Jul
10

Some thoughts on gentrification and transit improvements

By
Are concerns over gentrification enough to oppose the BQX?

Are concerns over gentrification enough to oppose the BQX?

As the summer heat descends upon New York City, transit news often slows down. It’s an annual tradition, one exacerbated this year by the looming Second Ave. Subway opening and a fall budget proposal that will reinforce another looming MTA fare hike, set to arrive in 2017. But in certain corners of the city, a debate over a transit proposal and its effects on neighborhoods has emerged. In a way, it’s a debate over the future of the city, and it’s a proxy for anti-development forces. But at the same time, it raises some uncomfortable questions regarding transit, gentrification and displacement.

This issue has arisen in the so-called visioning sessions New York City has held on the mayor’s Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar proposal. During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability.

Both Gothamist and amNY have explored these arguments, and for the sake of fairness, I have to note that those at these sessions have raised more compelling arguments against the streetcar, including the lack of subway connections, its location in a flood-prone area, and the overall concern with the viability of the route. It may not do what a transit line should do — that is, connect people with where they are with where they want to go — and concerns that the streetcar is a giveaway for developers and waterfront tourists rings true.

But I wanted to look at the idea that transit improvements should be opposed because they lead to gentrification. The underlying philosophy here is that areas are home to lower income residents because they are inaccessible. Accessibility increases demand, and an increase an demand means an increase in rent. Thus, to maintain a neighborhood’s “character” and avoid the forces of gentrification, areas must be kept relatively inaccessible (or, at least, accessible only by bus, which exists with the perception that the bus is for poor people only).

This doesn’t work for me. On a citywide basis, one of the challenges to affordability is transit, and it’s been one of my concerns with the mayor’s affordable housing plan. This plan simply does not have a transit component. The mayor can talk about prettying up some subway stations in East New York, but that doesn’t do a thing to decrease travel times and increase mobility. (Whether the BQX itself does that is up for debate, but on a general level, that’s what transit improvements should do.)

But opposing transit upgrades because they may lead to displacement seems to suggest that we cannot solve accessibility and affordability as improving accessibility decreases affordability. Over the years, studies have shown that transit access will be a factor in increased rents and gentrification, but transit access isn’t the only factor. It is, then, possible and necessary to implement zoning and housing policies that can tamp down on the upward pressures transit access exerts on the affordability of a neighborhood and stave off displacement. And that’s what we need to see here. If the city is going to push a streetcar funded by real estate developers who are keen on realizing property value increases, the plan must come with some anti-displacement policies that will keep neighborhoods in tact.

I don’t know where the Brooklyn-Queens Connector plan will go from here. Mayor de Blasio has had other issues on his plate in recent months, and the EDC has been forging ahead quietly. It’s not a route that many transit planners embrace even as certain advocacy groups have lined up behind it. But oppose it on its merits and not on a trumped-up charge that transit upgrades can’t occur in un-gentrified areas because of displacement. The end result of that argument leads to a dead end for increased transit usage, improved mobility and better opportunities for everyone.



28 Responses to “Some thoughts on gentrification and transit improvements”

  1. Stephen Smith says:

    In an ideal situation, transit would come with more development, which would ease pressure on the existing housing stock. That’s what happened in a way with the Dual Contracts expansion, where supply in the outer boroughs drove down the price of housing in Lower Manhattan, allowing people there to consume more of it in the form of less crowded apartments.

    Unfortunately, BQX doesn’t really add to the city’s transit capacity, and the administration is not planning to upzone any land anyway.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Yeah, any objective evaluation of BQX to me seems to require acknowledging it will probably get used, maybe heavily, with few good externalities. Plus the likelihood of a major real estate market correction….

      The biggest problem with this debate is the people who complain about it don’t complain for the right reasons. The parts of NYC that need light rail, or the bus lines that could use street-running rail on the basis of usage, aren’t being considered for it. If they were being considered, the people complaining that BQX is serving an economically healthy frontier would instead be complaining that light rail is going where there is already transit or would find nice ways to say proper transit shouldn’t be wasted on poor people.

  2. wiseinfrastructure says:

    Light rail could be great……..the surface/street level running combined with fast all door boarding saves 5 minutes into a subway station and 5 minutes out.

    The issue is to use it in the right places and right routes – this is not it and will sour people to light rail killing any future possibilities just like the old clunk el’s have made it impossible to built modern quiet JFK airtrain type structures.

