Special Report: Light Rail

The Impact of Light Rail Transit on Low-Income Households and Neighbourhoods

Research indicates that new LRT lines can improve access to jobs, increase sense of attachment to a neighbourhood, and even reduce obesity rates. These are all highly relevant to low-income households.

By Sarah V. Wayland
Published October 12, 2011

Research on public transit points to economic, environmental, and personal benefits, especially for low income people unable to afford private transportation. Much less has been written about the impact of specific types of public transit such as light rail transit (LRT).

In light of recent public discussion, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction has commissioned this briefing paper to examine existing knowledge about this type of public transit and its impact on lower-income households and neighbourhoods. How would creation of LRT impact low income households within close proximity to LRT lines?

Based on a search of scholarly literature and publicly-available research on urban or light rail transit, a small body of articles was found that focus on the economic impact of LRT, including the stimulation of development in the city centre, the stimulation of development in declining areas, and changes in urban development patterns. Only a handful of studies focus on the economic impact on the populations living near LRT.

Much of the literature on LRT focuses on regional lines and suburban-urban commuter lines. In contrast, the proposed B line in Hamilton is strictly urban, running approximately 10 km across existing residential and commercial areas.

Given the vastly disparate settings in which LRT has been developed, it is difficult to compare impacts of LRT on urban environment and residents. Keeping this caveat in mind, below are some research results, with place and type of research described.

Widely-reported findings

LRT is said to increase connectivity of riders, particularly when coordinated with bus and other forms of public transit. The City of Hamilton literature states: “LRT will connect Hamilton’s priority neighbourhoods to more employment, educational, healthcare, recreational and cultural opportunities.”

LRT attracts transit-oriented development, including housing, retail, and other commercial development. Because it is of a more permanent nature, LRT spurs investment along rail lines in a way that buses do not.

Such development often creates more accessible, mixed-use communities that benefit non-drivers.

Rail-based transit attracts new riders, especially higher income individuals who would not otherwise use transit. Thus, rail serves a broader population, including but not limited to low income riders.

This increased ridership can have a positive impact on existing transit users: the growth of rail transit systems can lead to increased demand for bus services, and increasing funding for services as well.

LRT is quiet, energy-efficient, has greater carrying capacity than buses, and it can be powered using renewable energy sources. By taking cars off the road, it reduces air pollution, congestion, and greenhouse gas production.

Access to labour

Proximity to light rail stations increases accessibility to employment for working families.

In a study of the Hiawatha LRT Line in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, proximity to light rail stations and bus stops offering direct rail connections are associated with large, statistically significant gains in accessibility to low-wage jobs. These gains stand out from changes in accessibility for the transit system as a whole.

After light-rail construction, low-wage workers are locating near station areas. The number of low-wage jobs also increased near station areas. These previously underserved areas of the Twin Cities have benefited from frequent, all-day transit service. 1

Case studies of 25 Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) projects were conducted to show how TOD helped enhance the well-being of working families by providing for increased transit access, good jobs, and affordable housing to low- and moderate-income people, including many who cannot afford to own a car.

Incentive concepts can encourage location-efficient development; for example, not providing subsidies to employers unless jobs are transit-accessible and within a reasonable commuting distance from affordable housing. 2

Health and well-being

Light rail transit users report higher levels of neighbourhood satisfaction and have lower obesity rates than non-users.

A qualitative study in an inner-city, revitalizing neighbourhood Salt Lake City found study participants who used a new light rail stop reported higher "place attachment" and greater "neighbourhood satisfaction" than did non-riders, suggesting that the transit stop improved their feelings about their community.

Those who did not use the new transit stop at all were substantially more likely to be obese and to take more car trips than either new riders or existing riders. 3

“For a given particular group or neighbourhood, smart growth policies that improve walkability and land use mix probably increase overall community cohesion, all else being equal. Practices that decrease time spent driving and increase pedestrian activity, social interactions and commercial activity in a neighbourhood can probably also increase social capital.” 4

Property values

Proximity to transit often increases residential property values overall, though there can exist a “nuisance effect” of declining values on property that are too close to a rail line or station.

A review of more than 100 studies concerning the impacts transit service has on nearby property values found that proximity to transit often increases property values enough to offset some or all of transit system capital costs. 5

A multi-city and multi-study review conducted by PriceWaterhouse Coopers in 2001 found that residential properties near a station see a positive premium of 0-5% following the arrival of a transit system. The premium is highest for those properties located between 1⁄4-1 mile from a station.

However, for residential properties along segments between stations there is a potential negative valuation of 5-10%. Thus, some property owners benefit from a public transit project while others will not. 6

A comparison of the actual LRT corridor with two others that were ultimately not selected in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2000 found that LRT provided a neighbourhood increase of 4.0% for single-family properties and 11.3% for condominiums sold within 1 mile of LRT stations.

The article looked strictly at property values, noting that other benefits such as reduced pollution, attraction of employers, reduced congestion were not captured in his numbers.

