Can Transit Improvements Lead to Gentrification?
By Scott Morris
East Bay Express
September 19, 2018
Photo courtesy of AC Transit
Image: A rendering of Bus Rapid Transit in downtown Oakland. Some residents worry that BRT will lead to displacement.
As neighboring cities, Berkeley and Oakland compete as two varying and vibrant areas of the Bay Area. However, beyond the unique culture and social atmosphere of each city lies a subtle, subliminal distinction in the landscapes of each respective area. Whereas skies in Berkeley remain blue, Oakland’s views become slightly clouded by the appearance of elevated BART tracks.
Since Berkeley Mayor Wallace Johnson made the decision to keep BART tracks underground in the 1960s, Berkeley has fought to keep trains out of sight with city tax initiatives. Johnson’s fears of business disruption and neighborhood discontinuity with the construction of elevated BART tracks developed into central issues that eventually plagued the city of Oakland which disregarded their social consequence.
Decades later, large-scale BART construction in West Oakland has hindered the establishment of local shops and business as well as propelled environmental concerns. As housing costs soar and the housing crisis in Oakland worsens, the struggle has become stronger.
In response, BART has approached new construction with the intent to promote public transit—but not at the cost of keeping East Bay neighborhoods prosperous. However, research into the correlation of transit improvement and transit-oriented development has led to various findings regarding maintenance of neighborhood appeal and gentrification.
At the forefront of this research stands Karen Chapple, a professor of city & regional planning at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. In partnership with researchers at UCLA, Chapple co-wrote a 400-page report studying the effects of transit improvements on gentrification for the California Air Resources Board last year.
Through continued exploration, Chapple has discovered that urban areas such as Oakland and San Francisco are more affected by gentrification with increasing transit improvement rather than less central areas such as Concord or Antioch.
“The impacts are really mixed and so it depends on where you are in the region and what the specifics are in the neighborhood context,” Chapple said.
The idea of higher density yet affordable housing with strong protections for renters to eliminate displacement near transit centers has also been proposed by Chapple.
Recently, BART construction policy in relation to denser development has received more political traction, specifically in regards to the creation of expanded housing developments and office spaces. In 2016, BART passed a policy to maintain a minimum of 20 percent affordable housing for development around new stations with the eventual goal of 35 percent throughout the system.
For Chapple, the development of transit-oriented housing stands as a reminder of the dangers of its associated gentrification.
“If we're going to spend public dollars subsidizing housing, then we've got to make sure we're putting the heavy transit users into those apartments,” Chapple said. “People are just going to live near BART, hog all that space, and then jump in the car anyway.”
Look for Chapple’s book, Transit-Oriented Displacement or Community Dividends? Understanding the Effects of Smarter Growth on Communities, on shelves next year for more of her findings and conclusions.