Comparing Light Rail Histories In Atlanta And Los Angeles

Ryan Reft takes a look at the histories of light rail efforts in both Atlanta and Los Angeles, showing how race, class and local opposition groups limited the effectiveness of both systems:

In both the case of the Blue Line and the construction of MARTA, charismatic, dedicated, and ultimately trusted political leaders fought hard for each and delivered. Could it be that simple, or have the ground rules changed so much that not even a [Los Angeles County supervisor] Kenneth Hahn or [Atlanta mayor] Sam Massell [could] deliver the goods today? In Atlanta at least, a coalition of “planners, hipsters, and other yuppies” haven’t gotten the job done. Perhaps, this time Atlanta should examine how L.A. and Kenneth Hahn managed to constructed a constituency large enough to build the light rail he dreamed of, which brought improvements to Compton and South Central, enabled suburbanites to travel between the region’s two biggest employment centers, and catalyzed award-winning transit-oriented urban development all around the county. In the 1970s, Hahn looked to the Southeast, perhaps Atlanta needs to look to the West.

Both cities suffered the same racial and class divisions that sapped public support for rail and twisted the lines into less effective routes. But I’m struck by the neighborhood opposition to development along the rail lines in both places, particularly based on a fear of gentrification.

In order for light rail to work, in terms of generating sufficient ridership to avoid becoming a huge economic liability for local transit systems, we need the lines to become growth inducing around the stations. That’s really the whole point of a rail line. Yet if we allow neighborhoods to prevent that growth, based on fears of displacement, traffic, lack of parking, and changing the character of the place, then we’ve negated the whole point of rail to begin with.

Certainly the lack of housing affordability and gentrification are reasonable concerns. But they shouldn’t be used as excuses to stop all development. Rather, that development should include a range of affordable housing, and project proponents should do their best to preserve local character.

Otherwise, we’ll end up with more sad rail histories, as we unfortunately see too much of in both Atlanta and Los Angeles.


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