Off the Beaten Track

Can Light Rail Build Livable Communities?



St. Louis' MetroLink light rail system

photograph by Rita Debellis

At the end of October, about 800 planners, community activists, transit system officials, engineers, academics, and occasional nosey reporters like me gathered in St. Louis for "Rail-Volution '97: Building Livable Communities With Transit." The premise of the conference was clear -- to build livable communities, you must have transit, and especially passenger rail. By the end of three-plus days of urban-affairs wonking, though, the message was more muddled. At times, Rail-Volution felt like two separate conferences, one for hip `n' clever New Urban imagineers, the other for transportation engineers in dark suits, who ended up in the same hotel at the same time by accident. Either way, though, Austin -- currently craving both more livable communities and a better transportation system, together or separately -- had a lot to learn, and maybe to share, at Rail-Volution, which is why this nosey reporter went to St. Louis. Here's the scoop on what Austin had to say, and what the Gateway City has to teach us.


Track One: Austin

Rail-Volution was born in 1995 in (where else) Portland, Oregon, and it returns to the Rose City next year as part of the opening festivities for Portland's Westside light rail extension. Joining the Oregonians who planned Rail-Volution two years ago were sundry government agencies, engineering firms, and local transit authorities, including our own Capital Metro.

However, Cap Met was nowhere to be seen in St. Louis, having bailed out on short notice to tend to the basics back home -- including continued fallout from a year's worth of muckraking and woodshedding of the transit authority. (Right before Rail-Volution, Capital Metro's contract compliance officer, Irie Turner -- linked with some of CMTA's more controversial deals, like the now-notorious Praise Tabernacle park-n-ride -- was unceremoniously sacked. Dark whispers both here and at the conference hinted at much more turmoil to come.)

This left the Austin banner being borne at Rail-Volution by the citizens' team -- including Scott Polikov, formerly of both the Cap Met board and the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) Policy Advisory Committee, currently of the Citizens Planning Implementation Committee (CPIC); Jana McCann, also of the CPIC and currently engaged as an architect with the ATS; Austin Librach, former City of Austin environmental director, now a consultant with Espey Huston; Katharine Shriver, pedestrian advocate and leader of WALK Austin and the city's Sidewalk Task Force; Will Bozeman, organizing chair of RAIL Austin, our new light rail advocacy group; and Ross Milloy, impresario of the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council and the leading spokesman for commuter rail in Central Texas.

Polikov, Shriver, and Milloy all had actual speaking gigs at the conference, appearing on panels with names like "Transit Friendly Development -- How To Get Started" and "Models for Regional Problem Solving." Now, anyone who's been active in Austin politics, or in land-use battles, might be a bit dubious that our fair burg has much to teach others in these matters. (Ask the folks who are being annexed if they think Austin is a good model for regional problem solving.) But it's already curious that Capital Metro -- which, lest we forget, may never operate a light rail system -- would help put on a light rail conference, so suspend your disbelief.

Actually, from the often wide-eyed reactions of conferees from other cities, 'twould seem Austin's got it going on, at least where citizen participation is concerned. For instance: In more than a few communities represented at Rail-Volution, neighborhood associations are vilified as the enemy of responsible planning, with NIMBY being the only word they know. In Austin, the whole livability movement has been driven, for the most part, by neighborhood and community activists, who seem to stand the concerns of other cities' NAs on their heads. Here, it's the neighborhoods -- at least some of them -- telling the policymakers and developers they want more density, more transit options, and more mixed-use, mixed-income development in the urban core.

This vision makes planners and advocates in other cities all misty. Speakers from Pittsburgh and Atlanta and Kansas City and Silicon Valley and Baltimore and Denver all echoed, to various degrees, the assessment of St. Louis by Cole Campbell, editor of the host city's daily Post-Dispatch: "We've never had any kind of civic infrastructure like [Austin's] here, and we probably never will. New ideas tend to proceed from the top down, and policymakers spend their energies selling to the people."



Union Station, once the hub of St. Louis' transportation network, has been turned into a glitzy supermall frequented by out-of-towners.

photograph by Rita Debellis



The flip side of this, though, is that the people eventually get sold, and St. Louis has a light rail system, while in Austin our vaunted civic culture is often blamed for frustration and stagnation. It's actually a little more complex than that -- we may not get anything done, but we know what we might do down to the fine details. This was well illustrated in RAIL Austin's display in the Rail-Volution exhibit area and swag room, awash with handouts paper, plastic, and otherwise -- koozies from Siemens, model trains from Bombardier and Amtrak, souvenir pens from all the transit authorities. (St. Louis' MetroLink proffers fluid-filled pens with one of their trains sliding back and forth, á la Elvis in front of Graceland.)

