Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety and Comfort on Water Street; Modern Day Gentrification: How Yelp Accelerates Gentrification

Nguyen, Tiffany, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Wayland, Kent, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Chen, Tong, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Heydarian, Arsalan, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia

Urbanization has resulted in the rise of new development and infrastructure as populations continue to grow and concentrate in urban and developed areas. Conflict arises when engineers and planners have different approaches and goals than local communities that are ultimately affected by the new infrastructure and road development. Gentrification is a byproduct of urbanization where renovations and new businesses in urban districts bring in wealthier residents. As a result, many individuals are displaced due to the rise in housing prices. Therefore, it is important for engineers and planners to understand how different social groups and communities are affected by their actions in order to improve the quality of life with minimal disruption to local communities. The following research explores different perspectives on how to best improve the safety and quality of life in communities while taking local perspectives and needs into consideration.
The technical section of research focuses on how to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety in the West Water Street corridor in downtown Charlottesville. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has identified this corridor as an area of focus for bicyclist safety due to a high rate of pedestrian crashes between 2012 and 2016. Water Street hosts one of the main bicycle routes in the city; however, there is a high level of traffic stress for bicyclists. The design team analyzed best practices from other bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly cities to determine design ideas for Water Street corridor. Multi-criteria decision analysis is used to choose the best design concept. Based on this analysis, the modified city plan was chosen. This design concept is based off of the existing Charlottesville city plan improvements that consist of two-way travel lanes and a five-foot westbound bicycle lane. This one concept is then extrapolated to other similar designs in which one aspect of the main design alternative, the level of the bicycle lane buffer, is changed. The team originally planned to test those designs using a virtual reality (VR) environment and biometric data collection. However, due to Covid-19, user testing had to be canceled. Instead, the team wrote a white paper that addresses how the user data would have been evaluated. This white paper analyzes previous use cases of assessing user comfort and safety in order to determine a way to evaluate the best alternative in this project specifically.
The research section of this paper focuses on how Yelp is speeding up gentrification in urban neighborhoods. Recent research has shown that smartphones, particularly location-based apps such as Yelp, are speeding up gentrification in urban neighborhoods across the United States (Charles, 2018). Therefore, my paper studies the effects and mutual shaping of Yelp on gentrification in urban neighborhoods in order to understand how different social groups and communities are affected by gentrification so that we can evaluate how to achieve the benefits of social mixing to improve the quality of life without disrupting local communities. Yelp reviewers unintentionally accelerate gentrification by leaving positive feedback of businesses and opinions on the surrounding area. An increase in the number of positive reviews of local businesses can indicate that a neighborhood will gentrify from the increase in consumers. Furthermore, bias and fraudulent reviews exploit and perpetuate the impact of Yelp on commercial gentrification. These reviews are not accurate representations of the majority opinion on local businesses but they have the ability to change the local economy and demographics of local neighborhoods by increasing consumer traffic. As a result, neighborhoods gentrify from reviews that might not even be real or credible. Gentrification from Yelp contributes to both urban redevelopment and commercial gentrification. This is why Yelp should take the necessary steps to minimize bias and fraudulent reviews, so that gentrification reflects the actual needs of the majority of consumers.
Overall, both the technical and STS sections assess the general research question of how engineers/planners can improve the safety and quality of life in society with respect to local communities. The technical section researched, created, and evaluated the alternative roadway designs to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety in the Water Street corridor in downtown Charlottesville. However, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the alternative designs were not able to be tested in the VR system and a white paper was written instead to assess prior research conducted on comfort and safety. Therefore, researchers should conduct user testing for the Water Street Study to evaluate user comfort levels in each design alternative to determine which one should be implemented by the city of Charlottesville. Moreover, the STS section evaluated the relationship between Yelp and gentrification and identified a connection between biased Yelp reviews and gentrification. This connection provided a deeper understanding of how different social groups and communities are affected. Current Yelp policies were explored to understand what Yelp is currently doing and what they should be doing to minimize disruption to communities from gentrification. Further research should be conducted on the rate of commercial gentrification from review platforms such as Yelp and other policies that can be implemented to minimize disruption.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Gentrification, Urbanization, Mutual shaping of technology and society, Yelp

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Systems and Information Engineering
Technical Advisors: T. Donna Chen, Arsalan Heydarian
STS Advisor: Kent Wayland
Technical Team Members: Emily Chen, Ricky Dobson, Nicholas Kim, Cem Kutay, Mark Schenkel, Brendan Vachris

Issued Date: