The general discussion around transit and transportation issues in this city seems to have slipped of late. I’ll admit that I haven’t lived here forever, so maybe it was always like this, or maybe I’m just becoming more aware of it. When people on the street, at parties, or in the media discuss transportation, they seem to fall prey to something that’s at work in much of US if not global politics: Issues become polarized, reduced to sound-bites, and made gut-wrenchingly personal. Abortion becomes not an issue for doctors trained in prenatal care to advise patients on, but something for politicians to legislate, and protest groups to campaign for with over-simplified slogans and gross signs. The Streetcar becomes essentialized and polarized between “massive waste of money” on one side and “OMG STREETCARS ARE COOL” on the other. We seem to have lost reasonable debate and broad general understanding in favour of campaign slogans and one-liners. I’m afraid that these one-liners grow into one-line ideas, and when we turn to those ideas to think critically about what sort of world we’re trying to build, we don’t find much to work with.
I want to begin to clear the air, setting out some basics of what transportation is, what it’s goals are, and why we need it. I’ll then go on to analyse local policies, practices, and proposals in light of those goals to see how they’re performing and how they could better meet our collective needs. I’m not going to tell you what you should want, or what you should do. What I intend to do is take what people say they want, and tell you how transportation policy, particularly as it relates to public transit can help us achieve those goals. Many of these goals will fundamentally conflict with each other, and when that happens, it’s up to you as a player in the democratic process to decide the appropriate balance. What is not up to you is to decide that both conflicting goals should be met, or that a policy should do something that it objectively cannot. Transit is not magic. I also want to examine some of the cultural, institutional and linguistic habits that distort our understanding of transportation, leading us to a position where we can make decisions with as little unjustified bias as possible.
It’s my opinion that given all the information, all the costs and benefits, freed of some collective-action problems, and allowed to choose, most people would pick a very different way of getting around, dramatically changing society and the way we live together. I want to bring about that way of living sometime before my 80th birthday, and so I’m going to attempt to shed light on local transportation issues so that we may choose a more reasoned way forward. Setting transportation policy is not a political chess game. It’s not a matter for engineers. It’s not something we could fix if we just had the money. It’s not simple! But if we understand how it works and what our options are, we’ll be able to make better decisions, and a better city for everyone.
Many people I’ve met “support transit” but don’t seem able to articulate effectively why they do so or what exactly they want. Others “oppose” these things, and stick to their beliefs just as strongly. I don’t think either side has any real idea what it’s talking about and I hope this blog will help to moderate what I think is a critically important discussion.
Who am I?
I’m that map guy! You know the one…
My name is Nate Wessel. I’ve come to what I think is a pretty solid knowledge of how transit works through a thousand plus conversations, 23 years of being transported in various ways, reading lots of books, and getting my hands dirty making maps and looking at and using a huge variety of transit systems. I also have a degree in urban planning, though I won’t stand on that as a source of much authority. I’ve recently gone through the process of making a transit map of greater Cincinnati’s transit system, which basically means I went through the whole mess line by line to try to make sense of it. I saw a lot of things that don’t make sense, and a lot of things that do.(I hope you’ll stick with me to learn what they are!)
I’ve been riding a bike for almost a decade now, which is quite a thing to say for someone my age who grew up in the suburbs. I was the only person in my high school of 2,000+ people to bike or walk to school. I’ve also been assaulted(yes, intentionally) by a man with a car, breaking my collarbone. If I hadn’t been ‘lucky’ I might got off a lot worse and I still hold a rather visceral grudge against cars, which I’ll put out there for the sake of full disclosure. I’ve been taking public transit for almost as long but never as much as I’ve used a bike; I’ve mostly lived in places where bikes are faster and more convenient for my needs. I grew up in North Canton Ohio, and have lived in Cincinnati for the last five years, with a brief stint in DC working for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.