Is Light Rail a Gentrification machine?

"The building of railways seems to be a simple, natural, democratic, cultural and civilising enterprise; that is what it is in the opinion of the bourgeois professors who are paid to depict capitalist slavery in bright colours, and in the opinion of petty-bourgeois philistines."

--Lenin, "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism," Preface to the French and German Editions.

I have a friend who hates light rail. He sees it as a tool for gentrification, and a plaything of the wealthy. Shiny toy trains for people too proud to ride the bus, that run through nicer neighborhoods, causing a thousand condos to flower in their wake, blossoming up like techno-sequoias filled with yuppies.

Well, he's not wrong. Light rail is all of those things. It's a big tool for capitalism and development But is it something else too? I just wrote an email about it, and I'd be curious to know what you think...
Nice quote. I think Vladimir is talking about rail barons? Well, streetcar systems were also private enterprises funded by 'rail barons' (in Mpls, it was a guy named Lowry) and used as development tools to grow the city and make a killing off real estate. But I'd certainly not condemn them just for that reason. After the fact, weren't streetcars still a good public transit system? Didn't they still serve as a more equitable, and green, form of transportation?

LRT is, just like any transportation project, an opportunity for capital to organize itself. in way way, LRT is simply more comfortable transit. (that's the main reason white people like them.) At another level, LRT looks a lot like a rail baron situation. It's a tool for developers to make money, cities to increase their tax base, politicians to cut ribbons and give jobs to construction firms, lots of planners to earn livings, etc.

In all of those ways, though, they are no different than freeway projects. in fact, the only way that they are different from freeway projects is that they are (or have the potential to be) more energy efficient, and that they tend to create development within cities that have more economic and other kinds of diversity as opposed to in the middle of nowhere. When you build a freeway in the middle of nowhere, you build a lot of new, typically (income) segregated areas in the middle of nowhere. When you build a LRT through a city, you're usually encouraging capital investment to occur in already-exiting places. at a certain level, I think the gentrification debate is, or should be, a debate over the right to housing. sometimes I wonder why we target the idea of wealthy people living in cities when the goal should be to make sure the working class has a decent place to live.

Its not that I don't see the argument that it is just another bourgeious subsidy. rather, it seems to me a smarter bourgeious subsidy than most of them. Compared to the amount of money spent on, for only one example, the mortgage interest tax deduction, which only goes to homeowners (e.g. the rich half of the US) and encourages them to build even larger homes, money spent on rail is hardly the battle I would choose to fight.

I sometimes wonder about whether movement and capitalism are intertwined. can we think of the circulation of value without thinking of the circulation of people or goods? Is capital growth necessarily spatial? Is the very idea of transportation and movement the problem?

One of the reasons i am studying walking is that it seems to escape from some of these binds. The only people that make money off of pedestrians are the manufacturers of sneakers. umbrellas, and handbags.
[Gerald Ford loved Light Rail. Jimmy Carter hated it.]


Stuart said...

Rail is the only transportation infrastructure investment that will still be valuable in 30 years. All the trillions we've invested in highways and airports will be increasingly worthless as the oil dries up. In an age without cars, rail transit won't seem like a frivolous yuppie toy.

kenf said...

If you build enough rail, you will get more affordable housing next to it. If the demand for something scarce is high, the price will go up. Increase the supply, and the cost will go down.

Cities with a lot of rail transit, you know who they are, do have affordable housing adjacent to their transit.

paytonc said...

Just because a few capitalists like something does not make it evil. One can't credibly rail against both gentrification (read: investment) in low-income communities of color AND giant subsidies for new roads, sewers, and sprawl in the rich suburbs. Well, at least not before the Workers' Revolution, but that's going to be a long wait. In the meantime, we can at least invest in transportation and urban fabric which will add long-term value and build more diverse communities of all kinds of people -- and yes, rich people are people, too.

I've long thought that fighting gentrification is just fighting one of the many spatial manifestations of neoliberal capitalism. It's a symptom of a wider syndrome.

In any case, I don't understand how people can be so negative about everything. Instead of criticizing, what's her/his solution? Please don't say PRT/monorails.

Anonymous said...

