Thursday, August 30, 2007

Transportation Dictatorship/Transportation Democracy

After the collapse of the 35W freeway bridge, there were several letters and commentaries blaming the bridge collapse on the funding of non-car forms of transportation. People wrote that funding light rail transit drew resources away from freeway bridges. Loopiest of all was Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune columnist, who called Senator Oberstar to task because he funded bicycle transportation amenities, and that made the bridge collapse. These people are certainly subjects of the transportation dictatorship, their brains so warped by it that they can't see outside the limits.

We live in a transportation dictatorship. The state has decided that transportation is the same as cars, and that you do not get around if you do not do so by car. So the vast majority of state money spent on transportation is spent on building up the car transportation infrastructure.

What would it take us to get to a transportation democracy? It would take the division of that transportation funding into equal amounts, so that as much state money was spent on developing bicycle trails that was spent on car things, that transit funding equaled highway funding, and that pedestrian amenity funding was the same as that spent on car infrastructure (by the way, the city is fixing sidewalks around my block now, which is great, but they are billing the work to the homeowners. Why does the city fund street repairs through the general fund and charge homeowners for sidewalk repairs? Because that is how cities act in the transportation dictatorship.)

If we had a real transportation democracy, we would be able to make real choices. If we requested that our government spent equal amounts on cars, transit, bikes and walking, we would have a wonderful pedestrian transportation system. Biking would be a great way to get around. Transit would get you where you needed to go. But if we gave car transportation the same funding as the other modes, we would have a pretty poor car transportation system.

That is because car transportation costs so much more than all those other methods. That is why no other nation in the world has built as intense a car transportation system as we have. And a car transportation system is the least sustainable - it deteriorates the fastest.

A real transportation democracy would relegate car transportation to a fairly minor role, because it wouldn't be able to compete with the other modes given equal funding.

Let's get away from the transportation dictatorship and start building transportation democracy.

Friday, August 3, 2007

freeway bridge collapse

I was sitting in my Northeast Minneapolis backyard when I heard all the sirens. Then I started getting calls from my family in Montana and California to find out if I was alright. Then I turned on the TV and saw what was happening not far from from where I was, and very close to where I work. If I hadn't taken off work early to get ready to leave town the next day, I probably would have heard it fall.

It was very out of body to see all those familiar places on CNN, and it is stranger yet to see them now, a few hundreds miles away.

It felt odd to be leaving Minneapolis at this time of community coming together to mourn and rescue and recover. But I had my plane ticket. I left the next morning for a trip to Montana to visit my father and sister. As the number 17 bus slowly drove across the Third Avenue bridge, I was looking down the river just as everybody else on the bus was to see the disaster. All I could see was what I couldn't see. I could see the 10th Avenue bridge completely. Before, it was always blocked by the 35W bridge, which just wasn't there.

A woman on the bus on her cell phone was giving the play by play to the person on the other line. She talked as if she was seeing the horrible tragedy of it, but all I could see was its absence.

I took the train down to the airport and as I took off I tried to lean over to see the collapsed bridge but it was all too small compared to the rest of the city all around it.

Even if it was impossible to see from up high, that bridge was huge and important and of course it will be rebuilt, but I also have to think about what might happen if we decide not to rebuild it. When the Embarcadero freeway crashed down in San Francisco sixteen years ago, that city chose not to rebuild what was there. Instead they made a wide leafy boulevard with a streetcar line down the middle of it.

There was a time when 35W didn't cut its canyon thru the city, and I believe that there will a day when it will be all just a memory. Maybe we should see the bridge collapse as a reason to rethink our city's transportation system. San Francisco realized that it could still function without that one freeway. The structure had to fall down before they could see that.

Maybe we could do something different and better, something that memorializes the tragedy rather than effaces it with a brand new 8 lane freeway bridge. Maybe we could do something that treads a little lighter on the world and builds community, something involving transit and bikes and walking. Maybe the riverbanks and gravity and everything else is trying to tell us something, and we ought to listen for a change, and act.