Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Can a manifesto be written in 45 minutes? If so, this is my Transportation Manifesto.

Miriam's post On Transportation has generated a pretty interesting thread over at Feministing, and made me realize once again how strongly I feel about public transit. I don't want to misrepresent Miriam's reflections on public transit in Washington DC, nor do I want to deny the frustrating nature of her experience with DC. buses. Her post is thoughtful, and it's certainly not pro-car. But I was pretty disappointed in the main thrust of her argument.

To give a reductive summary, Miriam essentially said: "Man, it's tough to be poor, because then you can't afford a car, so you have to take public transportation. And sometimes public transportation really sucks and makes you late for work and makes your already tough life even harder."

Yep. Public transit advocacy foiled again -- on a progressive blog. Instead of uplifting public transit as a sustainable, social and affordable means of getting around, Miriam added her voice to the chorus of millions of car-dependent people who complain about the slow, inconvenient, terrible public transit in their cities.

The funny thing is, many of my fellow Chicagoans feel the same way about our transit system. Although I sing the praises of the Clark bus, taking me through my bustling neighborhood for errands, other people say the Clark bus "makes them suicidal." Although I safely take the Red Line to points far South and far North, many people avoid the Red Line's homeless solicitors and late-night riders. Although I commute car-free to the South Side, north suburbs, and everywhere in between, many people claim they could "never make it" without their car.

So that's the difference between Us and Them? Between the public transit lovers, and the haters? I'm starting to think it's a matter of principle. And some of the principles I hold most dear are below.

1. Basics. I believe that the "one person, one car" model of transportation is bullshit. It's environmentally disastrous, it's antisocial, and it's a waste of resources. We have a massive body of scientific evidence which supports this belief, and our city and state governments need to start responding. So do we.

2. The Rest Of The World. I also believe, and have seen from experience, that the "one person, one car" is a standard to which most of the world does not adhere. More specifically, it is largely an American construct. People all over the world -- in Africa, Asia, Europe -- manage to live happy, productive lives without getting whisked around in an upholstered, air-conditioned bubble which plays the music of their choice. They ride rickshaws and daladalas. They walk places. They take high-speed rail. They wait for the bus. These experiences do not traumatize them.* These experiences do not suck. These experiences do not ruin their day.

3. Road Rage Sucks. I believe that driving a car creates dangerous beliefs and attitudes in drivers: namely, that we are in control, that we have a right to proceed quickly and smoothly, and that other people (especially pedestrians and bikers) are obstacles in our path. These beliefs are symptomatic of a fast-moving, impatient culture in general, but they create a particularly dangerous environment on our roads. I believe that these aggressive attitudes have poisoned some segments of bike culture as well.

4. Patience, Sharing and Community Rock. Conversely, I believe that riding public transit can increase your patience, increase social contact with your community, and build willingness to relinquish some control over your own transportation. Drivers and bikers need to slow down. Transit riders need to take a breath and bring a book. These changes can bring increased tranquility to our daily lives, if we allow that to happen. I know this part sounds really Zen and silly, but I think it's true.

4. This Stuff Matters. I believe your selected mode of transportation says something about your values and priorities. Not only environmentally, but also financially: how do you want to spend your money? What is most important to you? And frankly, being able to get from place to place faster, blasting the environment with carbon each time I start my car, is not important to me. I would rather wait twenty goddamn minutes in the cold for that cursed bus you're complaining about so much.

Giant Caveat: Did I mention I'm privileged to live in a place with access to these options? I know, I know, I know. When you live in suburbia (et al), it's damn hard to think of anything you can do besides drive. I'm mostly talking about my fellow city-dwellers. But I think there are changes that can be made (more carpooling, more biking, more ride-sharing, fewer car trips, more activism in suburban planning) across our country, whether in urban, suburban, or rural communities.

* One commenter on Miriam's thread, a public school teacher, sounded convinced that her students were arriving to school grumpy, tired and anxious because they have to take the bus to school. Dude. In Boston public schools, do you really think these kids don't have bigger problems in their lives than waiting fifteen minutes for a bus? I respectfully refer this person to Item 2.

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