Gentrification is a much more nuanced issue than many on the left would have us believe. Our cities have deteriorated over time as capital has fled into the suburbs. Like it or not (and I don't like it), to reinvigorate cities requires capital. And the rich, by definition, are the ones with capital to invest.

Assuming no massive upheavals (such as actual wealth redistribution), the only way to make cities livable (and walkable) is to incorporate different forms of transit into the civic fabric.

Your friend's view that trains are "a plaything of the wealthy. Shiny toy trains for people too proud to ride the bus" is really rather insulting and certainly not the case when one looks at transit on a national and international level. I am from Minneapolis originally, but I live in Chicago now. I would challenge your friend to ride the green line here and make his case to anybody on board. It just doesn't jibe with reality of cities with rail.

The problem with LRT in the Twin Cities is a problem of routing it from a mall to a downtown retail/business center. It hardly passes through real neighborhoods within comfortable walking distance of where large numbers of people live. Some stops are a little closer to actual inhabitants of Minneapolis, but for the most part it was not designed to serve the residents of the neighborhoods it passes by (and rarely through). Chicago rail, (obviously, not LRT, but rail nonetheless) passes through neighborhoods and is part of the urban fabric. Some people do get priced out of some neighborhoods due to rail, but the lines run through all manner of neighborhoods, ranging from some of the most exclusive neighborhoods to some of the most downtrodden.
Twin Cities light rail is a shame because we do need better forms of transportation. I lived there when it opened and I was just so deeply disappointed that there was no way to integrate it into my life in a coherent way.
Walkability is great and I am all for it, on every level, at all times. But to eschew transit (especially rail) as a complementary part of the solution because of gentrification seems like posturing to me.

Light rail should be an ally of the walker, not an enemy. It should also be an ally to the leftist, because it is a uniting form of populist travel.

Matt P said...

Lenin didn't have an agenda, did he.

LRT is technology. Just like a spoon it divides folks into haves and have-nots. Better uses of technology minimize unjust outcomes. Our application is pretty great.

Unlike highways or giant trains, this application barely impacts the neighborhoods it passes through. Oh, it may leave a wake of gentrification, but since the train is accessible by those who would be gentrified, I feel their plight is as apparent, if not more apparent, thereby dulling the sharpest point of the gentrification argument (it helps you forget the mess you made getting to where you are).

Bill Lindeke said...

Very thoughtful comments. Thanks everybody!

Anonymous said...

Point by point excoriation to come later. For now, here's this:

Reconsidering Social Equity in Public Transit

Mark Garrett and Brian Taylor

Over the course of this century, public transit systems in the U.S.
have lost most of the market share of metropolitan travel to private
vehicles. The two principal markets that remain for public transit
systems are downtown commuters and transit dependents — people
who are too young, too old, too poor, or physically unable to drive.
Despite the fact that transit dependents are the steadiest customers
for most public transit systems, transit policy has tended to focus
on recapturing lost markets through expanded suburban bus,
express bus, and fixed rail systems. Such efforts have collectively
proven expensive and only marginally effective. At the same time,
comparatively less attention and fewer resources tend to be
devoted to improving well-patronized transit service in low-
income, central-city areas serving a high proportion of transit
dependents. This paper explores this issue through an examination
of both the evolving demographics of public transit ridership, and
the reasons for shifts in transit policies toward attracting
automobile users onto buses and trains. We conclude that the
growing dissonance between the quality of service provided to
inner-city residents who depend on local buses and the level of
public resources being spent to attract new transit riders is both
economically inefficient and socially inequitable. In light of this,
we propose that transportation planners concerned with social
justice (and economic efficiency) should re-examine current public
transit policies and plans.

You can read the full paper here:

Anonymous said...


I think of 10 billion better ways for California to spend that money. California's gini coefficient is .458 (http://www.postsecondary.org/archives/Reports/CAattheEdge1.pdf), slightly worse than Uganda and slightly better than Mexico (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality).

Hey, after they dump 10 billion on rail at least they'll still be more equal, than Russia, ri -- oh wait, Russia is already far more equal than both California and the US as a whole. I'm with Lenin -- maybe I'll emigrate and drive a cab in Moscow . . .