John Buell

Democratic Prospects and Post-Sandy Transit

Rebuilding cities in the aftermath of crisis offers existing elites the chance to restore and impose the designs and institutions that brought their crisis in the first place. Nonetheless, there are other design and political prospects.

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 built. 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 this vision, York University’s Stefan 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. Yet there are members of different ethnicities who value diversity and are willing to experiment with emerging styles of dress, food, urban design and other dimensions of the complex human experience. Their instincts can be cultivated and encouraged. Progressives from different ethical and political backgrounds can gain from and aid this process by presenting the contrasting secular and religious roots of their social justice commitments while acknowledging the gaps and limits of their own fundamental beliefs. Success in promoting an egalitarian agenda depends on but also encourages greater openness to difference. 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 US 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% say they have no choice, and 58% would like to use public transportation more often, but it is not convenient or available from their home or work.”

Osterwell 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.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is author of Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013

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