Transit notes #2: Anti-transit opposition a form of defending automobility as a way of life
(Even though in the previous entry I argue that the Tide light rail system in Hampton Roads has limited value because of low use, compared to investments in areas where transit is more highly used...)
Yesterday, the Virginia Beach City Council had an important vote on whether or not to proceed with certain aspects of extension planning from Norfolk to Virginia Beach for the Tide light rail system--VB is the largest city in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area.
It turns out they voted to proceed ("Virginia Beach council signals it wants to move forward with light rail," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot). But the day before the Virginian-Pilot ran a fascinating piece ("How did the light rail debate in Virginia Beach become so nasty?") on the opposition, which reminded me of opposition to sustainable mobility in DC as I discussed in the past blog entry, "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city," or quotes from people affiliated with a black church in the Shaw neighborhood, arguing against bike lanes:
“This ain’t London, this ain’t Europe. The United States is built on the automobile and we need to respect that,” said Michael Green, a deacon at New Bethel Baptist Church.
-- "Can some big D.C. churches fight off a bike lane? They are bringing large crowds to try," Washington Post
From the V-P piece:
Atkinson and his support base – mainly older residents, Tea Party, Libertarian, Republican and anti-tax groups – have put light rail on blast. It won’t benefit anyone in Virginia Beach but developers, they say. It costs too much, won’t move people, doesn’t solve congestion, they say. Atkinson, 75, is quick to point to statistics from the draft environmental impact study backing that up. ...
He says he has support from all stripes, including some millennials, who he said should move to Norfolk if they want public transportation.
On Pilot comment sections and social media, you’ll see his supporters call light rail a “boondoggle,” “choo choo” and the “Tide-tanic.” Many complain that the project is being “shoved down our throats.”
They are angry. And in the past year, the issue has gotten more contentious, more heated, and the rhetoric more vitriolic. A State Transportation Board member likened it to the divisiveness of the presidential campaign dominated by Donald Trump. ...
When did it get so bad that a 54-year-old Beach resident would cuss out an entire generation of people on a young professional group’s Facebook page for wanting The Tide to come to Town Center?
To paraphrase the litany that couldn’t even begin to be printed in a newspaper: Young people have never done anything in their lives and you want to take my money to build a light rail? Screw you. ...
Bonney said the negative tone of the debate is partly due to the lingering legacy of white flight, resentment of urbanism and reluctance to be a willing participant in a regional effort that led many of the city’s older residents to settle in Virginia Beach.
Light rail has pitted young versus old, residents versus developers and those who embrace change against those who do not. ...
Debate attendees laughed at the mention of a network of light-rail lines. One man yelled for young people to “move to Charlotte.” ...
Light-rail supporter Will Christopher says Atkinson relies on fear of change and demagoguery to rile up his base. He’s concerned that the future is being decided by a bitter, older generation threatened by change and unconcerned with future generations .
Even in center cities, or urbanizing metropolitan areas, like Washington, DC, most residents have been imprinted with the automobility land use and transportation planning paradigm, and they fail to recognize or acknowledge this fact, and that automobility is merely one way to develop a place, and that while it may work in some settings, it doesn't work in others.
Levittown, New York, an early suburban subdivision on Long Island.
Economic costs of an automobility-centric land use development paradigm. Furthermore, in a more zero sum economic situation, automobility is a less economically sustainable and less resilient development paradigm -- Fairfax County Virginia, long one of the nation's most successful economies, is now facing decline as automobility-fueled growth levels off. In fact, the only place where Fairfax County is growing substantively is in transit corridors ("Fairfax residents voice frustrations over county's financial health," Washington Post).
Future-oriented planning fails in a political environment focused on today. As a discipline, by definition planning is concerned with managing change and addressing the future.
But politics and typically, the time horizon considered by the average citizen, rarely takes into account the future and the needs of tomorrow and future generations, and the value that has been reaped by us today, from investments made in the past.
Generational opposition to sustainable mobility. This is especially a generational question.
Older people, who grew up during the massive period of American economic growth and the ascension of the automobile as the primary way to get around, tend to be the most vociferous opponents to the creation of new sustainable mobility infrastructure, even as people age and increasingly need assistance to get around, while most places are not set up to do so ("Transit Access and America's Aging Population," AARP).
For a variety of reasons, younger demographics are more interested in sustainable mobility and in reshaping communities going forward so that an efficient sustainable mobility platform can be created, implemented, and used (e.g., "Hampton Roads young professionals group overwhelmingly supports light rail," "Light rail and millennials take center stage at Virginia Beach City Council meeting," and "NFK Dreams: Listen to Virginia Beach, millennials. Norfolk is your home," V-P).
Note that this mobility pattern is not foreordained, just the way that land use and transportation developed in the US over the past 100 years. In places like Copenhagen, older people walk, bike and use transit just fine.
As a rule, transit projects face almost uniform opposition. It becomes increasingly difficult to promote transit especially.
Image from "Red Light, Green Light: A messy fight looms over The Amp, Metro’s proposed bus rapid transit system," Nashville Scene.
I read pretty widely and almost without exception, transit projects of all types seem to experience a significant amount of virulent opposition. While it's true that in some places, e.g., streetcar projects in Tucson and Dallas, transit projects are supported (both of those projects were initiated by active citizens, not transportation planners or elected officials), in general most projects experience virulent opposition ranging from bus rapid transit projects in Richmond, Nashville, Indianapolis and elsewhere, bicycle projects of all strips, and lots of light rail projects, Virginia Beach being only one.
The streetcar program in Cincinnati faced many anti-votes, on the eve of the opening of the light rail system in Charlotte, NC anti-tax citizens got an defunding referendum on the ballot--it lost.
Nashville Scene image.
The belief that the US is defined by the automobile. While it's true that many such projects are difficult to justify in the shortest run -- because they lack the right preconditions of spatial conditions, density, and a tight collection of primary activity centers -- in many places transit works, and as importantly as density increases walking and biking become significantly more efficient modes as well.
Why is it even in those places where transit has demonstrated success, like Washington DC (opposition to the streetcar, although it has quelled since it opened, as I expected), Arlington County Virginia (opposition to a streetcar there led to its being dropped, and ArCo is considered a national best practice example of transit-oriented land use development) and Montgomery County Maryland (opposition to light rail, even though the county's benefits from Metrorail service is considerable)?
While it may be couched in saving money, I believe opposition to sustainable mobility in all its forms -- transit, walking, biking, and car sharing -- has to be more about defending automobility as a fundamental element of the definition of what it is to be "American," what it is to be the United States.