Getting sued over rail

One of the biggest blindspots in my field: light rail is a locally unwanted land use. It’s crazy to say because on the east coasts, proximity to a subway stop is a residential amenity, with land prices and rents reflecting these differences. But light rail hasn’t been treated that way in southern California, with many communities fighting its creation tooth and nail–and winning.

My colleague, Gerald Caiden, and I debated this story the other day:

The Source ยป Expo Line Construction Authority responds to lawsuit

Gerald is English and a great believer in public transit, and he maintains these folks are just “NIMBYS”–practitioners of the famous Not In My Backyard opposition to projects. It’s interesting how the Construction Authority’s (aka MTA) statement attempts to draw on the anger that people feel towards NIMBYists: the agency is

“extremely disappointed that a small faction of the community seeks to delay the extension of a project that has the overwhelming support of the communities on the Westside.”

In truth, it’s very hard to tell who opposes what and how we should rank those preferences. If opposition is limited only those whose house is right by it and that is, of course, a small number, is it really true that those folks have a less legitimate claim just because the rest of us who live farther away like the project? Is that how democratic agencies act toward multiple publics?

And yet project hold-outs are almost always a problem. When is a hold-out a victim or vice versa?

There are plenty of reasons to treat NIMBYism with more respect than it commonly gets. D.J. Lober’s work had a great deal of influence on me: he argued that planners used NIMBYism to downplay community interests in favor of propping up the interests of the state and capital interests.

Lois Takahashi and Micheal Dear also influenced me. NIMBYism is a complicated question; sometimes, it’s legitimate for community members to demand better project design. At others, communities are engaging merely in exclusionary behavior–such as trying to keep out homeless people or AIDS hospices.

One of my PhD students, Sangmin Kim, and I write about these distinctions in a special issue of the International Review of Public Administration. We argue for three things:

a) when the opposition is toward neighborhood environmental change, community interests should be accommodated, even if the project promises regional benefits; perhaps you don’t kill off the project, but you do mitigate and mitigate and mitigate until the project works for everybody;

b) when the community or communities in question is a historically disadvantaged one, they should have additional civil rights protections that increase their compensation levels and control over project outcomes, and

c) when protest concerns keeping people out, then the opposition to projects ceases to be legitimate and becomes exclusionary–and should, therefore, not get their way during locational conflicts.

Sometimes, it’s hard because the project versus people distinction isn’t always easy. Many people oppose transit because they don’t want “those people” in “their neighborhood.” Eyugh.

So the Expo Line meets one of the three criteria; it’s about design problems, not killing the project. The right thing to do here is increase the project cost (though there is, of course, a huge political penalty to doing so) and accommodate the concerns.

I predict that these crossings will be below grade in the end. They should have done so when the same concerns were raised at Dorsey School; now it will look like a patent case of the rich getting what they want.


Lober, D. J. (1995). Why protest? Public behavioral and attitudinal response to siting a waste disposal facility. Policy Studies Journal, 23(3), 499-518.

Takahashi, Lois M. 1998.Homelessness, AIDS, and Stigmatization: The NIMBY Syndrome at the End of the Twentieth Century.Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.