The author went on to state: “cities may be using public investment in LRT to target neighborhoods for residential and commercial redevelopment. This effect may even outweigh any potential benefits of LRT as a transportation improvement in cities with lower density land use such as Charlotte, NC.” 7

Dislocation and inequality

If not mediated by inclusive transit-oriented development policies and plans, the cumulative effect of increased property values along LRT lines may gradually displace poorer populations.

A comparison of 1981 to 2006 census tracts where Vancouver SkyTrain stations are located found “a rising disparity of income levels between wealthier and poorer residents [and] ... an increasing level of high educational achievement of residents and a relative decline of less-educated residents in comparison to Vancouver CMA’s trends.”

Over time, wealthier residents moved to areas once home to lower-earning, less-educated occupants. 8

In Vancouver, neighbourhood change came about due to the building of relatively expensive new housing near transit stations. The displacement of the working poor, students, and low income seniors likely reduced their ability to access transit.

The city did try to create some equity for lower-income residents through affordable housing requirements, but this was only a small proportion of total development. 9

Urban revitalization

Addition of LRT can be an important component of an economic development strategy for a region, city, or neighbourhood.

LRT can reinforce positive economic trends, but a rail transit system alone does not create development. 10

Similarly, LRT cannot reverse the economic decline of an area. An oft-cited case of this phenomenon is the Buffalo Light Rail Rapid Transit in New York: the transit system did not create the anticipated development needed to revitalize Buffalo’s city centre and reverse its population drain. 11

Discussion and recommendations for social inclusion

Research indicates that new LRT lines can improve access to jobs, increase sense of attachment to a neighbourhood, and even reduce obesity rates. These are all highly relevant to low-income households.

Understanding the impact of LRT on property values is more complicated in that research results depend on neighbourhood characteristics and the length of time studied. Research of census tracts along the SkyTrain route in Vancouver looked at change over 25 years period during which the city had enormous population growth and development overall, whereas shorter-term studies found modest increases in housing prices brought on by LRT.

As Hamilton considers building LRT, decision-makers can use research findings to inform the planning that promotes social inclusion. These should include:


1. Fan, Yingling, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, Impact of Light Rail Implementation on Labor Market Accessibility: A Transportation Equity Perspective. Presented at the 90th Annual Transportation Research Board Conference, January 23-27, 2011. 11-2765. Journal of Transport and Land Use (in press), also Understanding the Impacts of Transitways: How Light-Rail Transit Improves Job Access for Low-Wage Workers, A Transitway Impacts Research Program (TIRP) Research Brief (University of Minnesota, Center for Transportation Studies, 2010). http://www.cts.umn.edu/Research/Featured/Transitways/documents/lowincome.pdf

2. Good Jobs First, Making the Connection: Transit-Oriented Development and Jobs (2006). http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/sites/default/files/docs/pdf/makingtheconnection.pdf

3. Barbara B. Brown and Carol M. Werner, Before and After a New Light Rail Stop: Resident Attitudes, Travel Behavior, and Obesity. Journal of the American Planning Association 75, 1 (Winter 2009), pp. 5- 12. http://www.scag.ca.gov/pptac/pdfs/other/JAPA_LRT.pdf

4. Lawrence Frank, Sarah Kavage and Todd Litman, Promoting public health through Smart Growth: Building healthier communities through transportation and land use policies and practices (Victoria: SmartGrowth BC), p.35. http://www.vtpi.org/sgbc_health.pdf

5. Jeffery J. Smith and Thomas A. Gihring with Todd Litman, Financing Transit Systems Through Value Capture: An Annotated Bibliography (Victoria: Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 9 May 2011). http://www.vtpi.org/smith.pdf

6. Lee Cockerill and Denise Stanley, Institute of Economic and Environmental Studies California State University-Fullerton, How will the Centerline affect Property Values in Orange County? October 28, 2002. http://playingwithpolitics.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/csu-f-study-on-oc-lrt.pdf

7. Stephen B. Billings, Estimating the Value of a New Transit Option, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Article in Press (2011). http://clas-pages.uncc.edu/stephenbillings/files/2011/06/PropertyValuesLRTFinalRSUE.pdf

8. Nicole M. Foth, Long-Term Change Around SkyTrain Stations in Vancouver, Canada: A Demographic Shift-Share Analysis, The Geographical Bulletin, 51 (2010), pp. 37-52. http://www.gammathetaupsilon.org/the-geographical-bulletin/2010s/volume51-1/article3.pdf

9. Foth, 2010, p. 48.

10. D. Banister and J. Berechman, Transport Investment and Economic Development (London: UCL Press, 2000).

11. D.B. Hess and T.M. Almeida, Impact of Proximity to Light Rail Rapid Transit on Station-area Property Values in Buffalo, New York. Urban Studies, 44(2007): 1041-1068.

This report was first published on the website of the Hamilton Poverty Roundtable.

