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Democracy and the Ecology of Transportation

(Image: via communitybridge.blogspot.com)There is no question as to whether New York City and the surrounding coastal communities of the tri-state area will be rebuilt. But will these communities be reconstructed to serve the vast majority of working people or the interests of the economic and cultural elites that have dominated city life? Not surprisingly, those largely responsible for the current crisis are once again eager to take advantage of that crisis. Nonetheless, in the aftermath both of Occupy Wall Street and Sandy citizens not only in the New York area but also in many urban communities may not be as easily cowed and manipulated as after 9/11. Transit will be an especially vital concern.

In a recent article in Waging Nonviolence, Yotam Marom reports: “The city government is already thinking about how it is going to spend the enormous sums…that will be poured into redevelopment in the near future… The disaster-capitalist developers are already out there doing everything they can to ensure that they’re the ones who get the contracts. The fossil fuel companies, meanwhile, are hoping none of us will put two and two together and hold them rightfully responsible for the climate crisis; they are probably doing all the lobbying they can to make sure the city rebuilds in a way that is as dependent on fossil fuels as before.”

Nonetheless, Sandy still has put the climate science deniers on the defensive. The combination of continuing, deep recession and the storm’s vast destruction has opened up possibilities of worker/environmental alliances that might reshape both our economy and urban space.

Sandy raises questions of the role that urban land use and transportation planning can play in reducing the incidence and severity of monster storms and mitigating their effects. More ecologically oriented planning has become a survival necessity.

Forty years ago Andre Gorz pointed out: “The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread, its superiority would be striking.”

Unfortunately the ongoing economic crisis is being used as an occasion not only to reduce transit subsidies but also to privatize many public systems.

The ecological case for making public transit more accessible to more communities is overwhelming. York University environmental studies professor Stefan Kipfer reminds us: “Public mass transportation produces five to 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted by automobile transportation. The latter is responsible for about a quarter of global carbon emissions. In addition, public transit consumes a fraction of the land used by individualized car transportation (roads and parking space consume a third or more of the land in North American urban regions). Not even counting other negative effects of automobilization (congestion, pollution, accidents, road kill, cancer, asthma, obesity, and so on), shifting to transit will markedly reduce the social costs of economic and urban development. It would also make a substantial contribution toward global climate justice.”

But the case for public transit is not only ecological. A compelling case also must include more than critiques of the auto. Sandy can become an occasion to promote and build modes of mobility, housing and working, shopping and relating to our peers that are more humane and satisfying. The harms and the risks attendant on global climate change are real enough, but too little is made of the human costs of our acquisitive, workaholic, auto-dependent society or of the kind of satisfactions more sustainable alternatives might offer.

Kipfer argues that capitalism as a world system imposes both mobility and immobility on the poor and working classes. Many poor in the developing world are displaced and forced to migrate to first world cities where they often then find themselves confined to urban ghettoes with only marginal job prospects. Even the working and middle class finds itself trapped in traffic jams and spending larger sums on the auto. Road rage and various forms of scapegoating of these urban minorities grow out of and intensify the travails of our highways.

Are there ways to change this pathological dynamic? One way is to make mass transportation more widespread by making it free. Free mass transit would increase ridership among current users and add some new ones. To those who would complain about the budgetary implications Kipfer points out: “{T}he overall budgetary cost of transit budget expansion can be measured against the typically much higher cost of underwriting car-dominated transportation (road and infrastructure budgets and tax policies which subsidize them). Second, from a macro-economic and social efficiency point of view, public transportation is far less expensive than the existing privatized system.”

Kifner recognizes that mass transit by itself is no panacea for economic injustice or environmental degradation. Transit systems can be designed to bypass poor neighborhoods or to serve only wealthy suburbanites to the exclusion of decaying inner city bus service.  Such suburban-centered systems ultimately reinforce sprawl, the car culture, and consumption- intense economies. Even the expansion of transit systems to formerly underserved areas can become an occasion to remove minorities and gentrify neighborhoods.  

