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  • Olivia Borgula

How the Purple Line will Harm the Communities That it is Meant to Help

A sketch of a crowded public transportation system

Sidewalk obstruction, detoured roads, and large orange construction signs are a physical reminder of future accessibility to public transportation on the University of Maryland’s (UMD) campus. Despite commonly-understood statements about how public transportation systems positively benefit low-income residents, it may also be a hindrance to this population.

Public transportation systems such as the D.C. Metro provide a fairly cheap source of transportation. Fares at peak times range from $2.25 - $6.00, and off-peak fares range from $2.00 - $3.85. A year’s worth of Metro travel with a monthly unlimited pass would cost someone an estimated $768 - $2304depending on the distance of the commute. This rate is substantially cheaper than driving in the DMV. This system benefits low-income people by allowing them to commute to work, school, and healthcare services while avoiding the high cost of living in a city. Metro recently approved its first fare increase in five years, which was made in part to fund a new program which will cut fares in half for riders who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Metro fares are also reduced with fare evasion. Lax enforcement means many gleam Metro benefits without paying for a ride. In the first few months of 2023, 13% of Metrorail riders did not pay for rides, according to new data from the transit agency. That amounts to 40,000 fare evasions each weekday.

The Metro is also a step in combating climate change, which hits low-income communities hardest. Public transportation produces a fraction of the carbon emissions that a car emits. According to Metro data, Metro avoided tailpipe emissions equal to 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019. Traveling by Metro reduces an average of 46% less greenhouse gas emissions per mile than driving in a single-occupancy vehicle, such as a car.

A map of the D.C. Metro system, including the new Purple Line

However, the Metro system is not a blanket solution to the impacts of poverty. Public transportation is a nuanced component of a flawed society; it both helps and harms low-income people. While state and local officials advertise the novel Purple Line as a revitalization of suburbs, especially in Prince George’s County, experts caution that the new Metro line will raise land values and price out businesses and residents in low-income communities unless measures are taken to prevent gentrification. A two-year analysis from the Purple Line Corridor Coalition released in 2022 found that Long Branch, Langley Park, and Riverdale Park are at the highest risk. Losing small businesses along the Purple Line owned by people of color and immigrants due to rising land costs would lead to cultural displacement and a blow to surrounding neighborhoods. Gentrification could be curbed, however, by making Purple Line stations safer to reach for pedestrians and cyclists. This way, new housing development doesn’t have to be concentrated in close proximity to the Metro — people can safely reach the transportation from farther distances. Another way to reduce harmful impacts is by supporting small businesses during construction while working with communities and residents of color to preserve local cultures.

Low-income residents who rely on Metro access also have to deal with poor safety conditions while riding. Police presence has increased at five Metro stations following a number of shootings earlier this year, and a volunteer group, the D.C. Guardian Angels, has started patrolling the stations again to deter violent crimes. Low-income people who depend on the Metro as a transportation source are more susceptible to becoming a victim of violent crime due to a higher frequency of riding.

Planning sketch for transit-oriented development that implements more greenery, bike lanes, and parking

One factor that can be attributed to the resulting gentrification of public transportation development is a cultural shift toward transit-oriented development. Recent generations, fueled by growing concerns of climate change, increasingly favor dense walkable cities over secluded areas away from public transportation and the buzz of a growing city. This phenomenon is well documented. A study conducted by the San Diego Union-Tribune found that within the past five years, almost 400 new multifamily buildings were built or under construction within half a mile of a transit stop. While the median family income in these neighborhoods averaged less than $64,000, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was more than $3,500. Charlotte, Portland, Minneapolis, and Seattle are additional examples of how a new transit stop led to mass development and investment in the surrounding area. Now, more than ever, people want to be near public transportation.

Despite positive impacts of the Purple Line on low-income people, the new transit line will lead to gentrification and cultural displacement unless measures are taken to prevent rising land costs and development.


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