» Census data point to uneven outcomes when it comes to orienting land use changes around transit.
For a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it looked like U.S. cities were back in the subway-building business. The federal government approved billions of dollars in aid for the construction of new networks in San Francisco, Atlanta, and — most significantly — Washington. In the nation’s capital, a world-class system was constructed, radically redefining the city’s landscape and offering its residents a fundamentally new and modern way to get around.
In many ways, Metro has proven to be an essential element of the region’s mobility system. Ridership, depending on who is counting and how they are doing it, ranges between 700,000 and 900,000 trips a day — adding up to about 340 million trips a year, when you include bus services. That’s slightly lower than initial estimates from the 1970s, which predicted 350 million annual trips in 1990, but it still makes it the nation’s second most-used rapid transit system after New York’s. And Metro’s initial phase, about 100 miles in all, was completed twenty years late — after 2000, versus 1981 as first planned.
Thus Washington’s network is relatively new: Extensions continue to open every few years; a major new line running to and beyond Dulles Airport, in fact, is in construction.
This means that many of the changes that have been hypothesized to accompany heavy rail service, like densification, may not have yet appeared. Nonetheless, in some places, such as along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington County, Virginia, significant urban redevelopment has occurred. Similarly, in cities like Charlotte, Denver, and Minneapolis, major new construction has begun after the completion of light rail lines.
Just how widespread are these effects? Have similar changes happened everywhere where new Metro stations have opened in the Washington region?
To examine this question, I have delved into recently released Census 2010 data to consider what has changed since 2000. By considering the alterations in development patterns near stations that opened about ten years ago, we can better understand what has occurred.
On first evaluation, there is no clear connection between the opening of a new station and increased construction — at least on a ten-year timeline.
Between 1997 and 2001, nine Metro stations opened, two of which were in the heart of the city on the Green Line (Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue) and the rest of which were at the termini of the Red (Glenmont), Blue (Franconia-Springfield), and Green Lines (Congress Heights, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and Branch Avenue).
Compared to their host jurisdictions, only three of the nine stations saw higher growth in adjacent Census tracts: Columbia Heights, Franconia-Springfield, and Branch Avenue. In the areas around these stations, densification was significant, promoting the theory that transit can be an effective tool for urban regeneration and growth. These changes were particularly interesting at Columbia Heights, where an already pretty dense neighborhood only became more so thanks to rapid replacement of low-lying building stock with taller buildings. Around the other two stops, largely vacant land was replaced with new construction.
Around two other stations — Georgia Avenue and Glenmont — growth was also positive, but it was slower than in Washington and Montgomery County, respectively.
Finally, four of the studied stations saw a decrease in population in the surrounding Census tracts. Each station is on the southeastern branch of the Green Line, which runs through arguably the region’s weakest area from an economic perspective. The presence of transit did not appear to be of any help here: Though Washington and Prince George’s County saw population growth between 2000 and 2010, the specific neighborhoods around these stations did not.
Changes appear to be quite context-dependent. The population of the area around the Columbia Heights station expanded significantly, likely not only because of the presence of Metro, but also because of a growing interest in living in urban cores being experienced nationwide. On the other hand, the poor attractiveness of Prince George’s County, just east of the District of Columbia, likely reduced developer interest in building around stations there.
This analysis indicates that the presence of a transit station cannot provide alone for the kind of urban redevelopment planners often hope to produce when they allocate funds to new rail lines. This does not mean that the opening of the new Metro stations was not an important element of regional growth in Washington, but rather that that infrastructure in itself is not enough to encourage developer interest. In the case of many of these stations, land was not available, zoning was not free enough, and the neighborhoods were not attractive enough to see substantial change, at least over the past ten years.
Transit systems like the Washington Metro are very expensive to construct, so public authorities must make a greater effort to coordinate planning efforts to allow for the creation of more transit-oriented districts to take advantage of such investments.
I would like to note several important caveats: The use of Census tract data in this analysis was meant to provide a neighborhood-level glimpse into development changes. Residents (or potential residents) are likely to see Metro stations as assets, even if their homes are not in immediate proximity. Yet development changes are likely to be unusually affected by that proximity: It may be useful to reconsider these questions at the block level. It is possible, for instance, that the areas directly adjacent to the southeast Green Line stations did see growth, even when surrounding neighborhoods did not.
Image above: A Washington Metro station, from Flickr user Matt Blasi Designs (cc)