Streetcars and Class Politics in Arlington

DES-Columbia-Pike-Streetcar-Rendering-DrafthousePolitical tensions are running high these days in Arlington, Virginia. As I write this, voters are heading to the polls to elect a new member of the County Board. Although typically Arlington politics are characterized by a genteel, consensus-building brand of progressive liberalism, this race between John Vihstadt and Alan Howze has been different from the start. The race is tight, the debates are tense, and the election has been fraught with emotion. In short, it’s been way more fun than usual.

At the center of this debate is the proposal to build a streetcar line down Columbia Pike—a major thoroughfare in South Arlington. Vihstadt—an independent with Republican leanings—opposes the streetcar, essentially on grounds of cost and return on investment. Howze, for his part, views the streetcar as this generation’s “Metro moment” – that is, as a historic chance to invest in a potentially transformative transit project. Posed this way, the streetcar debate at first glance seems like a familiar and tiresome re-hash of the same old “big” versus “small” government divide.

But what makes this debate truly interesting is how issues of class privilege and social mobility are churning and percolating just below the surface. At the center of this debate, in short, is the future of Columbia Pike and its status as Arlington’s latest (and perhaps last) frontier of gentrification.

Over the past 40 years, Arlington has been transformed from a sleepy, middle-class bedroom community for government workers into a bustling urban playground for “creative class” millennials and affluent families—particularly in neighborhoods north of Route 50. Recently, however, the frontier of gentrification has moved steadily south, into neighborhoods that have long been home to Arlington’s diverse new immigrant and working-class communities. And now this frontier has reached the neighborhoods around Columbia Pike.

Today, a walk down Columbia Pike will reveal an eclectic mix of old and new. New condo developments sprout up between car dealerships and strip malls. Wine bars and yoga studios open across from check cashing and money transfer stores. New Irish pubs and sports bars join a block selling Ethiopian injera rolls and Salvadoran pupusas. And, as might be expected, rents are rising and affordable apartments are slowly disappearing.

The streetcar proposal thus arrives at a critical juncture in the history of the Pike, just as processes of gentrification and displacement are beginning to take hold. So far, however, the debate has focused less on gentrification and more on costs. At $330 million, the streetcar would indeed come at a hefty price, especially when compared to the cost of installing a rapid bus system instead ($70 million). For their part, streetcar supporters justify this extra expense on two interlinked grounds—increased ridership and enhanced future development—and, interestingly, both grounds connect directly back to the politics of class and social mobility.

In terms of ridership, the streetcar is designed to reach that holy grail of the transit industry—what planners call “choice riders.” Choice riders have, you guessed it, choices. They can take transit or they can drive themselves to work. (Incidentally, this separates them from what the industry lovingly calls “captive riders,” i.e., those riders who have no choice but to take mass transit.) Given that the population around Columbia Pike is expected to grow by 30,000 in the next 15 years, preventing gridlock on the Pike will depend on getting as many “choice” riders out of their cars and into transit as possible. Hence we need the streetcar, supporters say. 1

The unspoken assumption, of course, is that while “choice” riders might take a streetcar, there’s no way in hell they’re getting on a bus. And, in fact, there is research to back this up. If mass transit systems as a whole struggle with image problems, most opinion surveys find that choice riders associate trains and light rail systems with “an urbane lifestyle” and “contemporary professionals,” while bus travel is viewed as “a low-quality option of last resort for the elderly, disabled, or disadvantaged.”2 In one focus group study, in fact, choice riders told researchers that they would be ashamed to be seen taking the bus.3

So, it seems that the push for the streetcar—as opposed to improving bus service—is tied at least in part to mostly unspoken concerns about the class biases of these important “choice riders.” If you want them out of their cars, you’ll have to give them a train, not a bus.

Finally, in addition to attracting more “choice riders,” supporters also argue that the streetcar line will spark more economic development and growth in the Columbia Pike corridor, bringing more businesses, market—rate housing units, and jobs.4 Again, this would seem to be a mixed blessing at best for existing residents of the Pike, who would be forced to contend with the accelerating rents that accompany such growth.

It would be tempting, of course, to stop here and dismiss the streetcar as an expensive toy designed to tickle the class-biased sensibilities of affluent residents, to attract these residents to the Pike, and thus to double down on a process of gentrification already underway. And in many respects this would be quite accurate.

But there’s a catch. If you care about the preservation and provision of affordable housing on Columbia Pike, you might think twice about opposing the streetcar. Under Virginia law, Arlington cannot force developers to include affordable units in their projects, nor can they force developers to pay into a housing trust fund as part of the zoning approval process. Instead, Arlington relies on a series of elaborate incentives in their negotiations with developers in order to fund affordable housing construction.5 Do you want to by-pass the usual (and laborious) permit process for a quick-and-easy approval? Cool. Just make 25 percent of your units affordable. Do you need a variance so you can build nine stories when our zoning limits you to six? Can do. Just pay into our housing trust fund.

And so we arrive at the rub. In Arlington, the production of new affordable housing units on the Pike depends at least in part on convincing developers to build projects at a greater scale than that allowed by baseline zoning rules. Developers will be more likely to build these mega-projects if they see a bright future of growth anchored by a transportation system that moves people efficiently through the corridor. And building this efficient transportation system may depend on convincing those “choice” riders to stop clogging the Pike with their cars and to get on transit. And, for supporters, that means streetcars.

The result is a kind of “trickle down” progressivism, where preserving the fraying strands of a social safety net depends on feeding an engine of accumulation and growth. In this case, we build a streetcar to fuel development, which in turn allows us to siphon off some small percentage of this growth for affordable housing. It seems crazy, but the alternative—growth and gentrification at a pace and scale which requires no affordable housing set asides from developers—might be worse. Such are the bargains we face in these neoliberal times.


1 Arlington County, Columbia Pike Streetcar: Ridership Forecasting Summary Report (May 2014), Retrieved from

2Federal Transit Administration, Quantifying the Importance of Image and Perception to Bus Rapid Transit, March 2009. Retrieved from http:, p. 25.

3Federal Transit Administration, Quantifying, p. 33.

4Arlington County, Arlington Streetcar: Return on Investment. Retrieved from http://

5Arlington County, Housing on Columbia Pike. Retrieved from http://

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