Just the ticket : the role of activism in shaping Austin’s future light rail system




Shuster, Jonathan

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This report is an examination of how activists have influenced Austin’s future light rail system and expanded bus system, Project Connect. The project provides an extraordinary opportunity to increase mobility, accessibility, and justice for transit users throughout Austin. Great transit provides people with more than just the ability to move between desired destinations quickly and easily; it allows people to fully participate in urban society and transcend the mobility restrictions which define their social class and way of life. However, market and political forces often seek to use light rail specifically as a chance to earn profit, disregarding the goal of improving the lives of marginalized communities. A light rail project that strives to make a city more attractive to increasingly mobile international capital and elevate the city to the world stage can have a negative effect on equity and cause a race to the bottom among competitive mid-level cities. Light rail has a particularly distinct history of causing gentrification and displacement in lower income neighborhoods and communities of color. The author conducted semi-structured interviews with activists, advocates, and agency staff to gain a better understanding of how activism has shaped, does shape, and will shape Project Connect and combat the exploitative forces that seek to use light rail transit solely for economic gain. Interviewees conveyed the importance of activism in almost every step of Project Connect. By engaging in traditional activism (representing their communities and acting as a check on agency power), shaping the Project Connect initial investment that was put forth to voters, influencing the governance structure of the project, demanding a first of its kind anti-displacement fund, ensuring high quality worker protections, fighting for an equitable fare structure, maintaining momentum and positive energy for the project, and creating a permanent seat at the decision making table, activists provide a crucial counterbalance to the market and political forces that seek to use Project Connect as a tool for capital accumulation.


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