Metrorail Growth and ‘Gentrification’ Use

This post is third in a series on gentrification in the District of Columbia.
Part 1 – D.C. Gentrification and Section 8 Subsidized Housing
Part 2 – ‘Gentrification’: The Birth of a Word in D.C.
Part 3 – Metrorail Growth and ‘Gentrification’ Use
Part 4 – Neighborhood Revitalization and Displacement

In my previous post I described the early uses of the word “gentrification” in the Washington Post. While I believe a careful study would be needed to pin down the exact scope and character of revitalization in the city, it is clear from the newspaper evidence starting in the late 1970s the city has experienced a sustained trend of residential revitalization in a variety of neighborhoods.

It occurs to me the American cities which have experienced the most extensive “gentrification” or neighborhood revitalization since the 1960s share several major attributes: they were older cities that possess a robust public transportation system. New York City, Washington, San Francisco, and Chicago are all cities which have experienced major central city real estate booms in the past two decades — and all have large and extensive networks of buses, subways, and commuter trains. While there’s plenty of other reasons these cities have flourished, I think its reasonable to conclude transportation networks shape the patterns of metropolitan growth. Has Washington’s Metro system contributed to neighborhood revitalization? Zachary Schrag’s history of the system is full of tantalizing circumstantial evidence about rapid increases in property value and new developments following the newly constructed Metrorail system. I tracked down the growth of the size of the system (see the “Metro Facts” publication on this page) and created this graph:

Growth of Washington, D.C., Metrorail System, 1973-2006

I initially hoped to obtain historic ridership data for the life of the system. However, this data is apparently hard to come by and I concluded even if I were able to find the numbers they would no doubt be dominated by thousands of federal workers commuting in from the suburbs, and provide little information central city revitalization. More easily accessible was the physical growth of the system, which I decided would be a good measure of the usefulness of the system to people who lived near stations. When graphed together with the use of the word “gentrification” in the Post – both on the same axes – the correlation is striking:

Gentrification and the Metro

While this graph is clearly a rough simplification of a complex process, anecdotal evidence about redevelopment patterns seems to confirm the pattern seen here. Neighborhood revitalization comes first to neighborhoods with Metro stations, and the system has made land near stations in both the city and suburb desirable.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I believe that WMATA is partly subsidized by development money. WMATA has sought private developers to build above its stations. Transportation hubs, stations are prime real estate. You’re on to it! The ballanced thing to do would be ensure that developers include housing for low-income residents. They do that in NYC.

  2. a couple of questions:

    1. you mention several things these cities have in common, but only focus on one–did you mean to say “one” instead of “several?”

    2. how would you counter the hypothesis that increased resources for transportation are a consequence rather than a cause of gentrification? it’d be interesting to see a comparison of dc housing prices in areas where the metro JUST hit to prices in areas where the metro had already been.

  3. Providence, Rhode Island comes to mind as an exception to your assertion about the relationship between mass transit and neighborhood revitalization. Providence has gone from a 70s backwater to a terrific city with a liveable downtown and a vibrant nightlife. But the bus service is still pretty bad.

  4. Rob, I just came across this entry, skimming your homepage. If it would be real quick to do, I’d suggest switching the colors of the Metro system growth and the Washington Post mentions of “gentrification” because the color used in the first chart for the former is used in the second chart by the latter, thus causing confusion for the likes of Dennis. Scary concept, the likes of Dennis, I know.

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