A Final Word on Charlotte Transit Discussion: NIMBY on the Tracks

Why do some voters oppose mass transit on reflex?
Charlotte Area Transit System
Local officials, including then-Mayor Pat McCrory (center), cut the ribbon for Charlotte’s first light rail line in 2007.

There’s one last hanging thread from our #discussCLT conversation about Charlotte’s transit future that I want to snip. The subject came up toward the end of the conversation: the reflexive hostility, usually from the libertarian right, toward the very idea of mass transit.

Panelist Mary Newsom of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute floated the idea of a bond referendum to pay for expensive transit projects. Voters approve bonds for schools, parks, sidewalks and street improvements; why not transit? City Council member Greg Phipps, who chairs the council’s Transportation and Planning committee, said the prospect of voter approval would be “dicey.”

“We have a vocal minority of people who are just against rail projects,” Phipps said. “You’d be surprised. They want more roads, want to expand roads, widen roads, there’s a big conspiracy to get people out of their cars. I mean, we hear all kinds of scenarios. It’s just mind-blowing sometimes, really.”

Yeah, what is that? It’s something I remember puzzling over back in 2007, when a vocal group of anti-light rail civic saboteurs managed to force a referendum on repealing the half-cent sales tax that had paid for transit for nine years. Thankfully, voters upheld the tax. But I remember wondering why so many people wanted to cut Charlotte’s transit nose off to spite its face, especially in a city that even then was growing out of its skin. It seemed that crippling the transit system, as a practical measure, would be the last thing you wanted to do. It’d just clog streets and highways with more cars, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes, it would, which I guess was the way in which the transit tax repeal would have made a certain twisted sense—if you shrink the transit system down to the point at which you can drown it in the bathtub, the only option for easing congestion is more and wider roads. Of course, that would mean years of traffic jams during construction, and it’s been proven conclusively that widening roads actually makes traffic worse. But if you’re emotionally committed to your car, such real-world trifles are easily ignored. You can always just roll up your window.

It’s worth examining where that emotional energy comes from. As was discussed during the event, there’s a stigma attached to riding the bus, seen for decades not as a practical option but as the sad necessity of the poor and black. Even if the alternative is sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-77 for an hour, do people actually imagine that riding public transit means some kind of personal defeat? Or is it something else?

The Guardian recently published a piece about the anti-light rail campaign in Baltimore, which carries the unmistakable smell of racism and xenophobia that has wafted skyward from suburban subdivision lots since the 1940s:

Chris and Kim Hahn knew something was wrong when their dog started growling at the back door after midnight in March 2017. Chris went to investigate and found a man crouching near the pool. He confronted the man, who Chris thought appeared to be on drugs, and a violent altercation ensued. The intruder was left bleeding.

“I don’t know what he was up to,” said Chris, recalling the event more than a year later with Kim in the kitchen of their neat Glen Burnie home.

The Hahns had moved to the working/middle-class suburb seeking a quiet, safe environment away from the crime and strife of Baltimore, 10 miles away. But, like many in the neighbourhood, they say the city’s woes have seeped into the area via public transport. Specifically, they believe criminals are coming into the suburbs by light rail.

Data does not bear that out, but that hasn’t stopped some residents from campaigning for the service, which started 25 years ago, to be reduced. The Hahns have just returned from a protest demanding the closure of a light rail stop around the corner from their home – a stop activists have linked to an increase in crime in the area.

“Looking at his rap sheet or whatever, he was from Baltimore city,” Kim said of the intruder. “He missed the light rail and had to find a place to stay, and he chose to climb our fence.”

The Anne Arundel county police confirmed the details of the Hahns’ report, but with two important discrepancies: there was nothing to link the suspect with the light rail and he wasn’t from Baltimore – he was local.

He hadn’t missed the light rail back to the city that night. He was from Anne Arundel county, just like the Hahns …

Maryland is one of the most liberal states in the US, but it remains among the most racially segregated, a divide underscored in 2015 by riots following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

As minority populations continue expanding into wealthier, predominantly white suburbs, the light rail service has emerged as a frontline in larger, racially tinged battles over government-subsidised housing and public transport.

While the official organs of the libertarian right are usually savvy enough to avoid the direct invocation of such well-worn code words as “addicts, crooks, thieves,” it’s an obvious subtext in any city’s discussion of expanding transit. Some of those sentiments were swirling around the opening of the original Blue Line in Charlotte in 2007 and again this year when the Blue Line Extension opened. (Local television news, always good for a thinly sourced scare, contributed to the jitters.) Despite data that consistently show no link between transit and higher crime rates, the myth keeps rising from its seat in the ’burbs to sound the alarm about invasions from the city, plummeting property values, and the general ruining of civilization its ownself: In Houston, in Atlanta, in Charlotte—all Southern cities that came of age in the era of the highway and the sealed chariot of the automobile.

Which, perhaps, answers the question. Debating the value of mass transit on rational grounds—whether ridership rates merit the spending of taxpayer millions or billions, whether fixed-route transit really boosts economic development—is a valid area for debate, at least. But arguing that transit greases the skids for invading hordes from the city center is no different at base from the arguments against affordable housing, or the need to move farther away from the city, or sending your children to private schools while grousing about paying taxes to fund public ones. It’s NIMBYism on wheels, a gut-level, ingrained revulsion toward having to rub shoulders with the undesirables. Here in your car, you feel safest of all. You can lock all your doors. It’s the only way to live.

Categories: #discussclt, DiscussCLT Conversation, The Buzz