Unfortunately the ongoing economic crisis is being used as an occasion not only to reduce transit subsidies but also to privatize many public systems. Brooklyn based writer Willie Osterweil points out that when transit is privatized the emphasis is upon immediate returns. One consequence is reduction in services and cuts in transit workers wages, thereby blunting support for these systems. 

Ultimately the shape of the cities we reconstruct both after storms like Sandy and—better yet—to mitigate the effects of such future storms-- will depend on the coalitions that are build. Mainstream corporate forces could see a commuter rail as an instrument primarily of suburban real estate development. Or a right wing populist coalition could treat transit, bike lanes, and walking paths as well as the immigrants who use such systems as obstacles to the car. Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker once achieved considerable notoriety when, asked if he would like playing in New York City, responded: “Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing... The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners.”

Against these visions, Kipfer argues for the social and ecological benefits of broader democratic coalitions: “To win out against the real, if contradictory pleasures of our car culture, transit has to offer an exciting way of experiencing urban life. The beast so central to capitalism as we know it, “homo automotivis”… will only die out with a renewed transit culture: being together with others in anonymity and encountering fellow inhabitants not simply through kinship and self-selected sub-cultures but through the unexpected encounters of urban living. Fostering such an exuberant – curious, open, and generous – public culture of being “in solitude without isolation”  will require that many of us relearn the capacity to live outside privatized, atomized and sanitized environments.

This is not impossible. A recent survey by the Pembina Institute reveals that most Greater Toronto Area residents would happily trade their cars and bungalows for walking, transit and denser living arrangements if they could afford it. After decades of worsening congestion and ‘world-class’ commuting delays, Torontonians seem to have become more intolerant of car-led sprawl and more receptive to more open and public forms of urban life. This makes it possible to think of a transit culture beyond the central city spaces where transit is already a fact of life for the majority of inhabitants. If not from personal experience, we know promising elements of living in large cities from movies, literature, and music: the syncopated rhythms of street life and mass transit, the promise of independence from domestic life, the excitement of bustling crowds, the bouts of unexpected camaraderie among strangers.”

Such generous, exploratory sentiments cannot be assumed, as John Rocker’s hateful diatribe illustrates.  Coalitions must be fostered amidst different ethnicities, changing gender roles, rapid population shifts, and diverse religions and life styles. This is a task that requires great sensitivity on the part of activists along with a willingness to acknowledge the gaps and limits of their own fundamental religious or ideological beliefs. By the same token, however, when transit expansion is part of a broader full employment politics, the greater economic security thus assured can create a climate less hospitable to exclusionary identities and rigid ideologies.

Such achievements are never final. Coalitions on behalf of a fundamental right to mobility can be expected to germinate new challenges and visions. Nonetheless, arguably the receptivity to change and difference Kipfer so eloquently describes can and has been cultivated, and such cultivation is essential to the politics of transit.

Discontent with the solipsistic, time consuming culture of the automobile is no longer limited to residents of a highly cosmopolitan city like Toronto. Even the world’s most caraholic culture is shifting. Bill McKibben recently pointed to a poll conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council that “suggests that [public transit] would be popular with the public, 59 percent of whom believe that the U.S. transportation system is "outdated, unreliable and inefficient." Americans also want to be less dependent on cars. Today, 55 percent prefer to drive less, but 74 percent say they have no choice, and 58 percent would like to use public transportation more often, but it is not convenient or available from their home or work.”

Osterweil wonders: “What would cities look like with bikes, buses and even subways truly run by their citizens? For now, the question is pie-in-the-sky, but public transit truly run by the public and for the public would make cities more equitable, more green and less prone to temperamental whims—of market forces and politicians alike. If we start imagining and building these systems today, we can start building the cities we’d like to see in the future.”

Ultimately sustainable public transit systems require creating or revitalizing public space and thus democracy itself. A more vibrant democracy can help shape systems that in turn strengthen our democratic commitments.

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