Something important is on the ballot next week that needs more attention, something largely ignored in the debate between those supporting light rail between Norfolk and Virginia Beach and those rejecting it.
Residents of Virginia Beach are explicitly voting on a referendum that may pave the way for a new form of public transportation in their city. Less explicitly, their vote is a referendum on cars, specifically our cultural obsession with cars. Scratch a little farther below the surface–as Ashley Barnett did recently–and you’ll find that the bedrock of many arguments against light rail is social and economic privilege.
I’m a Norfolk resident and don’t get a vote next week on light rail, but I’ve been following the arguments on both sides of the debate closely enough to recognize a familiar refrain among those fighting light rail. We heard similar rhetoric recently in Norfolk after the City paid for and installed some wonderful new bike lanes. An enthusiastic commenter tagged a piece I wrote about the lanes with a reference to “all the traffic backing up now so the bikesters can have fun.” The idea that people riding bikes are only doing so for fun is flat wrong, as is the notion that to be pro-bike you must obviously be anti-car.
Even some basic research will show that around 90% of US households own at least one car, meaning the vast majority of people arguing for alternative forms of transportation are also drivers. Those of us lucky enough to look at this through the lens of privilege worry about lagging car sales and debate whether we’ve reached “Peak Car.”
More attention needs to be given to the flip side of that car ownership data. Considering the US population sits just under 320MM right now, the number of people without access to a vehicle is easily in the tens of millions. That’s an entire New York City worth of people, and it’s too many people to write off as just a wave of Millennials opting out of cars in place of “the sharing economy.” We’ve only reached Peak Car in the sense that almost every household above a certain socioeconomic threshold can afford one or more vehicles. Meanwhile, organizations like Working Cars for Working Families are trying to educate the public on how transportation options and fairness in lending contribute to poor families breaking the cycle of poverty.
Should we look at light rail as penalizing taxpayers so a bunch of people can ride between Norfolk and Virginia Beach to “have fun?” What if we instead looked at light rail as increasing the odds that people in adjacent neighborhoods have access to important business districts and employment options? In a 2014 study by the Accessibility Observatory featured in The Washington Post, Virginia Beach ranked shamefully low on a list of US cities, based on job access through public transit. The most important discussion we’re not having about light rail is its potential to reshape the socioeconomic landscape in our region.
Any charitable volunteer in our community will tell you they’re part of a virtuous cycle, helping to remove obstacles for those less fortunate living around us. If car ownership seems common and obvious to you, you’ve lost sight of the fact that you’re in the fortunate majority. My 2005 Hyundai Sonata hardly feels like a chariot of privilege, but that’s absolutely what it represents to families unable to obtain reliable transportation to work. I’m not suggesting that any of you reading this sell your cars, just that you take a broader look at how car culture may be blinding you to the economic necessity of better public transportation in our community.
Most importantly, I’m suggesting that Beach residents vote in support of light rail next week. What’s on the ballot is not an expensive stretch of track. What’s on the ballot is investment in job creation, inclusion, and an absolute economic necessity for your fellow citizens.