Infrastructure imaginaries: The politics of light rail projects in the age of neoliberalism

Blog by Kristian Olesen

12 Aug 2019, 4:21 p.m.
Kristian Olesen



Light rail transit systems have become popular in many cities around the world as a way to promote a more sustainable city based on public transport. Whilst light rail projects indeed can play important roles in pushing commuters out of their private cars and into public transport, I argue that there potentially also is a less sustainable feature of light rail projects that needs more attention.


By studying a local light rail project in my hometown, Aalborg in Denmark, it became clear that the main argument for implementing the light rail project was to boost urban development and the image of the city. The light rail was ingrained in a particular imaginary of the city and discourse that Aalborg is transforming from an industrial to a knowledge and culture city. This imaginary was strongly linked to the spatial policy of developing a ‘growth axis’ of urban development projects throughout the city. The light rail was in this context intended to constitute the backbone of the growth axis and act as a driver for urban development and growth. The rationale of the light rail project seemed thus to be embedded in a larger neoliberal political agenda of promoting the competitive and creative city.


Similar stories can be found in many light rail cities around the world. In the paper, I argue (as others have started to do) that there is a need for more critical research on contemporary transport infrastructure projects. Why are these projects implemented? Who are they implemented for? What purposes do they serve for the overall development of the city? There is a small (but increasing) body of research demonstrating that light rail projects are likely to promote increasing land and property values, forcing low-income groups - who cannot afford a car – to move away from areas served by the light rail. In fact, the increase in land value is often part of the funding scheme for light rail projects, that is, a precondition for their socio-economic feasibility.


In my opinion, there is a need to pay more attention to the politics of light rail projects and the imaginaries of the city that these types of infrastructure projects are part of. In what ways will infrastructure projects contribute to promote a more sustainable city, and in what ways are they likely to promote gentrification and socio-spatial inequality? Light rail projects are not good or bad projects per say, we need to pay attention to how and why they are implemented.


Read the paper Infrastructure imaginaries: The politics of light rail projects in the age of neoliberalism on Urban Studies - Online First.



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