Transportation policy's third rails


We live in a society of backseat drivers. Or backseat urban planners. Or train engineers. But often, no matter how loudly we clamor, we're not as right as we think. And that costs all of us, even if our convictions rely heavily on rational critiques of public policy.

Think of transportation policy in Los Angeles County, where Measure R, a referendum that cleared the way for a massive transportation reinvestment, is redefining the region's mythos. When I wrote about that shift in my master's project, nearly every source insisted that some other source's position was one step short of throwing low-income riders, the environment, the economy -- or all three -- under the bus. L.A.'s not unique in this case. When it comes to transit, there's a third rail everywhere you look.

The interior of L.A.'s Union Station. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Even when observers try to stake out a middle ground on transportation policy they're challenged, often from multiple directions, as Jarrett Walker of the blog "Human Transit" was when he shared his “Field Guide to Transit Quarrels” this week. “Engineer Scotty” – who commented extensively on Walker's post – addressed the problem effectively in an Aug. 13 post on his "Dead Horse Times," noting that “the absolutist positions expressed by some are extensively troubling.” Though Scotty discusses a proposed light rail project in the Portland area, his argument is applicable anywhere.

Here's one example I experienced during my master's work. One of my faculty reviewers couldn't stand the fact that one of my sources commuted to work every day by subway and light rail and preferred it over the car he shared with his wife. To the reviewer, he was a yuppie privileged enough to eschew the car, a choice hundreds of thousands of L.A. commuters below the poverty line couldn't afford to make, forcing them onto the county's extensive bus network. My reviewer was right about that, but she also refused to recognize that a huge portion of the people riding the subway were low-income riders in the same position as those she saw riding the city's buses.

Bus and rail timetables in L.A.'s Union Station. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Her acerbic reaction to my source obscured a broader point: that whether a vehicle moves along steel rails or rubber tires isn't as important as how many people it transfers how far how quickly. A tremendous amount has been written about whether Los Angeles is more prepared for an expansion of rubber or rail, especially recently, as the region prepares for a labor-supported program to squeeze 30 years of transportation infrastructure expansion into a decade. I'll leave that discussion to the transportation blogs, many great examples of which were listed in March in this post from The Source.

My reviewer was so caught up in showing off her expertise as a planning professor who often bussed to campus (as I did), that she didn't want to accept that someone had a valid, well-articulated reason for preferring rail travel. In her stubbornness, she insisted that low-income riders weren't riding the Red Line (L.A.'s subway), with much the same shortsightedness that those unfamiliar with the city often claim that no one rides the bus (or bikes, or, of course, walks) in L.A.

Planners, bloggers and scholars get so easily lost in jargon and ego-driven wonkiness that they lose sight of the point of debating transportation policy: making moving between the places we live, work, socialize and otherwise operate more affordable, comfortable, simpler and less damaging to our planet's long-term survival.

A L.A. farmers' market near the entrance to a metro stop in Koreatown. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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