The Austin team may have been outclassed in the swag department, but the display was impressive and well received, with its well-refined plans for how the light rail stations that we don't have could/would spur reinvestment and creative land use in their areas. These station plans -- covering the web of the proposed light rail system, from Brushy Creek in Cedar Park to the Drag, Downtown, Mueller, Plaza Saltillo, and South Congress -- were created by Jana McCann and commissioned by Capital Metro itself as part of its 1995 transit systems plan.

At which point CMTA shelved them, reportedly because some of the now-deposed board members feared they'd encourage "speculation" in the station areas. One man's "speculation" is another's "reinvestment," so it's unclear why the Cap Met board would have been afraid of encouraging people to do exactly what light rail was supposed to do -- re-create the station areas with transit-oriented development. Aside from brief and fitful appearances around the time CMTA brought Siemens' RegioSprinter here for a preview of light rail's coming attractions, this planning effort was orphaned until the ATS embraced it and sent it to Rail-Volution to wow the crowd. This was just one instance in which Capital Metro's absence may have been in its own best interest -- in Austin, the people do a better job of selling new ideas than do the policymakers who supposedly had them.

As you may have sensed, the Austin team's contributions to Rail-Volution represent a new twist on the light rail rhetoric, in that much more was said about land use -- reconfiguring Point A and Point B -- than about moving people from Point A to Point B, the normal stuff of "transportation." In Austin's case, this is strategic: Moving people around is the province of the unpopular Capital Metro, and viewed purely as transportation tools; rail and transit are compared to roadways like SH130 that many behind-the-wheel Austinites view as absolutely essential. Indeed, while the conference was going on, local leaders threw a press conference back home backing, at least implicitly, both SH130 and commuter rail, and it appears that lobbying efforts from here on out will be centered on a total package of transportation options.

But architects are inherently more romantic than engineers, and Rail-Volution '97's pervasive and calculated spotlight on land use and planning, rather than on transportation systems and their technicalities, helped reinforce the notion of livability as a national movement, with the conferees as its apostles, and rail as their instrument. At Rail-Volution, the cause even took on religious overtones: Earl Blumenauer, who's spent his entire adult life as an elected official in Portland and currently represents the Rose City in Congress, quoted Isaiah -- "Your people will rebuild the waste places, and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called the repairer of the breach, and restorer of the streets and the dwellings." He got a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, most of the nation's existing transit systems -- including the last two decades' boom in light rail -- were not designed and built with the romantic ideal in mind, and while they may be suitably successful at moving people around, can they really, as Rail-Volution suggests, build livable communities? Or is transit ultimately a fairly limited tool, without any real power to change settlement and development patterns that predate the system's debut? Judging from the Rail-Volution '97 host city, it may be a while before we can answer this question.




St. Louis' light rail has exceeded ridership expectations, but the Gateway City is still looking for more people to use MetroLink to travel downtown.

photograph by Rita Debellis

Track Two: St. Louis

As the purveyors of transport, the Bi-State Development Authority -- St. Louis' transit system, which crosses the Mississippi into Illinois, hence its name -- couldn't ask for better advertising than the scene which greeted Rail-Volution conferees as they arrived. MetroLink's outbound terminus is the St. Louis airport; at the first stop immediately thereafter, quite some distance from downtown, the trains filled to the gills with St. Louis Blues hockey fans, bound for the downtown Kiel Center arena, adjacent to St. Louis Union Station, where the conference was being held. Warm bodies are clearly not a problem, and MetroLink was duly and proudly honored during the conference for its success in breaking ridership expectations in its four years of operation.

Yet when the conferees got to their hotel rooms, if they chanced to turn on the local news, they heard about a gathering held earlier that day, in which boosters wrung their hands about "how to get more people downtown." This was, mind you, on the same day that Planet Hollywood opened a location in St. Louis, and on the same day that the new City Museum opened in the Gateway City's equivalent of our warehouse district.

