but the biggest impacts seem to be around the Downtown areas where transit-oriented development interacts with other interventions aiming to revitalize the urban form.”

Downtown L.A. has been a hotspot for gentrification and upscaling in the last two decades. (UCLA/Urban Displacement Project)
The area around Long Beach has also underwent significant gentrification, especially in the 1990s. (UCLA/Urban Displacement Project)
The neighborhoods around Pasadena have seen significant upsaling. (UCLA/Urban Displacement Project)

Of course, the link between gentrification and actual displacement is hard to suss out. Data such as the ones the Urban Displacement Project maps are based on don’t actually tell us who is moving, where to, and for what reasons. Plus, these maps are descriptive in nature—not sure-fire predictions of what will happen in these parts. Nevertheless, these visualizations help lawmakers, nonprofits, and concerned citizens see where special attention is needed to help low-income communities stay and benefit from positive transit-related changes. "When the public sector invests, it should invest in a way to ensure that the distribution of benefits are fair and equal,” Ong says.

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