Are Transit Improvements Leaving Some People Behind?

22 May

Denver is currently undergoing a massive expansion of its transportation infrastructure. The region’s “FasTracks” Program is set to add 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit.

Communities throughout the Denver region are hoping that new rail lines will encourage a slew of mixed-use, transit-oriented development around the new stations. While this is often touted as a means to revitalize our urban centers and make cities more sustainable, there is often little thought given to who accrues the benefits of upgraded transportation infrastructure.

Are these investments being made in an equitable manner? Are segments of the population that would benefit most from better, more frequent transit service being well-served by planned improvements?

Current research already shows that “transit investment can sometimes lead to undesirable forms of neighborhood change,” including displacement and gentrification.

In Denver, a coalition of private, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders (known as “Mile High Connects”) have joined efforts to examine the implications of the new transit system. Their analysis focuses on how the new transportation investments serve the needs of all Denver residents, including low-income communities where there are more transit-dependent riders.

The Denver Regional Equity Atlas [PDF] is an ambitious plan that visually depicts demographics, housing, health, jobs and education around current and planned rail stations. The Atlas identifies areas of opportunity and challenges for those communities near transit.

The Natural Resources Defense Council staff blog gives a good rundown of the study’s key findings, including:

“Many planned transit lines will traverse low-income neighborhoods, better connecting them to opportunity but also potentially disrupting them as demand for housing near transit grows beyond the supply and puts pressure on housing costs.

Affordable housing is available in more places than people realize, but the majority of it is not near transit.  As a result, preservation and creation of affordable housing opportunities near transit stations is critical.

Healthy food options are limited along many transit corridors.”

The Atlas is already receiving praise for its innovative use of GIS mapping and its potential for serving as a model for equitable transit oriented development. Other cities are taking note.

Reconnecting America, one of the Mile High Connects’ partners, has recently begun work implementing transit projects in Minnesota, the San Francisco Bay Area, and in New York City [PDF].

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