    • Eric says:

      This is what is needed for light rail to work in a large city – and why the BQX won’t work.

      http://transitcenter.org/2016/.....yper-cool/

      • Bolwerk says:

        Oh come on. There are too many large cities with perfectly good street-running rail for that claim to hold up at all.

        • mister says:

          There are also many cities with poorly performing street-running rail. As noted in the link, street running rail offers very little benefit over buses.

          • Larry Littlefield says:

            That depends on ridership.

            Rail rights of way and vehicles are more expensive, but they can carry more people and last longer. So light rail beats bus when ridership gets high enough.

            Which is why the push should be for high quality BRT. If ridership gets high enough, tracks could be laid (though perhaps not in NY, where simple construction takes forever and is overpriced). And if it goes higher still, electrification could follow.

            • Bolwerk says:

              (Ever notice how if you throw a rock into a crowd of transit commentators, you’ll hit someone whose definition of “BRT” is entirely different than everyone else’s?)

              I assume you mean street-running BRT, like SelectBus, which makes perfect sense sometimes. You can tell because the BRT-or-bust people really don’t like it. But if you’re talking about building that grade-separated “high-quality BRT” that people like Walter Hook demand, you’re demanding rail construction costs and bus labor requirements. That’s insane. Skip that step.

              Also, changing modes is expensive, so pick the right one the first time. It’s not like buses have trivial acquisition costs either.

            • kevd says:

              But there already ARE bus lines with ridership that would justify upgrading to LRT.

          • Bolwerk says:

            So what? Any mode can be screwed up, and probably none is abused more than buses. Kvetch as people do about mixed-traffic rail, and I even agree with some of the kvetching, having a grip on reality requires acknowledging that buses actually probably suffer more in mixed traffic than rail does. Reflectively dismissing a project because it will have some street-running segments is just absurdly myopic.

            • kevd says:

              even in paris’s very good system there are some street running sections.
              But the fewer, the better.
              especially with NY’s horrible, narcissistic, sociopathic drivers.

            • mister says:

              Buses suffer more in mixed traffic than rail would? Any numbers to back that up? At the very least, a bus can seamlessly go around obstructions; a streetcar or mixed traffic light rail vehicle cannot.

              I don’t think anyone has suggested that this specific project be dismissed outright just because it has “some” street running segments. However, the fact that it will operate along a corridor that doesn’t generate much bus ridership (meaning larger vehicles will need to operate at a longer headway) and will not be much faster than the bus it replaces (and slower than a nearby heavy rail line) are two solid reasons that when considered with the cost of the line make this project seem unnecessary.

              I wouldn’t be opposed to other street running light rail projects, but even then the most crowded portions of the corridor need to have their own, protected travel lane as a bare minimum.

              • Bolwerk says:

                Beyond anecdotes like Philly, not reliably. That’s why I said probably. The closest things I’ve seen to experiments on the topic involved bustitutions of rail services. Buses did indeed perform more poorly in terms of OTP, but there could be any number of reasons for that (e.g., confused drivers, confused passengers, unusual crowding).

                That notion that buses move “seamlessly” around obstacles may be part of the problem though. Buses are long and bulky, and quite bad at dealing with obstacles or even turns. But if drivers assume buses handle obstacles similar well to private autos, they may be less deferential to buses?

                I don’t think anyone has suggested that this specific project be dismissed outright just because it has “some” street running segments.

                Ahem?

                AFAIK, BQX is not replacing anything and no bus line is changing because of BQX at this point. But maybe the B61 and B62 could go?

                • mister says:

                  For sure, a bus is not nearly as nimble as a car, or even a heavy duty pickup. MTA doesn’t allow buses to drive in reverse out on the road without some sort of spotter either, so there’s that. But a bus CAN go around a double parked car, can be easily diverted on short notice to another street, and can be routed around an accident. At the very least, it’s a nuisance problem.

                  In the post made by Eric, he linked to a TransitCenter article that listed 5 things that a successful street car line had to do. On all 5 counts, the BQX is either not meeting the requirement (Seamless connections, not charging more, avoiding traffic) or looks like it will not measure up (being part of a bigger street redesign, running at a high frequency).

                  As of right now, the BQX isn’t replacing any bus routes, which points to the question of where the ridership will come from. If these buses are still going to exist to shuttle people to nearby heavy rail lines, what exactly is the point of this streetcar?

