» Residents fear light rail would cause accidents, gentrification, and displacement. Can any transportation project be so influential?
Like many sunbelt cities, Houston is rushing to build a transit system that can provide an alternative to the congestion caused by a population that has exploded by more than a million people over the past forty years. Now with about 2.3 million inhabitants, the city has developed a five-line light rail plan that would extend rapid transit across the densest areas of the metropolis. Though fiscal difficulties may result in a delay in the construction of two of the planned corridors, most of the project is expected to advance as planned, with new lines opening beginning in 2012.
Houston’s first modern rail operation — along Main Street from downtown to the stadium complex — opened in 2004 and has been a roaring success, attracting more riders than initially foreseen.
Yet any plan as ambitious as this will encounter controversy, so the news that some residents along the proposed Southeast Corridor are protesting the project isn’t particularly surprising. But are the concerns expressed by community members affected by the line’s construction worth considering? Can city officials make the planning process more democratic with the aim of ensuring a sense of local incorporation, even while advancing a program whose aims are more about long-term, citywide goals?
The six-mile Southeast line will extend the light rail system from downtown to Palm Center, along Scott Street, Wheeler Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, reaching the University of Houston, MacGregor Park, and an area of the city whose population is predominantly poor and black. Eleven stations will stop in zones that have low to moderate residential densities and relatively little retail. A rail corridor could project a new vitality into the area — or it might have little influence on the community’s look.
Not yet sure of the eventual outcome, however, some residents have been vocal in expressing their concerns that the new light rail line — which will operate primary in the median of relatively wide streets — will put in danger the neighborhood’s existing conditions by endangering pedestrians and transforming the low-rise community into a medium or high-rise one.
The specter of out-of-control light rail trains mowing down seniors and children is, frankly, an absurd one: trains don’t travel any faster than do cars, and unlike automobiles, trains stay in their travel lanes. Yet people from Houston to Los Angeles to the Washington suburbs are convinced that the sheer unfamiliarity of the trains will make them a danger. Meanwhile, the average fifty Houston pedestrians who die every year after being run over by drivers doesn’t seem to elicit much soul-searching; no one is talking about shutting down the major arterials of Southeast Houston to cars.
But the worry about neighborhood change is a legitimate one: one of the very explicit goals of the new light rail system is to increase density along affected corridors and to encourage a change in the landscape of Southeast Houston, much of which today is hardly different than your average sprawling suburban neighborhood. And indeed, the fear that improved transit can produce negative mutations is shared between communities both rich, often convinced that criminals will ride trains into wealthy neighborhoods, and poor, anxious that rail will bring in developers who will search to kick the impoverished out of their homes.
Transit isn’t as powerful as either its proponents or opponents would suggest: it won’t instantly result in a radically morphed neighborhood, for the better or worse. The by-products often attributed to new rail systems are usually the consequence of a series of decisions and investments, not just those related to transportation. In other words, it’s not really the light rail trains themselves residents of Southeast Houston should be afraid of, but rather the way in which that light rail system is used to shape the growth of an area. The inhabitants of the neighborhood certainly won’t suffer from better transit access!
Municipal governments have a powerful say in arbitrating the use of improved public transportation to spur development. If local authorities choose to concentrate growth in specific parcels near stations, they can provide incentives to build bigger there, or ban new housing or commercial outlets from areas outside of those zones. On the other hand, some governments do very little, choosing not to up-zone land around stations and allowing low-density sprawl to remain the name of the game.
For the sake of increasing ridership and the development of walkable urbanism, there are clear advantages in promoting the former: higher-density neighborhoods at transit stops.
But residents of affected neighborhoods don’t necessarily want to see that kind of environment: many people live in Southeast Houston because of how it looks, not because they’re looking to see it evolve into a district of four-or-five story structures. That kind of neighborhood change is exactly what the people who are protesting are trying to prevent.
The City of Houston, like any place developing improved transit, has a responsibility to encourage expanded democratic involvement in determining how the neighborhood can or should transform. Houston has set up a community office near the terminus of the proposed line at Palm Center, a former shopping strip, and this is a good first step. But the city should be engaging in an open dialogue with willing community members about which parcels to improve and which to keep as they are. The transit line is only the first stage in what must be a permanent back-and-forth about how to make the neighborhood a better place.
Encouraging this kind of civic discussion will reduce uninformed criticism of light rail as well as ensure that new housing and commercial developments along the line are scaled appropriately in an attempt to meet local desires. There is no perfect way to go about doing this, but making an effort could certainly expand popular support for the project and potentially even improve it.
Image above: Rendering of Houston’s Southeast Light Rail Corridor along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, from Metro