During a recent event, Houston-based transit planner and author Christof Spieler succinctly described the best way to design new rail and bus routes: identify the places people live, work, and play, then draw lines between them.
Similarly-practical approaches to connectivity have worked pretty well for other forms of physical infrastructure in America, such as roads and power lines. But seemingly every proposal to improve our country’s transit systems faces powerful opposition.
Spieler explained that some cities, including Dallas and Austin, TX, have designed their systems in a manner intended to minimize this opposition. One common tactic he highlighted is routing new lines via pre-existing rights of way, such as freight rail corridors or freeway medians.
Because such rights of way are often notconducive to transit-oriented land uses, these routes may not effectively serve the locations where demand for mobility is greatest. For example, Austin’s diesel multiple unit trains make a beeline from the region’s northern suburbs toward the University of Texas and the state capitol. But before they draw close enough to those should-be hubs, they suddenly veer to the east and traverse a semicircle that avoids them.
To give more Americans access to safe, reliable, efficient, and equitable mobility, we must prevent transit opponents from harming the quality of the end product the public receives.
In my experience with transit, I’ve observed that opponents fall into three main categories: corporate, fiscal, and self-interested. While these categories can overlap, each of them offers insight into the reasons the most promising projects face such fierce opposition.
Corporate opponents: These opponents are concerned that better transit could reduce their businesses’ profits. They are concentrated in the auto and oil industries that transit systems compete against for customers.
Fiscal opponents: These opponents feel that large-scale government expenditures, such as major transit improvements, needlessly disrupt the free market, comprising a form of unnatural “social engineering”.
Self-interested opponents: These opponents, better known as NIMBYs, worry that any substantial changes to their surroundings, such as a new transit route, will ruin the quality of their day-to-day lives.
Spieler made comparable observations in his recent book, citing concerns regarding cost, crime, government expenditures, gentrification, impacts to car infrastructure, and race as common drivers of opposition to transit.