For at least a generation now, many environmentalists have promoted rail transit as one of the most environmentally sound forms of transportation. Massive federal, state, and local investment in rail systems, they argue, should be part of any serious effort to kick our auto-dependency habit. A Worldwatch Institute paper, “Back on Track: The Global Rail Revival,” cites no fewer than 10 advantages of rail over highways, including “greater energy efficiency, less dependence on oil, less air pollution, lower greenhouse emissions, less traffic congestion, fewer injuries and deaths, less land paved over, [enhanced] local economic development, [more] sustainable land use patterns, and greater social equity.”
Unfortunately, however, rail systems in the United States have often been deliberately designed to benefit not the city or region as a whole, but a handful of powerful propertied owners. In fact, decisions about rail transit – why it should be built, where it should go, who it should serve – have not been arrived at democratically, but have been heavily influenced by developers as well as financial and corporate interests. These parties have been interested not so much in rail transit per se, but in the profits to be earned from the often positive impacts of rail stations on property values. The consequences of this developer-led rail strategy has, among other things, exacerbated sprawl and increased the isolation of poor communities, especially poor communities of color.
Transit advocates often argue that better land-use planning will counter detrimental developer-led rail projects by restricting irrational uses of land through zoning and “market” disincentives. But the rhetoric of “land use” underestimates the power of the propertied elite to undermine the well-being of the general community. Property ownership is power and the struggle for power is politics. Real estate developers have reaped huge profits by using their power, born of their control of large amounts of land, to heavily influence political decisions about the design and development of rail transit systems.
This is nothing new. As early as the 1830s, developers were using the steam railroad lines to create the first American suburbs, populated primarily by elites who could afford the high fares. Harlem, Cambridge, White Plains and New Rochelle, all of which are now ensconced within large metropolitan areas, owe their existence to the steam railroads and developers that propagandized together on behalf of suburban living.
In 1886, the electrified streetcar, the trolley, began appearing on city streets. Most trolley companies were owned by real estate companies that were more interested in land speculation than in building and operating quality transportation systems. These companies built trolley lines from the central business district (CBD) to the outskirts of the city where they or an affiliate owned land. Even before their completion, the trolley lines generated a dramatic increase in land value and the “transit operators” profited from the capital gains made from selling developed properties.
The trolley systems themselves, however, were poor investments, averaging a return of less than one percent of invested equity. In fact, from the beginning, most trolley systems were necessarily subsidized by the profits made from the capital gains on increased land values. By World War I, most trolley companies were in financial trouble. By 1919 trolley bankruptcies were so frequent that President Wilson established a commission to investigate the problem. The commission found that one of the major causes of the bankruptcies was the “over-building into unprofitable territory or to promote real-estate enterprises, involved sometimes with political improprieties.” By the 1920s, most trolley companies around the country had been municipalized or were in receivership.
The Highway Explosion
As early as the 1920s, automobile and trolley congestion along with growth of obnoxious industry” and the worker housing that sprung up around it had become problems in CBDs, threatening current and future downtown property values. Downtown needed to be reclaimed. The solution? Decentralization. The tools to do it? Zoning and expressways: zoning to designate some areas for “industrial-use only” and restrict downtown land uses to office and shopping uses; expressways to facilitate suburban access to the central business district and the development of cheap land for big profits.
It worked. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, ever increasing federal investment in highways along with federal institutions that encouraged the construction of suburban single-family homes (like the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation) accelerated decentralization. Developers of suburban residential real estate reaped huge profits. Industry was zoned out of the CBD into less desirable land, often bordering low-income communities or communities of color. Downtown, freed from the dual menace of industry and poverty was saved, or so it seemed.
By the late 1950s though, downtown real estate moguls became concerned that decentralization had gotten out of hand as the new “edge cities,” which developed along the beltways and at highway intersections, began attracting business away from downtown. “The expressway boom had succeeded to the point that the decentralization process was in danger of going too far, threatening the viability of CBD and downtown property values,” writes political economist Larry Sawers in his essay, The Political Economy of Urban Transportation. “Urban renewal and regional subway systems were the major new responses to the crisis situation.”
