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The real battle behind (and beyond) BRT

Chris Rickert’s Wisconsin State Journal columns tend to poke at different aspects of an issue without making a clear point or expressing a discernible point of view, and today's was no exception. I can’t tell whether he thinks bus rapid transit (BRT) is a good idea resisted for bad reasons, a bad idea resisted for good reasons, or just an idea resisted for, well, reasons. I guess it depends on which paragraph or sentence you key in on.

Yet almost in spite of itself, the column does hit upon an essential truth not just about the political headwinds this particular project faces here and now, but also about intrinsic forces and biases transit in general faces everywhere. Those who want more and better transit should take heed of some of those insights, however accidental they may be.

The State Journal story Rickert was keying off of was last Thursday's front-pager headlined “City Eyes Bus Rapid Transit.” Actually, the city has been “eyeing” BRT for about five years now. For at least two decades before that (sometimes in collaboration with the county), it was eyeing light rail, commuter rail, and streetcars, roughly in that order. Each was found to be, in its own way, more expensive than the purported benefits seemed to warrant and died at various stages of planning, though not before generating some interesting and informative studies that helped lay the foundation for BRT.

BRT may yet prove to offer just the right balance of costs and benefits. Politically, though, the timing probably couldn’t be more wrong. The State Journal story came out the same day as the Republicans’ “Cut, Cut, Cut” federal tax plan, which scarcely bodes well for big-ticket transit projects dependent on major federal funding. Both the federal and state government are in full austerity mode and controlled by forces hostile to “public” anything, and public transit in particular. Other compelling local priorities are already being pitted against each other in the scramble for crumbs.

But Rickert focuses not just on these immediate circumstances but the uphill political battle a transit project would face at any time. He’s surely right that transit tends to be perceived as a kind of welfare for the economically disadvantaged or transportation-poor, and regarded by the auto-centric world not only as a marginal service for marginal populations, but as an over-subsidized imposition on the many who view driving everywhere for everything as both the norm and a basic right.

Rickert doesn’t interrogate this majority view very closely. But he’s on target in acknowledging it as a political fact, even if in the process he helps reinforce it.  The problem is that far too many transit advocates and champions inadvertently reinforce it as well, which only further contributes to the political problems BRT—and indeed any substantial investment in transit—face.

All too often those pushing for better transit fall into the trap of presenting it as a response to one or more (or, often as not, laundry list of) social, economic, or environmental problems, or as a service to one or another, or—again—litany of transportation-challenged, transit-dependent, or environmentally-conscious constituencies.  The overwhelming message, subliminal if not explicit, is that transit is for “others,” even when the list of categories (dare one say “identities”?) includes many of us.

Projects like BRT often aim quite explicitly to work against that stereotypical framing—to offer a vision of transit, not as a service mainly for those who have no better choice, but as an alternative even those who could drive might actively choose, and choose for its intrinsic mobility benefits rather than for some exogenous environmentally or politically “correct” reason. But as long as the transit issue more generally continues to be framed the way it is, a project like Madison’s BRT proposal runs the risk of tripping over that frame right out of the starting gate. Indeed, that project may be at even greater risk of this because, at the end of the day, however cool and snazzy a bus we may be talking about, it’s still a bus, and, as far as much of the driving and gas-tax-paying public is concerned, buses are for losers.

What’s needed more than anything right now—more, even, than locally exciting new transit mega-projects—is a more general (and generous) recasting of the transit conversation. While any number of important societal objectives will be helped by better transit, it’s a mistake to present transit as centrally a “social justice” issue—or for that matter as an environmental issue, a workforce transportation issue, a senior mobility issue or disability rights issue, to name just a few of transit’s familiar policy rationales. It is all of these, of course—but it is also much more.

Indeed, transit is an urban and regional quality-of-life issue that encompasses all these other concerns and many more without being reducible in any simple way to any one of them, and in a way that is greater than the sum of all of them.  We don’t just need to stop talking about transit as a policy intervention aimed at one or another problem or group.  We need to talk about it less as a policy intervention at all, and more as part of the basic equipment—like schools, parks, roads, and any number of other services and structures—of any functioning and prosperous metropolitan area.  Transit needs, in short, to be considered a community asset, the quality of which affects everyone, regardless of whether or how directly they rely on it.

But as Chris Rickert’s column helps remind us, until transit advocates find a compelling language for conveying this to a larger public, simply preserving decent transit against the cut-cut-cut mentality, to say nothing of winning support for major new transit projects, will remain a Sisyphean task.  That would be true at the best of times. It’s especially true in Walker’s Wisconsin and in the Age of Trump.

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