High Standards–A Unifying Cause for Transit Advocates?

Yonah Freemark over at The Transport Politic has been writing a lot recently on the need for higher-quality transit infrastructure and services. His most recent post is called “A Call for Minimum Service Standards,” and while the post itself is very good–analyzing the tendency of American transit agencies and cities to invest in very expensive new transit infrastructure but provide it with subpar service–it was his use of the word “standards” that got me thinking about a topic on which I’ve been meaning to write.

There’s a well-known division in the world of transit advocacy between, for lack of better phrasing, those who are transit purists concerned with technical improvements and those who are more concerned with aesthetic, physical, and political factors. The dispute is perhaps most publicly embodied in the persons of Jarrett Walker, author of humantransit.org and the book of the same name,  the leader of the “transit purist” faction, and  Darrin Nordahl, whose book My Kind of Transit envisions an aesthetically pleasing, almost quaint experience being the key to successful transit. Their contentious relationship is chronicled in a number of places, and particularly in this hyperbolically-titled, but fair, Salon.com post from Henry Grabar. Alternatively, Alon Levy frames the split in the transit world as an argument between “technicals” and “politicals.”

At times the debate between different sides of the transit world can seem completely out of control–like transit advocates are strangling themselves in the same way most leftist movements (not that all transit advocates are lefties by any means, but most are) have done–by allowing their movement to fall apart in a cascade of hairsplitting and mutual recrimination. Mixed-traffic streetcars seem to be generally the biggest flashpoint, provoking strong feelings on both sides of the proverbial aisle.  Is there, in fact, anything that holds “the transit world” together as an entity?

For me, there still is. I don’t want to co-opt anyone’s language or try to speak for any of the people whose work I’ve linked to here, but it seems to me that the common thread here is that everyone wants to hold American transit to high standards. What the most important part of those standards is may (and does) differ from person to person and sub-community to sub-community, but there’s a consensus that America has just not taken transit seriously, and now it’s time to do so.

That consensus, whether people realize it or not (and I think most do) is driven by the historical experience of the last 60 years–decades that transit, the red-headed stepchild of the American infrastructure family, has spent begging for table scraps. Transit funding, infrastructure, and operations have been a political football, used and abused by politicians at all levels of government with little concern for the day-to-day, year-to-year viability of operations and infrastructure. For most transit advocates today, with the revival of many of our cities, increasing concern for the environment, and the rise of a class of American citizens who genuinely don’t want to own or use automobiles any more than is necessary, the desire for transit isn’t nostalgic, and it’s not based on thinking of transit as a social or welfare service, fit only for the few citizens who lack the means to use cars. We don’t want transit to be thought of as a basic service provided to the desperate, and we don’t want its primary political value to be as a photo op for glory-seeking politicians–we want it to work, and work well.

And sadly, there’s a crying need for transit to be held to those kinds of standards. There’s no doubt that American transit, both intra- and inter-city, is well behind Europe, Japan, and even China and a few other places on many technical grounds. We need to build and operate the same kind of transit other countries have done for decades. And yet, in transit as in other sectors of governance, technical innovations matter little–and can even be a recipe for waste–if the political class is acting in bad faith. We don’t need to get over our differences of opinion, but we do need to build a political movement that is capable of forcing politicians to take transit seriously and hold it to high standards technically, fiscally, and yes, experientially. When Yonah uses the phrase “A Call for Minimum Standards,” he’s not actually looking for minimum standards. He is, ultimately, asking American politicians, transit agencies, and advocates to hold themselves to the same high standards as do their counterparts worldwide.


2 thoughts on “High Standards–A Unifying Cause for Transit Advocates?

  1. Nice post! The differing expectations of “standards” (or maybe, what it means to take things seriously) could be seen as part of the rift between technicals and politicals. Technicals, like Alon Levy, might say that politicals are not serious because the plans they back lack technical merit. Politicals, like Robert Cruickshank, might say that technicals are not serious because they have no viable plan for getting their ideas implemented.

    As an engineer, I probably fall on the technical side. In fact, before I joined twitter, I probably would not have believed you if you told me that there were transit advocates who took themselves seriously and believed that efficiency doesn’t matter (as Cruickshank has said many times).

    The key to long-term transit success, as you say, will be overcoming differences and working together to hold transit to higher standards.

  2. First, I think the main unifying cause can’t be anything this abstract. For example, I don’t think the problem with recent US light rail lines is low frequency; high costs, excessively suburban focus, and lack of TOD are a lot more important. Rather, the unifying cause is certain transit projects that enjoy wide support from everyone, like Second Avenue Subway, and the higher-performing parts of Measure R. If a good project is the official plans, everyone will support it.

    Second, I don’t think the politicals are not serious! First, not all politicals are Robert Cruickshank, just as not all technicals are Richard Mlynarik. Bruce McFarling, Ben Kabak, and most of Streetsblog are politicals, and they do not believe efficiency is unimportant. Robert is somewhat unique here in on the one hand being very far on the left (other politicals tend to be merely center-left), and on the other hand working for elected Democratic politicians, which makes him a lot more institutional and a lot less revolutionary. He’s specifically part of a counter movement on the US left that hates wonks, as seen in pretty much anything Guillotine says about Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. In this view, efficiency is impossible, and everything is about redistribution, so it’s all about directing more money from private taxpayers to the transit system.

    There was a Twitter fight I got into last week, about Seattle’s bus service cuts, which among other things eliminate the peak-only bus Robert’s wife rides. Eventually the difference in strategy became clear. Ben Broesamle’s idea for how to improve US transit is to invest in what he calls choice riders, i.e. richer riders, so that they’d get into the habits of riding transit and politically support more investment. It’s similar to the strategy Bruce outlined years ago for why the Ohio Hub was a good line despite the low speed and high operating costs: the riders would create a lobby of rail riders, who would then advocate for favorable regulations like FRA reform.

    Now, this strategy is not in perfect correlation with being political rather than technical. But to the extent that there’s a growing reform faction in US transit activism, defined around Jarrett Walker’s ideas for bus restructuring, Christof Spieler, etc., it tends to be more technical, yeah. Often it’s less about specific principles (“all-day frequent network”) and more about recognizing that present US practices suck. The standards language is thoroughly technical; a good part of political activism is about supporting lines as political loss leaders, creating enough of a mass of choice riders who will fight for more (e.g. for a subway in Seattle).

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