As early as the mid-1940s, several corporations in San Francisco formed the Bay Area Council, and planned the rail system that eventually became the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). In 1959 business interests in New York City, headed by Rockefeller Center and Chrysler, formed the Regional Plan Association, and became a major force in regional transit planning. In the 1960s, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce advocated aggressively for what eventually became the MARTA subway system (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). In cities such as Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, major downtown employers and business groups advocated for the construction or expansion of rail systems.
The federal government-responding, in part, to the concerns of one of its most cherished constituents – got rapid rail religion. In 1964, the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) was established, creating, for the first time, a pot of money for the construction of new local rail systems.
The federal government was also reacting to a growing anti-highway sentiment across the country. The expressway boom had done much more than compromise the value of downtown real estate values. It had destroyed whole communities. New federally funded rail systems, it was argued, would serve communities, not pave over them. Rail systems were largely viewed by the public as an unqualified social good. The “debate” was not over whether the systems should be built, but how to build them so as to ensure maximal social benefit.
Thirty years and more than $20 billion in federal dollars later, however, maximal social benefit has not been secured. Most of the new rail systems radiate out from downtowns toward the outer suburbs. As noted by John Pucher and Fred Williamson, the metro systems that opened or expanded in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Miami, and the extension of older subway systems in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia are “more characteristic of commuter rail than of traditional subway systems, with much wider spacing between stops, higher speeds, and above all, more of a focus on serving the work commutation needs of high-income suburbanites.” The purpose and effect:to promote downtown and suburban property values.
Rail and Social Justice
Because American cities and suburbs are largely segregated by race and class, one result of building rail systems designed to benefit suburban and downtown locations has been to exacerbate inequities.
In Los Angeles, for example, the average subsidy for users of the long-distance commuter train “METROLINK” is $28 per ride; for inner city bus riders, it is a meager $1.17. Most recently, the Los Angeles transportation authority proposed to raise bus fares and eliminate the monthly unlimited-use pass in order to help cover the costs of its rail system. A 1990 US Department of Transportation survey also found that bus riders have the lowest incomes of any modes, with 32 percent earning less than $15,000 and only four percent earning $80,000 or more. In contrast, only 15.6 percent of commuter rail users have incomes below $15,000 while 19 percent earn $80,000 or more. As a report from the right-wing CATO Institute frankly admitted, “If public transit subsidies benefit anyone, they benefit affluent suburbanites, not the poor.”
Just as many real estate agents view people of color as threats to property values, many. developers see communities of color as a potential obstacle to the substantial increase in property values that often accompanies the siting of a rail station. As a result, it is often difficult to get rail stations placed in communities of color as the predominately African-American community of Anacostia located in Southeast Washington discovered. “Metro went 50 miles into the suburbs before it went into Southeast Washington,” says environmental and labor activist Paul Ruffins, “And it went to the homes of people who had cars before it reached the people who didn’t have cars.”
Even when rail service is extended into disadvantaged communities, transit-related gentrification has occurred. Rhonda Gail Grass, studying Washington DC’s Metrorail system, found a strong correlation between increases in property values created by the siting of Metrorail stations and the gentrification of traditionally African-American neighborhoods. In the Capitol South neighborhood, for example, property values (adjusted for inflation) between 1970 and 1980 increased by 51 percent. For the same period, the African-American population in the area fell by 47.5 percent. In the Woodley Park neighborhood for the same period, property values increased by 175 percent while the African-American population dropped by 24 percent. Many of the displaced were forced to move to low-rent areas where bus service was poor and access to Metrorail difficult.
There is nothing inherently wrong with rail systems. It is not difficult to. imagine rail transit as a critical part of a comprehensive strategy to revitalize the urban core and improve the environment. However, powerful property holders have dictated decisions about how rail systems should be built and who they should serve. One significant result has been the exacerbation of sprawl. Sprawl has intensified the ecological problems associated with automobile dependency as well as accelerated the abandonment of the urban core.
Ultimately, the utilization of land to generate private profit conflicts with the twin pillars of democracy – popular sovereignty, the ability to hold power accountable – and personal liberty, freedom from arbitrary control. Building rail systems that prioritize the profits of commercial and residential real estate developers violates the dictates of democracy by holding both individuals and communities hostage to their bottom lines.
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