Sarah Wayland is a Hamiltonian, mother, and part-time civil servant. She moved to Canada to marry her husband John, whom she met at the University of Maryland while pursuing a PhD in political science.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 12, 2011 at 22:42:07

I appreciate the balanced shown in this article. It's important to differentiate between "improvements" brought about by LRT itself, and statistical improvements brought about by the replacement of poor populations with wealthier ones. Wealtheir individuals show huge differences in factors like health, employment and education - bringing in more well off people will cause and immediate local improvement, but on a larger scale it's a zero-sum-game. Those wealthy individuals must come from somewhere, and that place will be less wealthy as a result. Likewise, those poor people must go somewhere, and that place will inherit all the social problems which come with them.

The question is: how do we make sure the benefits are shared, and increase the general well-being, rather than just shuffling around the well-being which currently exists? LRT can be a very potent instrument here, but only if we see beyond property values and development potential.

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 00:14:02

...buffalo also closed off a huge portion of its main street to car traffic. not to mention the majority of their line is underground.

their LRT was was built solely for creating jobs. Since that project was ill planned in the 80s, it ran the city into debt, and later failed to connect the outer suburbs to the core (as was planned). this created even more economic disparity and racial segregation. but buffalo's municipal government now has plans to reopen their main street to car traffic in the near future.

hamilton's plan for lrt is in the right direction in that it avoids all the missteps cities like buffalo took. it's matters of funding that seems to scare people off, which is understandable. just think, with LRT we aren't going to be digging underground anytime soon. that's a major $ saver right there.

Comment edited by mike_sak on 2011-10-13 00:19:55

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 13, 2011 at 13:58:45 in reply to Comment 70522

To be fair, we're looking at the possibility of the same failures - closing King St. through the International Village, and there's no guarantee we won't get the B-line university-to-eastgate and stop there (again, not connecting up to the Mountain suburbs).

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By Dadeo (anonymous) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 07:43:00

Call me when LRT can bring us World Peace.

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 10:38:33 in reply to Comment 70523

well read the articles. LRT does bring peace, in that people of all classes are more likely to mix when using such systems.

Comment edited by mike_sak on 2011-10-13 11:13:32

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 20:49:48 in reply to Comment 70530

When different classes of people mix, peace is created? Really?

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By z jones (registered) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 21:02:26 in reply to Comment 70554

It's sure better than when different classes are segregated in ghettoes and gated communities.

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By RB (registered) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 11:20:41

Great, well-balanced article.

It's really nice to read something without an obvious slant to it; good work, Sarah!

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 15:12:49

I think this is a great article, but some of the comments about the benefits of LRT confuse me. It's anticipated that an LRT line across the city will help build prosperity and promote investment, but some people want us to keep the "poorer" parts of town... "poor"? By making our city properous we would somehow be exporting our social issues to other cities. This assumes a zero sum gain where poor will always be poor. LRT's vision opens up the city, which with investment creates more jobs, which changes the equation. Is it just me or are some arguments actually asking to maintain status quo like it's in everyone's best interest?

Edit - I'm not focussed on any one reply here - it's just a reoccurring argument that keeps appearing on different sites and I don't understand it.

Comment edited by GrapeApe on 2011-10-13 15:14:53

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted October 13, 2011 at 15:31:54

Sarah, you and Undustrial both raise great points - will the presence of LRT help to 'raise the tide' as it were, or will it just involve a reshuffling of rich and poor, as Undustrial suggests.

This debate also begs the question - isn't that a lot of weight to put on what is essentially a people moving system? I know much of the discussion around LRT has been on the development and intensification benefit - but in the process we seem to be losing sight of the fact that LRT is an incredibly environmentally friendly, low fossil-fuel, cost effective way of moving a large number of people.

In an age when the main thing we need to build, ship, and run our personal vehicles is becoming increasingly scarce, isn't the idea of efficient, comfortable mass transit just as important as it was back in the original days of HSR when fewer people had cars for an entirely different reason?

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By Laura, Advocacy Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted October 13, 2011 at 22:36:38

I think, if done correctly, the development could provide local jobs around the developed node. Part of that planning must involve speaking to potential businesses and promoting local employment. It's been done in other development situations. Regent Park in Toronto comes to mind. The new supermarket employs those in Regent Park first. If employed they can keep their existing housing (ie afford it). That along with affordable housing mandates are key to not just gentrifying an area but raising the whole community up.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2011 at 21:16:52

The problem with poverty is that the wealth from general economic prosperity isn't shared. There's no doubt that the total amount of wealth in society is not a zero-sum game (unless you start also measuring externalities...), but just because there's more money out there doesn't mean everyone gets more. While profits and productivity have been growing for decades, wages have not when adjusted for inflation or as a share of the GDP. When one looks at the charts, wealth hasn't really trickled down in any significant way since before Reagan took office.


Again, I must echo what so many have said - what's needed is a broader economic policy. LRT clearly can't solve this issue alone, but also won't necessarily make it worse. Automobiles definitely aren't an accessible mode of transportation, so lets not dismiss alternatives too quickly.

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