Rail systems driving neighborhood tensions

Posted on July 18, 2012 by Nicole Schlosser

The simple act of providing transportation can be fraught with political implications in some areas.

Public Radio International reported last week on a new light rail line running through both Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods that has been operating for months and is fostering cultural tension. The train also sparked an international outcry because it winds through disputed parts of Jerusalem that Palestinians want for their future state. The rail project planners simply designed the route to go through populous neighborhoods to maximize the number of passengers who’d ride it and said there’s nothing political about the project.

Even in areas of the world that are significantly less volatile, such as Los Angeles, public transportation issues can still cause upheaval.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Metro) “Subway to the Sea” rail project, the Westside 3.9-mile extension of L.A.'s subway system, has struggled with opposition from citizens of Beverly Hills, touching off an age-old class dispute between local opponents and advocates of the project. The most recent development was a vote to move ahead with the plan that would have the rail line running under Beverly Hills High School, sparking a “YouTube feud” between the school and transit advocates, KABC-TV reported.

Citizens in the area have over the years protested the rail line because it would run underneath Beverly Hills High School. The high school claims the plan presents safety concerns and interferes with plans to renovate the campus, according to CBS Local. However, Metro’s environmental analysis and technical studies show that building a tunnel under the school would be safe and would not disrupt the school’s activities in any way. Similar transit tunnels run under schools in Berkeley, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco, sources tell the Los Angeles Times.

Additionally, decades ago, powerful Westside interests opposed the project and blocked a line that would have run west down Wilshire Boulevard, apparently out of concern that the rail system would bring the "wrong element" to their neighborhoods. Spend time conversing with any long-time Angeleno on the subject and they’ll get all hot under the collar about the NIMBYs in Beverly Hills who crushed the project so they wouldn’t have to associate with the “riff-raff,” i.e., those of us who don’t live on the Westside, who would like to get there using public transit.

The whole argument made me think about The Atlantic’s article, “Race, Class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America,” which came out last week. Even though the focus is on a different mode of transportation, it still addresses the tension that’s spawned out of cultural, racial and class issues. It does, in fact, refer to the "Subway to the Sea" project and the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, which claims that what it sees as the city’s disproportionate investment in its rail versus its bus system is a class and race issue, and points to the fact that, over the past four years, the city has cut bus service by 7% and increased transit fares by 44%.

Are they right? Will the “Subway to the Sea,” which Angelenos have been anticipating for decades, ever be built? Is there anything more that can be done to ease these tensions?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Making public transit greener" here.

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