Durable Growth, Transportation

What is transit?

Historic trolley in Uptown District of Dallas

Historic trolley in Uptown District of Dallas

(Once again, there’s been no progress on the Fairgrounds update.  I remain surprised by the slowness of the process, which right now is fully out of my hands, but I’ll keep pushing.  Perhaps the pieces will be in place for my next post.)

A feature of the annual meetings of the Congress for the New Urbanism is the Open Source sessions.  Any attendee can propose a topic of discussion, organize a circle of chairs, and begin a conversation.  And many of the topics are well worthy of discussion.  My only frustration with the Open Source concept is that too often there are multiple interesting discussions being conducted simultaneously.

At CNU 23, recently concluded in Dallas, the only Open Source in which I was able to participate was organized by transit consultant Jarrett Walker.  He didn’t have a focused topic, but only suggested that those interested gather to chat about transit.  Despite the imprecise subject, a discussion resulted that offered an interesting insight.

A couple of minutes into the discussion, Walker stopped us and asked the question. “What is transit?”

It seemed a question with a simple answer.  Personally, my initial response would have been bus or rail routes operated by a transit agency.  But it would have been a simple-minded answer that was quickly overrun by the discussion.

First someone noted that public ownership wasn’t a necessary attribute, with private buses, jitneys in Brooklyn and collectivos in Mexico City, filling an essential role.

Then someone pointed out that taxis were definitely a component of a transit system.  (It was a point that I’d made in this space over three years ago, so I could hardly disagree.)   And then someone else added that the taxis of the sharing age, Uber and Lyft, had to be included with taxis.  And that shared-ownership cars like ZipCars belonged in the same category.

And someone else, who came from a city where bike sharing was managed by the local transit agency, added that mode to the discussion.

By the time we finished, about the only modes of transportation that we wouldn’t have considered transit were privately owned cars, bicycles, and shoes that were used for the movement of one’s self or one’s family and friends without compensation.

And having pondered the question since returning home from CNU 23, I’ve come to realize that even those “non-transit” modes have blurry edges, such as providing parking at transit stations to facilitate a private transportation/public transit interface, improving sidewalks to bus stops, allowing bikes to ride on buses and trains, facilitating kiss-and-ride drop-offs at train stations, etc.

Human beings like to compartmentalize.  It’s our way of making sense of the world.  But the best insights and solutions come when we find a way to ignore our arbitrary dividing lines.  Mass and energy were considered different concepts until Einstein formulated that E=mc^2, changing the world of physics forever.  And his successors have been chasing ever broader “unified theories” since then.

I think a similar argument can be made about transportation.  It’s easy to think about transportation as private cars versus public transit.  I’ve certainly done so in this space.  But, even if it makes our heads hurt, we’re better off thinking about a unified theory of transportation, where the most efficient, convenient, safe, and environmentally friendly option is available for each trip we take, whether to a neighborhood deli, to a job in a nearby town, or to a faraway destination.

I don’t know where a unified theory of human transportation will lead us, but suggest that it’s a better way to tackle the challenges of transportation, and of urbanism, than the public/private or car/bus silos into which we often retreat.

The next post will hopefully touch upon several Petaluma issues, including the Fairgrounds.  But if that topic still isn’t ripe for discussion, I’ll ruminate on municipal fines, a topic that has a connection to urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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