Reactionary Incrementalism

I spend a lot of time thinking about transit in Cincinnati as you might imagine, and it’s of interest to me to have an idea what, generally, it is that I’m trying to do as regards transit. What are my goals?

I think I’ve got it down to a simple statement now,  my understanding of the transit problem of Cincinnati, my essential ‘position’, but I’ve been slow to write it because what I keep coming back to … almost doesn’t need to be written; it seems too obvious to bother with, a reaction to a strawman. I’m bored with it before I’ve even spoken: incremental changes are better than radical replannings that ignore what’s already there. We need big changes to come incrementally. I think Jane Jacobs’ ghost might give me a high-five tired smile at this point and we could carry on our atemporal conversation about what a misguided jerk Robert Moses was. City Beautiful? Ha! But this critique of master-planning is stale by 60 years. Of course radical social change rarely works as expected. We know this. We planners are taught it in school. We’ve all seen the wreckage of Pruitt Igo, and with the benefit of hindsight mused at what St. Louis might have been, or Cincinnati with an intact West Side, the States with a moderated federal highway program.

Let’s say it again and clearly: The historically, empirically established understanding of the planning community, at least at it’s leading edges, on most issues, is now, in defiant opposition to the master-planners of the early 20th, that clear-cutting plans, plans of total envisioning fail like communism did; we simply can’t fully imagine a new world order; we’d better, with recognition of our fallibility, stick close to what we have, testing our changes, not failing to have big ideas, but refusing to try them all at once, with other people’s lives.

“Something isn’t working in the city? Let’s trash the whole thing and build a new system!”

People keep pulling me to write my moderating scold with what increasingly seem to me like comical plans for a transit system they rarely acknowledge. I finally got a chance to look at that section in the Enquirer that brought me to reflect on these issues again.

Cincinnati Enquirer March 4th

The piece was framed in a way that begged big plans, and everyone seems to have unquestioningly obliged. They responded with maps that give no indication that something might already exist in this city, each of them boldly filling blank spaces like architects with their confident assertion of hip, coloured silhouettes, a sketch in place of, on top of a trembling grey reality. (Speaking of grey reality by the way, do you notice anything each of these maps has in common?)

I don’t want you to read this plainly as a criticism of the Enquirer, or perhaps even of the contributors, but rather as a distinction between our perspectives. I think they’ve correctly tapped the volksgeist, their readers, the interests of those with time to be interested, and their goals are purposefully more populist than mine. Perhaps better: mine are purposefully less populist than most. ‘People’ seem to be starved for radical change in this city’s transit. People don’t understand how we got to the point we’re at. People only know who they know and most of those people don’t know ‘the bus’, the system as it actually is because so few people use it any more. To their minds, to their experiences, we’re really starting from scratch here. ‘What we need is a real transit system!‘ the people and their friends shout over the transit system’s head. And this is a deeply compelling message to many. So many with bigger goals than mine, bigger goals so painfully constricted, are willing to deliver.

But should we, like every generation, react so hard against our inheritance? Might we better take the time to understand the position we’re in, or trust to those who do already, and approach our big goal slowly, without taking our eyes off it, first considering our trajectory and then altering course?

The way I’ve framed this, mine probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach, so who would be opposed to it and why am I reacting against them? These can’t be simple demagogues. Their position is more considered, if subjective and contingent.

We’re dealing here with, failing to deal as a city with, the divide between social service and ‘choice‘ conceptions of transit’s main purpose. TANK runs their system almost entirely on the social service model and is comfortable with this, but SORTA is torn because Cincinnati is torn. Still, SORTA is mostly on the social service model, enough that the more extreme alienated choicers don’t see any place for their own goals there.

Proposed now by the choicers is a system built newly to their ends, defined by relation to a handful of major US cities to whose status they aspire, whose rails they see plain as day, whose buses they mostly miss, and whose historical contingencies they don’t fully understand.

In another world, certainly not in the same conversation, the servers advocate for incremental change, generally accepting as given a steady or shrinking pot of resources. They seek to draw these out into finer and finer strands, weaving a web through which few will fall completely1. This is TANK’s political constituency and it’s most of SORTA’s. Rather than working for change in the constituency, the choicers2 seem to be splitting off altogether. This happened very clearly with the streetcar project, conceived by the city, funded through a separate mechanism, and clearly operating under a different set of rules. And there are calls to expand it, to build more onto it, to add more to these blank-map city plans. It’s clear in many conversations that transit advocates are not talking about the same system any more. The sane Union.

Where is our Lincoln?

TANK is not engaging as a leader3, and SORTA is only leading as much as they’re blowing in the wind.

SORTA’s BRT plans seem to me like an emancipation proclamation: a bold idea to stir support, an idea which they currently have no power to enforce, and one that explicitly broadens their platform in an attempt to diffuse potential attacks. It’s a ‘bold vision’ laid falsely on bare ground for the choicers, a reasonable redoubling on established corridors for the incrementalist planners concerned with serving more than the politically momentous, and for the servers: it does nothing to shake their web.

Why should I be unhappy with such a compromise? Because it splits the baby4 and fails to unite us, to challenge the claims of the politicians that a ‘new system’ is needed or to moderate the claims of the servers. SORTA’s plan then fails to challenge either group, leaving both of their ideas quite alone, which is, again, not in SORTA’s power to do. 5

If there is to be one united transit system, as I believe there should be, these conflicting ideas need both to be questioned and we need as a region to move from our false argument between choice and social-service toward a moderate position that appreciates both goals and plans for them, that estimates both demands and puts them in their places. “X amount of funding for coverage services, Y amount targeted to high-ridership ‘choice’ services, overlap in Z areas, and here’s how we’re measuring outcomes”.

The failure on SORTA’s part to reframe the discussion is, I think, why we keep seeing these radical plans bubble up from the ground, why I keep feeling the need to react to them.

Who will be our Lincoln? I haven’t the authority.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. And in which some will get stuck.
  2. Who I ought to point out are increasingly politically powerful.
  3. Politically, TANK is in a much more stable organization with clearly defined goals. They have county-level funding that seems to be steadily growing. Transit is primarily a social service and few people in Kentucky are demanding or proposing that they seriously pursue ridership goals. The smaller size of their budget, and the fact that their funding comes from a larger area also tends to insist that their services remain more scattered rather than concentrated as a ridership focus would demand.
  4. Two scheduled services running in the same corridor, one faster than the other will have structurally uncoordinated schedules. They can’t therefore build on each other to increase frequency in the corridor. For many purposes, the same service will be run twice with little additive effect, or at least much less than is possible. Also, the overall system becomes less legible with the addition of lines and distinctions between stops.
  5. I mean literally that they don’t have any reasonable expectation of seeing the operating funding needed for such a project in the near future. Rather, they MUST moderate conflicting demands because of their limited resources.
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