The Rail Way - Left Side

Hear that train a-comin'? The future vitality of this region depends upon a first-rate mass transit system.

Mass Transit,like The Norfolk Light Rail, is important for Hampton Roads.

Some years ago, when Norfolk’s elected officials were considering how best to provide enough parking in the downtown area, someone proposed consolidation of garages: the city should have a few large garages on downtown’s outskirts, this person suggested, and provide shuttle buses to various destinations.

One of Norfolk’s leading businessmen strenuously objected to this idea: “We’re talking about high-powered attorneys and stock brokers,” he said. “They’re not going to ride a bus!”

His notion that riding mass transit is somehow socially demeaning reflected a parochial view that seems to be quite prevalent in this town—buses and light rail trains are for poor people.

Apparently he’d never visited New York City. During my several decades as a resident there, I rode countless subways and buses. In most cases, my fellow passengers included high-powered executives and professionals at the peaks of their careers along with construction workers, students, the elderly and the homeless.

And why not? In New York, and other large cities, riding the subways is simply more practical. On the rare occasions when I took a taxi, the trip to my destination generally took far longer than it would have on the subway or even the bus. And therein lies the rub for Hampton Roads. Mass transit remains largely marginal here— Norfolk’s light rail line notwithstanding—because traffic in these parts simply isn’t bad enough to make mass transit an appealing option for most people. I certainly don’t use it. If I want to go to MacArthur Center from my home in West Ghent, for example, I have several options: I could walk, which would take me about half an hour. I could walk to the nearest light rail station, board the next train and arrive in front of the mall, all of which would take at least 30 minutes. Or I could drive there in about five minutes—10 if I hit a lot of red lights.

Does this mean I see no value in spending more public funds on light rail in particular and mass transit in general? Not at all. Does my endorsement of mass transit make me a hypocrite, given that I don’t use it myself? Perhaps. But I’ll risk that charge, so long as you hear me out.

While traffic in this region is still relatively light, compared with, say, the New York tri-state area or D.C. and Northern Virginia, it is growing more congested all the time. And for some people it’s already downright miserable. I pity the poor souls, for example, who sit in traffic every day on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, inching their way toward the Midtown Tunnel at rush hour.