Consider further that downtown St. Louis has three big destination-retail projects -- including Union Station, which received its last train in the 1960s and now houses a Hyatt and a Hooters and a mess of mall stores. (Another one, Laclede's Landing -- the quaint-and-cobblestoned old waterfront settlement up by the Arch -- has the Planet Hollywood.) It also has an enormous convention center (occupied during Rail-Volution by a national gathering of paint dealers and by something called "Wastecon") and seemingly ample nearby hotels, with the third big mall, St. Louis Centre, across the street from it. And separate stadiums, some blocks from one another, for each of its three major-league sports teams -- the Rams, the Cardinals, and the Blues. And riverboat casinos moored along the Mississippi, vast stretches of parkland, a sizeable civic-center complex, a healthy office district (dominated by the old headquarters of Southwestern Bell), and, of course, the Gateway Arch -- all easily accessible via seven downtown MetroLink stations. And they're still scratching their heads about how to revitalize downtown.

The answer lies about four blocks past the freeways that circumscribe the central district: Downtown St. Louis might be hopping, but the surrounding neighborhoods are in pretty sad shape. (And have been, in many cases, since they were torn apart by those same freeways.) Austin's in-town districts, even the purportedly blighted Eastside, look Parisian compared with most of their analogues in St. Louis. There's enough infill potential in Central St. Louis -- especially on the bones of some of America's most reprehensible housing projects, now vacated and destined for demolition -- to jack up the head counts of downtown attractions with people who could walk to them. They could also take MetroLink -- were it to serve those neighborhoods, which it currently does not -- but a regular rubber-tired bus shuttle service, á la our Dillo, would probably meet their needs just fine at a sliver of the cost.

Significantly, the Central St. Louis neighborhoods that are still sexy and popular -- places like the University City Loop, Grand Center, and the Central West End -- aren't walkable from downtown, but are served by MetroLink. This sounds like a great selling point for light rail, except that these have always been nice neighborhoods, as well as destinations -- for the arts in Grand Center, for entertainment and dining in the CWE and the Loop, and for recreation in St. Louis' enormous and well-stocked Forest Park, which adjoins the area. (Bi-State runs the sort of shuttle service here that it doesn't run downtown -- the Shuttle Bug and Shuttle Bee, whose buses are painted to resemble the titular insects. Go figure.)

So MetroLink met the people and the money where they were, which makes sense if all you want to do is move them around. It doesn't, however, create new transit corridors, or encourage reinvestment in areas of inner city blight, or change the character of your urban core -- all of which light rail, in Austin and elsewhere, is supposed to help accomplish, and which formed the philosophical underpinning of Rail-Volution.

Today, Bi-State's MetroLink expansion plans are being blasted in some quarters for connecting thriving yuppie suburbs like Clayton and Kirkwood, further west of downtown, rather than St. Louis' many working-class and/or African-American neighborhoods, mostly to the south. (The latter are the folks who've returned Richard Gephardt to Washington umpteen times.) That's not to say that MetroLink has earned the love of St. Louis' vast number of suburbanites, many of whom claim they'd like to live closer in, but are more outwardly concerned about their tax burden than about someone else's ideal of livability. Right now, Bi-State is facing stiff opposition from suburban voters to sales tax increases to fund MetroLink's regional expansion; St. Charles County, the analogue of Williamson County as St. Louis' growth fringe, has twice nixed a MetroLink extension, but is clamoring for a massive highway extension that will, if completed as designed, pave over a chunk of popular and relatively pristine local parkland.

Most conferees at Rail-Volution took some perverse pleasure in pegging their hometowns as No. 1 in some measure of horridness. St. Louis' point of shame is having the most sprawl per capita since 1950; while the population of the metro area has only grown some 35%, the developed land area has grown close to 400%. This translates into abandonment not just of the city, but of the first ring of suburbs, and if and when Bi-State chooses to expand MetroLink through them -- as it is doing across the river to East St. Louis, whose urban decay is legendary -- its task will be building communities that are not only livable, but economically viable, with transit. (The East St. Louis MetroLink planning includes station-area redevelopment proposals similar to Austin's.)

Which again makes Austin look pretty good by comparison; even if we can't redirect the growth and revitalize the heart of the metro area through transit, we are in a better position to start with. And that makes our status as an outpost of the livability movement -- verily a junior partner to Portland -- easier to understand; we can think and talk and dream about reinventing our communities because we don't have to work as hard to simply keep them alive. (Neither does Portland.) This may in itself be a good enough argument to start working on the New Austin now, whether through light rail and improved transportation, or through big-deal central-city redevelopment, or simply through a less boneheaded approach to planning and development. As St. Louis shows, it's much harder to do when your life depends on it.

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