Light rail is the future of American urban mobility. The subway/streetcar hybrid is a recent development in the public transit sphere. It’s now the most common form of rapid transit in the United States, and cities across the country are planning for further construction.
In a brash decision, I set out to ride as many light rail systems in the United States as possible so I could understand their desirability.
I rode the entirety of fifteen systems. Of all those I visited, from Boston to Denver, Houston to Minneapolis, I found the systems in California to be the most representative of light rail transit in the United States, both in my experience riding them and in their impact on the surrounding community.
I sat quietly, confined to a corner of the railcar, while the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego smudged beyond the window. I was an armchair traveller riding hard plastic dipped in neon orange, sharing the moment with one or two strangers at any given time.
In motion, the world outside the window blurs. The view shifts from neighborhood to neighborhood. Borders fade. Often, I found myself tumbling into the collective, passing landscape. I hope to describe my experience, my travel, and my ultimate assessment: a qualitative story that accompanies each rail line. What follows are excerpts. They are the notes I took down in moments that defined each light rail system.
Construction. Fences. Sunlight.
At the corner of 4th & King, cookie-cutter urbanist apartment buildings stretch to the horizon in either direction. I stand on a platform in the middle of the avenue. Look left, a new line is being constructed into the central business district. Look right: the southern terminus of Sunnyvale.
There are no faregates here. Technically speaking, he platforms are open spaces. The train is not. Signs inside threaten those without a ticket. The open station design means no one has to pay to get on board. It also means that transit police can board at anytime and demand a ticket receipt from any passenger entirely at their discretion.
The train is crowded. I can’t imagine that everyone has paid their fare. I don’t mind.
The driver, whose small cabin is divided by a thin plate of glass, is snapping his fingers, which appears to frustrate two passengers behind me.
Luxury mid-rise apartment buildings continue to line the avenue down which the light rail rolls. The “Dogpatch,” I see it’s called. The friend I’m staying with says it’s trendy.
Each station exudes development. The light rail seems to attract people, wealthy people. But as one group is pulled in, another is pushed out — with development comes displacement
As we continue further south, the Dogpatch slips away. Organic groceries are replaced with auto body shops and bilingual bodegas. Triangular parks are filled with families. A few men play chess.
How long do they have?
Sunnyvale Station in the Bayshore neighborhood is our terminus. All doors open. A man is sleeping in the back car and the driver, done snapping, calls out over the intercom.
“Wake up! Your ride’s over. Wake up and get out.”
The VTA trains run fast, but they are nearly empty. Unlike San Francisco, they have their own right of way, a step above the adjacent cars and buses. There is priority for public transportation. At Cisco Way, the train speeds by offices occupied by tech giants: Yahoo, Microsoft, Google. Employees crowd the curb waiting for private shuttles. The trains are still empty.
There’s a button you can push for a “stop request.” No one pushes it. The train stops anyways.
At Tamien we wait a little longer. No reason is given.
At Snell no one gets off.
At River Oaks, a fare inspector boards. She has to wake a few people up, but everyone has a fare. Actually, not everyone. The inspector looks down upon the seated passenger, probably in his late 20s. There’s no ticket. The passenger provides an excuse. The inspector cannot verify his story. She is firm, with superficial politeness.
“At Tasman Station, you will have to exit and purchase a ticket. Please.”
At Tasman Station, both leave the train. The fare inspector walks away from the platform. The passenger briefly peers up and down the train before climbing back on.
“Couldn’t find a ticket machine” he mutters, then sits back down. The doors close.
All the light rail cars look identical from the inside. Now, the worlds beyond the windows are becoming creepily similar as well. The new constructions of Los Angeles look like the new constructions of San Jose look like the new constructions of San Francisco.
How does light rail factor in urban development? What about displacement? Is development a cause or consequence of light rail construction? What came first, the chicken or the egg?
Light rail, despite its unintentional outcomes, still moves people. And that is its greatest asset. That’s why it is necessary. Ironically, light rail threatens the same people whose movement it facilitates. It’s a paradox: build light rail to connect people, build light rail to remove people. I am concerned.
The announcements are now bilingual, but the Spanish translations are much more spartan than their English counterparts. At one point the automated announcements give way for the driver’s voice, calling to a group of passengers in my car.
“Turn down the music!”
Through downtown, East LA, Compton, Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Norwalk, speeds are inconsistent, and the trains are busy.
The trains are the busiest yet. Spanish and English announcements are given equal airtime.
I’m headed to San Ysidro. The train is packed and continues to pick up speed on our private right-of-way. I’m smacked in the head by a guitar case at Harborside Station.
At each passing station, despite the afternoon rush, no one gets off. The pattern continues as we approach the terminus station, now with even more people crowded inside.
When we arrive, I witness a great movement. Suddenly, I realize where we are.
The passengers flow from the train onto the platform with a steadfast determination, turning left toward an asphalt path down a nameless road. I follow them until I can’t. I halt and the collective motion continues past. I see soldiers — they are the only ones who stand still against the current of migration.
Here is a border I cannot cross.
The pedestrian path to Tijuana, marked in bold blue & white signs, is inaccessible without a passport. But for the hundreds passing me, this is a routine. This light rail line connects countries. Two separate worlds meld here in this station: the magnitude and anxiety of the border, juxtaposed by the anonymity and mundanity of the train.
The train’s ideal purpose is to connect, to increase mobility. In San Diego, this fluidity is essential to communities on both sides of the border. The train, however, can be manipulated to serve the needs of wealthier, more powerful parties in the American urban landscape, leaving its ultimate objective behind for more lucrative pursuits. This is the necessary caution that troubles light rail.
I believe its intention should never waver: connect those who need transport the most. All must benefit.