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Full of Sound and Fury 

Commotion about transit, signifying nothing

It was all very predictable. Some local politicians and media wasted no time dancing with glee at the Charlotte Area Transit System's failure to win full funding in President Bush's new budget. In a nutshell, CATS was given some funding this year, praised for a promising project, and invited to apply for more money next year. But some commentators were eager to interpret this as the kiss of death to the whole project.

The funding holdup will delay the day we ride the new trains, which is disturbing, but it's not a huge problem -- unless of course you're a developer holding redevelopment land by the tracks and paying monthly interest! Nonetheless, any setback for public transit triggers a spate of comments that denigrate light rail and its patterns of compact, mixed-use developments as some form of "un-American" social engineering foisted on an unsuspecting public by power-mad planners.

This is a familiar story across America. In many cities that have integrated new light rail systems into their urban fabric, conservative activists pounded the pulpit, predicting dire consequences and ridiculing the concept. Their sound and fury were so raucous that casual observers might have thought everybody hated the plans. This was the case in St. Louis recently, when that city expanded its highly successful Metrolink system.

A well-respected Washington colleague told me recently how St. Louis officials proposed a new 10-mile line connecting an interstate, two university campuses and a thriving medical center with downtown St. Louis. A small, but very vocal opposition group was determined to stop it, and used every scare tactic available.

If one read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or watched local TV news during the 18-month planning process, one would have thought this transit line had no public support and would never get built. Yet despite the strident, spoiling tactics, polls by the Metropolitan Planning Authority confirmed that nearly 90 percent of those citizens most affected by the line, in terms of safety, noise, appearance and property values, strongly supported it. Above all the saber rattling and tub-thumping, these quieter sentiments spoke volumes about real citizen sentiment, and the crucial council vote was unanimous in favor of the line's construction.

Toronto offers another good example, where once again, a small minority orchestrated rabid opposition to public rail transit. Now that Toronto's transit line extension is complete, no one can remember why the opposition was so fierce. Like Macbeth's lament, all the commotion, in the end, signified nothing.

One of the strangest symptoms infecting the thinking of light rail's opponents is the notion that adding trains to the city's transportation system somehow stifles choice and steals "the American Dream" from citizens. Of course, it does just the opposite: it improves accessibility and offers a wider range of lifestyles for people who don't want the default suburban and SUV option.

One of the most interesting perspectives on the new generation of light rail projects is that they involve conservative Sunbelt cities like Dallas and Phoenix. Phoenix is racing ahead of Charlotte to build light rail for exactly the same reasons that pertain here: to provide an alternative to the suburban paradigm that's been the norm for nearly 60 years, and which is now proving so problematic environmentally, economically and socially. Dallas is even further ahead along that same track, with compact urban villages springing up in the most unlikely places -- like Plano, Texas.

I used to live in Plano, and a more generic, placeless location would be hard to find in the north Dallas hinterland. Now it's reinventing itself, and reaping economic rewards.

Ultimately it's down to demographics. Across the country there are millions of younger folks who grew up in conventional suburbia but don't want to live there now. Add to these the empty nester brigades, and you have powerful consumer groups who are demanding a new kind of city life, one that is richer in social and employment opportunities and more sustainable in economic and environmental terms.

Light rail's opponents just can't seem to understand one basic fact: the demand for new lifestyles and different kinds of urbanism isn't coming from planners or architects; it's coming from citizens and consumers themselves -- the core of American capitalism.

Urban villages around transit stops are incubating this new pattern. They're so successful that detractors are reduced to complaining that these places "increase congestion." Of course they're congested! They're successful! Lots of people go there for the same reason they go to other fine urban locations -- for ambience, opportunity and services. This kind of "congestion" is good for the city; it means increased economic activity and support for private businesses.

After all, the only way to avoid congestion is to live in a place so boring and barren that no one wants to visit. Is that the kind of city we want Charlotte to be?

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