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The anti-transit social justice trap

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Pictured: possibly the entirety of Phoenix light rail

In nine days we’ll learn the fate of the Koch brothers and related interests’ attack on public transit in Phoenix. The forces of non-evil could definitely win this; Phoenix has consistently voted for this, albeit not in low turnout special elections, and by comfortable but not huge margins. I don’t have a sense of how the campaigns are playing out. I’ve heard that the anti-light rail campaign has been somewhat frustrated with the relatively low volume of Koch money, relative to the Nashville and some other recent campaigns, which may be a good sign.

At any rate this story from Laura Bliss captures a frustrating dynamic of transit projects that, in my view, needs to be called out more forthrightly than it usually is. In urban politics, many transit advocates are loathe to attack what appears to be left wing argument directly, particularly when (in addition to Koch-allied conservative forces) it’s actually being made by a sympathetic constituency. But there’s a pair of complaints, both being made in Phoenix, that taken together put transit advocates in an impossible bind. First, there’s opposition to transit from standard anti-gentrification discourse, seen here:

But in Phoenix, rail resistance has also emerged from activists who say that the system will displace longtime residents in favor of more affluent renters and owners who can afford transit-adjacent housing costs. “It’s a way of attracting money for investment,” Sal Reza, a longtime human rights organizer in Phoenix, told Phoenix magazine. “Not to invest in the community, but to change the community totally.”

This is a complaint about the South Phoenix line currently under construction. But the initial lines didn’t really serve poorer parts of Phoenix, focusing instead on Phoenix’s more well heeled neighborhoods, ASU, and the suburb/cities of Tempe and Mesa. About that:


…stopping the rail extension in South Phoenix would squelch hopes of correcting the equity mistakes the city made with its original light rail plans, which failed to adequately serve Phoenix’s lower-income neighborhoods.

Bliss is quoting Greg Stanton here, the former Phoenix mayor who ushered the initial light rail lines to completion, but he’s sensitive to this complaint because he heard it a lot, and seemingly took it to heart, as a critique of the original light rail investment choices. A similar dynamic played out in Seattle; when the ill-fated monorail plan’s initial line was to serve the wealthy, largely white waterfront communities of Western Ballard and West Seattle, it was critiqued for doing so on equity/fairness grounds. But when Link light rail’s initial line was proposed to go through the working class, racially diverse Rainier Valley, it was critiqued as an engine of gentrification.

My impulse is to insist transit critics choose a lane here. My suggestion would be the second one: they should insist on getting their fair share, perhaps more, of major transit investments for reasons of equity and political equality, and also because the just-so story implied by anti-gentrification discourse masks a far more complicated and murky reality, and probably exaggerates the extent to which gentrification can be controlled by policy decisions. But really, transit advocates need to figure out how to stop playing defense against this cynical strategy. That’s a tall order when, as in Phoenix, some of the people making these arguments are sincere, potentially vulnerable communities. When their concerns can be addressed without compromising the project, they should be, but in many cases these critiques are more existential, and trying to cater to them would significantly undermine the quality of the project. The robust language of the role transit plays for the public good can be powerful, but the reality is these kinds of projects get funded a few lines at a time, making this a difficult sell. But the first step to dealing with this trap is recognizing it for what it is, and it’s not always clear transit advocates who find both sides of the critique plausible or compelling in isolation are good at doing so.



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