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    If you ask me, if planners are including “going around obstacles” in their design schema, we’ve already lost the good transit race. In cases where transit, buses or trams, deal well with mixed traffic, it’s because the mixed traffic is manageable for them. You put buses in unmanageable mixed traffic when you have demand for transit and don’t care about riders’ needs, time, or comfort – probably because they’re too poor to afford anything better than the one option they’re given. When those are your conditions, who cares if trams would be worse? Both suck.

                    As for TransitCenter, I don’t know if I’d get wound up about them. Any of those things can be good, usually are good even, but almost none of them are universally necessary. You don’t need a street design to justify rail on the M15, even if it would be nice. The demand on the M15 is high enough where rail would probably be cheaper (at least at sane first world prices). I don’t necessarily like the idea, but charging riders extra can be justified for demand management.

                    • mister says:

                      I don’t think I was advocating that transit planning should assume that cars will double park in front of the vehicles. The point was that the specific claim that buses suffer more in mixed traffic than trams was not really true.

                      TransitCenter’s study is pointing out what goes into the most successful light rail systems. I didn’t say that EVERY component of the proposal needs to be implemented for a successful system, but certainly, a street redesign on 2nd avenue would make for a much more successful system for a Second Avenue Tram. If you were to simply lay rails on 2nd avenue and change the buses to trams… what would be the point? Operating costs could go down, wait times would go up, a huge capital burden would be placed on the system, and travel times would likely be the same as they are now. Why would we do this?

      • Ralfff says:

        It “won’t work” because it’s not solving any problem. The problem is organizational; i.e. the state and the MTA’s inability or unwillingness to react quickly enough to increased demand in various places, and the city’s inability or unwillingness to give buses greater priority in general, and also to enforce traffic laws. The funding mechanism for this is a supposed rise in property value that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, which is an implicit admission that it’s cargo cult urbanism as dictated by developers.

        More broadly for light rail; I don’t know why anyone’s even talking about it when we cannot get buses rerouted and sped up at a reasonable pace, much less subways. This is no different than the ferry people throwing up their hands and whining that we cannot build the same technology that was done efficiently and quickly over 100 years ago and so we have to settle for ferries forever. Fix the actual problem: the governance.

    • mister says:

      5 minutes to get into or our of a subway station? Where? It doesn’t take me anywhere near that to get into York St in the morning, when traffic is relatively light, or out of it, when traffic is heavier. And this is a deep station with one, crowded, point of access.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    The issue with these improvements is always opportunity cost — what you can’t do if you do this. Something people are beginning to think about in NY as the MTA goes broke as a result of Generation Greed.

    As for gentrification, are you sure it is happening, net? In some neighborhoods, the new neighbors are richer than the people who lived there before. In others, the more common pattern of the new neighbors being poorer than those who lived there before still holds. As it is, the city’s poverty rate is actually up from the 1970s.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/poverty-anywhere-leads-to-poverty-in-new-york-city/

    It is true that more New Yorkers are working, rather than relying on government support or crime for income. Is that the problem? Or do gentrification opponents propose neighborhoods should either become poorer as more poor people move in, or stay the same, and that the city as a whole should become poorer? Or are they not sure what they want?

    I say they are not sure what they want. They want more and more places for poorer people in New York City, but less poverty.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Not sure any of western Brooklyn counts as doing the opposite of gentrifying.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        Nope. In a reverse of the 1950s through the 1970s, areas closer in are getting more affluent, and those further out are getting less affluent. Net zero, or close to it, on citywide poverty and median household income relative to the U.S. average.

    • AG says:

      A note on poverty… Since the mid 2000’s poverty is increasing faster in the far out suburbs (the closer ones remain places for the rich)… For the whole country as a whole – the middle class is shrinking. The rich are growing and the poor are growing as a share.

  4. tacony says:

    Poor people need transit much more than rich people need it. This is a fact some bizarre activists just can’t get through their heads despite all the evidence. People have been prematurely predicting the end of commuting and the end of cities because telecommuting and the Internet would supposedly mean we could just live in a cabin in the woods and Skype into a meeting and say goodbye to the office in the big bad city. What they forgot was that most people don’t work in an office. Despite our new knowledge-based economy, most people aren’t knowledge-based workers, at least not directly. The other half of the economy is based on service, healthcare, education, and other jobs for which showing up in person is required, and if you don’t show up you don’t get paid. Wealthy workers can “work from home” when their kid is sick or during a blizzard. Poor workers cannot. That’s why transit access disproportionately benefits the poor, especially in New York where there are so many transit-accessible jobs.

