Comments About Buffalo’s Rail Extension Expose Our Fear Of Suburban Transit

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For kicks yesterday, I popped onto the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA) website to check on the progress of the proposed extension of Buffalo’s Metro Rail to the University of Buffalo North Campus. I was curious when I found myself on a page that allows citizens to publicly post their thoughts on a map that included the proposed line. And just like you should never read the comments on a controversial Facebook post if you want to retain your sanity, I probably should never have clicked the posts on this interactive page.  So naturally I did anyway.

Before I get into it, here’s a tiny bit about the NFTA Metro Rail for all those who are unfamiliar.  It’s a simple 7-mile stretch of track that connects downtown Buffalo with some low to middle income neighborhoods along Main Street on the city’s north side, as well as several colleges.  Despite its limited reach, the Metro Rail boasts one of the highest “ridership per mile” rates in the United States, a stat that often shocks the casual observer to the point of disbelief.

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The proposed extension will couple the current northern terminus of the line with UB’s North Campus, connecting more students to downtown and to the UB South Campus as well.  The move makes sense for a city that is looking to retain college grads and a younger generation that is increasingly seeking transit-oriented city life.

So what’s the problem?  To complete the line, the train will cut directly through Amherst, New York, a middle to upper-middle-class suburban community… and the comments on the aforementioned NFTA public input site epitomize exactly why public support for ambitious transit projects like this are so difficult.

Let’s start with the comment below, which addresses concerns about sound pollution and disruption of their “serene park like setting.”  Nevermind the fact that light rail trains are electric and no louder than a few cars passing on a nearby road.  As for the park setting, let’s remember one of light rail’s goals is to transport more people with less space, unlike cars, which turn every individual into a 2500+ pound monster that takes up nearly 100 square feet of space.  One of the primary goals of public transit is to encroach less on nature by creating a more spatially efficient form of mobility.

My absolute favorite comments are the ones where people complain that home values will decrease and traffic congestion will increase…

Again… the point of light rail is to relieve traffic congestion by taking cars off the road.  Light rail is more spatially efficient, and has tremendous potential to ease traffic nightmares, not create them.

As for the property values, studies show that living near light rail stations increases property values.  Obviously, these folks are thinking the CSX main line is going to be routed through their neighborhood, which WOULD actually bring property values down.

And then there’s the goldmine, the bevy of posts that subtly and/or directly state that they don’t want inner city people coming to their suburban neighborhood.

People ask me all the time, “why don’t more cities build transit that connects the city with suburban communities?  I’d love to ride public transit but it doesn’t come near where I live.”

These comments are why it doesn’t come near you.  Because there is a genuine fear that any connection to the “inner city” might create an artery of crime and ugliness that will infiltrate an otherwise pristine lifestyle.  Transit’s objective is, in part, to create equal access to jobs, resources and opportunities for everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status.  The truth is, many (maybe most) suburban communities are just fine with the barrier imposed by nonexistent transit access in the city.  It is a fear that will continue to drive a wedge between the haves and have nots. It is the whispered but consistent desire to be on the outskirts of a problem perceived to be someone else’s mistake. And just as importantly, this perception robs people of the opportunity to get out of their car and travel sustainably.

I get it… we all want our families to be safe, feel comfortable, and have the best opportunities they can have. But if we truly believe the “all” in this statement, then we must realize the importance that public transit plays in the equitable capacity of our communities, both urban and metro.

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In an ever-changing America, adaptation is the new constant. No one can or should be immune to an evolving demographic, especially when it fosters the uplifting wings of inclusivity. We need to look beyond our own station in life to realize that transit can provide a practical service for everyone.

Obviously, these words will fail to reach the covered ears of those who made these comments. I never believe I can change minds or shift perspectives. Rather it’s a reminder to the rest of us just how hard a fight this is, and just how important a mission we all have together. Let’s get it done. Let’s invest in projects like these that connect all of us.


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