from Human Transit: Think Tanks, Binary Thinking, and “Bus vs Rail”

I’ve had the opportunity of late to sit in on a variety of local transit oriented conversations at county, institutional, neighborhood, and individual citizen levels here in Florida, and the experience has been educational. Transportation quickly loses its meaning in such talks and instead becomes both code and symbol for underlying fears and desires. When the topic of light rail came up one older gentleman shook with anger and declared that nobody would take his Cadillac away as long as he was still breathing. Charlton Heston was evoked not only by the gentleman’s tone and syntax, but also by the violence of his near-non sequitor. Fear so dominated his mind that he was unable to even have the conversation. Perceived symbols of various isms, cultures, and histories inevitably raise the temperature of any discussion.

None of the conversations I sat in on reached any sort of conclusion, nor even identified all the various options and their relative benefits and shortcomings or their applicability. Some people had already decided, often emotionally, that rail or BRT or automobile was the best mode of transportation and therefore should be the only mode focused on. Some failed to even see the relationship between transportation and land use, and most discredited multimodal transit out of hand.

The following excerpt from a blog called Human Transit, written by public transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker, delves a bit deeper into the growing national argument.

The Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at Florida State University is under fire in Florida’s legislature.  State senator Mike Fasano (R), who chairs the committee overseeing spending by the state Department of Transportation, proposes to cut off funding to the transportation think tank.  From the St. Petersburg Times article, it sounds as though Fasano is just looking to cut spending generally, by citing projects that supposedly make CUTR’s work look arcane and unimportant:

Fasano reviewed a list of grants DOT awarded CUTR since 2001. He specifically questioned $600,000 the center received in grants to advise the DOT on drug abuse and $75,000 to study the state’s Road Ranger program.

But the reporter, Michael Van Sickler, also weighs in with an analysis of statements by various CUTR principals about rail transit.  Van Sickler focuses in particular on CUTR’s role as the host of the National Bus Rapid Transit institute, the largest US institute devoted to the study of BRT.  Seeking a simple conflict storyline, he tries to make this a contest between rail people (good) and bus people (bad), and this binary structure is not just misleading, it’s boring.

As you probably know by now, I’m neither a rail advocate nor a bus advocate.  I’m an advocate of abundant mobility and access for the purpose of creating more sustainable cities, cities where real, expansive freedom is possible without a car.  I think that abstract debates about whether rail is better than buses in general, everywhere, are pointless.  Either rail or bus can be better depending on the circumstances, so an effective transit plan is one that evaluates that choice separately for each corridor, picks what works best there, and thus constructs an integrated citywide system where rail and bus work together.

Many activists and advocates really do believe that “rail vs. bus” is the most important question in transit, and can be quite passionate in defending their favored mode in the abstract.  (And if you think all these passionate activists are on the rail side, go talk to the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles.)  These advocates will often assume that a statement that doesn’t support their view is really advocacy for the other side.  If you’ve ever listened to the political discourse inside a country at war, you can think of other examples of this (“our way” vs “the terrorists,” “freedom” vs “socialism” etc.).  Free thought, by contrast, has the right to say that a certain binary opposition is a false choice, or a wrong framing of the question, and insists on the right to refuse to take sides in such an opposition.

continue reading the article at

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