    And if you’re opposing transit improvements to stave off gentrification, why stop at opposing transit improvements? Isn’t the same true for all neighborhood improvements? Anything that would make a neighborhood a worse place to live would increase housing affordability, right? Why not reduce trash pickup, stop fixing street lights, stop repaving streets? Anything to bring rents down. It becomes evident that anti-transit arguments for the sake of gentrification concerns are just anti-transit.

  5. AG says:

    Yeah it’s a pretty dumb argument that there shouldn’t be good transit access because it will cause gentrification. Riverdale doesn’t have good transit – neither does Country Club/Silver Beach/Locust Point. Those are upper middle class areas of The Bronx. The poorest areas – Mott Haven/Melrose/Longwood have very good transit access. Poor areas of the city became poor for different reasons… They are becoming gentrified for different reasons as well.

    That said – I think the BQX light rail is a waste of energy right now. Triboro RX is a much more deserving project.

  6. Manuel says:

    This plan is so stupid it won’t connect to any subway and your most Likey gonna have to pay $3 to be stuck in traffic along with everyone else

  7. johndmuller says:

    Gentrification is nowhere near as simple a thing as the demagogues would have you believe. First of all, it is nowhere near as sure a thing as your would be real estate agent will tell you. If it were such a sure thing the ‘real estate interests’ who are said to be pushing the streetcar wouldn’t have to bother trying to talk the city into doing anything, because it would just be happening automatically. They want somebody (else) to ante up the streetcar money to help the gentrification happen – why not, maybe they will build it and probably it will help gentrify things; hard to imagine a brand new streetcar pushing the values down. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that nothing substantive will change and that things will just go on more or less as before.

    Gentrification is not bad for everyone. If it happens, a lot of things will be better than they were before – there will be less crime, fewer abandoned buildings, many things will look nicer, smell nicer (the garbage will be picked up better) and even be nicer. There’s a lot to be said for good things happening in the neighborhood.

    Some people will get screwed. The local stores might go more upscale, but that isn’t that big a deal. The people who are renting and whose landlords can (and do) raise their rent are the big losers; they will quite likely have to find another place to live and they may be unable to find a satisfactory substitute for their current situation. Many of these people were content to spend the rest of their lives there (and had hopes of their children continuing on as well) and will find the disruption in their lives to be a major disaster. Do not underestimate this negative factor; it is a big deal.

    The same sort of thing thing can happen to a business – your landlord might raise the rent more than you can afford or just not renew your lease – your business might cater to those people who are going to have to move and may not thrive in more upscale environments. OTOH, you might own your property or have a business which will benefit from gentrification.

    Most people will have a mixed bag of impacts. If you are a property owner, your property will be worth more; that’s mostly good news, but if your taxes go up and you are on a small fixed income, you might still get screwed and have to move, although at least you can sell your house at a good price and maybe do even better somewhere else. Otherwise, you’ve just gotten an economic promotion, congratulations.

    If you are a renter with some sort of rent control protection you may experience bad behavior by your landlord trying to get you to move, but otherwise you are at least enjoying the benefits of the new environment. Perhaps the landlord will offer you a really good bribe to move?

    The new neighbors may not be to your liking – probably not, if you liked the old ones – and they might not like you either, perhaps even hassle you over annoying little things (or get you arrested if your annoying little things are illegal). Chances are it will be a bit uncomfortable (but probably more so for them at first). This can be sad, especially if the old neighborhood had a lot of charm,\; life’s a b___, but no matter what it’s better than if instead of things getting better they were going to hell in the proverbial handbasket

  8. Wanderer says:

    I’ve heard it said that streetcars in particular spur gentrification, because 1. they signal that the city is going to make further investments in an area; 2. they are esthetically appealing to upwardly mobile types. The H Street streetcar in Washington has been especially criticized in this regard. Any thoughts on that idea?

  9. Nathanael says:

    Opposition to “gentrification” is ridiculous: it amounts to a call to make your own neighborhood unpleasant so that rich people will stay away from it. Huh?

    Now, I can understand a desire to force the rich people who move in to accept and deal with the culture of the neighborhood you already have. But that’s different.

    And I understand not wanting to be priced out. The key to that, however, has nothing to do with “gentrification” and everything to do with public housing policy.

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