The city’s grand Stone Arch Bridge ceased carrying rail traffic more than 40 years ago. But a namesake organization, the Stone Arch Discussion Group, held a recent forum in which public rail transportation played a major role. Jeremy Wieland, president of the board of Think Again MN, the umbrella organization for the discussion group, welcomed 40 participants at the Wilde Roast Café for the May 12 forum, “Equity Transit and Urban Development.” The guest speaker was Yingling Fan, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and the Director of the Global Transit Innovations program at the University of Minnesota.
Fan said that during a sabbatical two years ago, she decided to research transportation issues in the United States, which she calls “the most car-dependent country on earth.” She looked at 17 mid-sized metropolitan areas to see what they might be doing right (and wrong) with respect to public transportation. She left out the two largest public rail transit systems, in New York and Chicago, because those cities have had them for more than a century. While they are rebuilding their subways as they rebuild themselves, mid-sized cities are creating new systems from scratch, and have the added burden of acquiring expensive land. Part of what Fan was trying to understand was why there is such momentum for building all these systems. She noted that Detroit, Seattle, Denver, and (surprisingly) Dallas are paying a great deal of attention to public transit. She feels there’s a connection between the desire to improve public transit and a city’s interest in technologies.
Fan cast the forum as a platform for questions, not answers: How should public transportation function? How do you define public transportation? (Hint: it depends on how you define “public.”) Does “public” mean government-owned? Must it be accessible to everyone? Who builds and maintains it? Fan also looked at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the government entity that provides financial and technical assistance to local public transit systems, including buses, subways, light rail, commuter rail, trolleys and ferries. It also oversees safety measures and helps develop next-generation technology research. She mentioned Richard Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class” in which the author posits that cities that will have “creative success” need the “three Ts”: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance.
She also suggested that public transportation needs not only to be accessible to the public but acceptable to the public. By creating a transportation system that is designed just for low-income people, those who cannot afford to drive cars, American society is helping sustain an underclass that is being exploited. If citizens cannot fully participate, there won’t be truly public transportation. Fan said, “We have to recognize the social component in our transportation system. We must face the challenge of why we have such a segregated system. In Washington, D.C., you will meet very different people depending on whether you take the bus or the subway.” This is partly because some cities, unlike Minneapolis-St. Paul, have separate ticketing structures for each transportation mode.
Fan talked about the “spatial mismatch” between low-income housing and job availability. “People living in North Minneapolis or Brooklyn Center have fewer non-driving transit options to get to parts of the city where jobs are more plentiful.” An audience member asked if the creation of a transit corridor hastens further development which may reduce pockets of poverty; Fan said the phenomenon is difficult to study, because as people tend to become less poor, they tend to buy more cars. Laughter followed.
Funding, strong public support, and political leadership create new transit corridors. One would think that public support would lead to political leadership, which would produce funding, but that is not necessarily the case. Politicians take a lot of risks when they champion very big public projects. Los Angeles, for example, had the political heft of former mayor Tom Bradley, who was in favor of building subways. But, Fan added, “Other cities have not been so lucky. One of the problems has been that the quality of service provided by public transit in most cities does not yet compare to the freedom and convenience of car ownership.” In the U.S., only 2 percent of trips are made on public transportation; in Germany and Japan, it’s over 10 percent. At 2 percent, the public transit systems are likely to be inferior. All three countries are car manufacturers, and the ownership rates are around the same. The difference is how much car owners in each country use their cars.
Another audience member remarked, “It should be a no-brainer that pockets of poverty like North Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center could be helped by improved public transit. And yet we hear BNSF saying that the Bottineau line is DOA. That’s because they won’t allow land next to their railroad line to be used. And then there’s this civil war between Kenwood and St. Louis Park on where the Southwest light rail line is to be located.”
Fan said she hears voices saying that people who use an inferior public transit system should be grateful. “I think the intention to separate races by modes of transportation is still very deep. It affects how we create public spaces; that people need to be respected in those public spaces; but you need to earn that respect. If some people exhibit different behaviors, they will not be welcome in public spaces. And that’s not a good way to develop social understanding.” To a question from an audience member about self-driving cars, Fan replied, “They will not solve transportation problems unless we are willing to share seats in a car with strangers going to the same place; things that buses and trains do now, more efficiently. Would you feel safer in a car with strangers or a bus with 20 people and a bus driver?”
In New York City, public transportation hubs (especially subway stations) act as public spaces, and people have safety in numbers. Our society is increasingly privatized; for example, a restaurant is not necessarily a public space; food or drink is the cost of admission. Where are the public spaces where low-income people feel comfortable?
Bus ridership has been declining since 1980, while rail transit ridership increased, but ultimately, public transportation has to be a regional concern, not just a city concern. She referred to the “Right to the City” movement, an alliance that supports the idea that all the inhabitants of a city have a right to help design their city and shape its uses. The movement also feels that the dominance of cars results in the lack of high-quality public spaces.
The forum ended on a lighter note. Fan described the “no-pants subway ride.” For the last ten years, commuters in New York City have chosen a day in January to ride the subways in their underwear. She thinks that urban life can be exhausting, and people need a little defiance and humor. In ways like this public transit becomes a deeper part of the urban culture. It helps to fight the stereotyping of public transit system. The cities that participate in events like this are similar to those considered creative and which spend a lot of money on public transit. There’s no coincidence; they’re the cities more likely to be tolerant. To make public transit in the U.S. great again, the social component needs to be great, too.
Below: Professor Yingling Fan treated the forum at the Wilde Roast Cafe on May 12 as more an opportunity to field questions, rather than regurgitate data. (Photo by Mark Peterson)