USC Price School of Public Policy

Price undergrad presents thesis research on gentrification around LA Metro stations

May 11, 2017

By Matthew Kredell

Price undergraduate David Roachford presented his senior thesis at the Urban Affairs Association annual conference in Minneapolis.

Weeks before completing his bachelor of science degree from the USC Price School of Public Policy, David Roachford stood alongside university professors and doctoral students to present his senior thesis on gentrification in neighborhoods surrounding Los Angeles Metro stations at the Urban Affairs Association annual conference in Minneapolis.

“I looked at the other presenters, and it’s a really impressive list of people from all over the country,” Roachford said. “To be included in that group of people is kind of intimidating to be honest. I just want to represent Price and myself well. The opportunity to meet people in the field and network at the conference should be beneficial to me after graduating.”

The research began as part of a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study a current issue in transportation development. USC Price Professor Marlon Boarnet, chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis, was collaborating with a group from Texas A&M University, including Professor Wei Li, on the NSF-funded research, when the opportunity arose to provide a summer grant to one student through the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Students from USC and Texas A&M were invited to apply. Roachford had been in Boarnet’s urban and regional economics class in fall 2015. Boarnet noted that, in his application, Roachford articulated a level of understanding of research that helped him stand out from the other candidates.

“He has grown a lot as a researcher during this past year,” Boarnet said. “His work is statistically careful, with a solid research design, and he has shown a good grasp of GIS tools and statistical methods.”

Impact of rail expansion

The NSF REU grant left Roachford open to choose an issue in transportation on which to focus. He decided to study gentrification in communities around L.A. Metro stations — a research topic that he continued to pursue as his senior thesis.

With an interest in trains stretching back to his early childhood, Roachford became fascinated with New York’s complex subway system, when he visited the city for the first time at eight years old. Coming from a small suburb of Dallas that had no public transportation, he realized how convenient and useful such rapid transit rail systems can be.

“I just thought it was really cool how you could go underground and there would be a train there to take you to any part of the city,” said Roachford, who began collecting model trains growing up. “I wanted a subway station by my house. I thought, ‘What if we had a subway here? How much better would my life be?’”

His research showed that answer can be complicated. Los Angeles was a city without a rapid transit system for decades before 1990. Metro rail has expanded rapidly since then, and Roachford wanted to see how that expansion is affecting residents.

Comparing data from 1990 and 2014, he analyzed areas around 75 Los Angeles Metro subway and light-rail stations for variables such as housing price, rental price, income, education, diversity and the percentage of families on public assistance.

He found that income and rent significantly increased within the first half mile of a station relative to the next half mile, indications that gentrification is occurring in these areas. The percentage of people with a college degree also is higher within half a mile of a station, a possible indicator of current or future displacement pressures.

Professional opportunity

A stipulation of the grant was to present the findings at a professional conference, and Roachford chose a prestigious option with the Urban Affairs Association conference that took place April 19-22. He made a warm-up presentation at USC to peers and professors earlier in the month.

“The Urban Affairs Association conference is a primary venue for urban scholars to present their research,” Boarnet said. “David has accomplished much by presenting his work there while an undergraduate — certainly most of the presenters will be faculty members or Ph.D. students.”

Roachford is currently applying for jobs to start work after graduation. He’d like to remain in Los Angeles and eventually return to Price for a master’s degree.

“I want to be able to work for a few years to understand which route – no pun intended – I want to go, then go to graduate school to really specialize in that area,” Roachford said. “My long-term goal is to be in charge of transportation for a metropolitan area, whether it’s in Los Angeles or back home in Dallas. I think that would be a great career to make those decisions and be able to see them implemented.”