Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The kitschy rise of public transit culture

December 27, 2011 - 02:45 PM
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Oh yeah? (Photo: John Hendel)

Welcome back, D.C. commuters. 2012 is fast approaching, and I hope your winter holidays have been going well. AAA Mid-Atlantic recently announced that 2,075,000 Washingtonians will be traveling by car this holiday season of 2011 and pay more for gas than ever before in history. The average price of a D.C. metro area gallon of gas in 2011 is $3.53, 85 cents higher than the metro area's average in 2010.

In light of that chilling transportation reality, let's talk about an important dimension to how Metro, bus, streetcar, and various other transportation systems have risen across America — about how their development has coincided with a kitschy, enthusiastic rise of a culture devoted to and celebrating the very notion of public transit. Transportation systems develop deep roots among the world's societies and frequently come to define them, entering the worlds of metaphor and even schematic framing. Our means of commute often earn affection and passion among commuters. I've talked about this before, such as in the countless T-shirts devoted to bicycle love.

Over the last week, I've gathered some informal observations about the transit culture of St. Louis, Missouri, a Midwestern city that not only has an Arch but also operates a Metro with far lower ridership than the D.C. Metro. More than half a million people ride the D.C. Metro every day compared to around 50,000 in St. Louis. Its 18-year-old light rail system of two lines is called MetroLink and despite a lack of popular use, several small signs pointed to support for the idea. Consider the photo above. I visited local classic Crown Candy Kitchen in north St. Louis and saw the little sticker slapped on a trash can. "I'd rather be riding LIGHT RAIL," the sticker announces. A simple yet effective message.

The message reappeared elsewhere. When grabbing coffee in and walking the shops of Cherokee Street neighborhood, I saw the following shirt among several others celebrating the Gateway City:

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

The T-shirt, at its core, is a ridiculous one, with splashy fonts and a thumb's up from a Metrobus, yet what I want to consider is the spirit and underlying wisdom in these statements.

These small gestures alone will hardly create a sea change in how people choose their modes of transportation. Those changes take time. They require more than anything proper investment, with convenience, accessibility, affordability, and a frequency of transit vehicles to allow for riders to choose public transit over the alternative of driving.

But the transit-oriented signs and T-shirts do attempt to shift public attitudes. Transit can, I've noticed, carry a certain stigma in regions where it's not fully developed and in use. Image matters in transportation, and the automobile driver is the dominant leader by far, with a deeper history, cultural acceptance, and an intimidating amount of advertising and investment dollars involved. To propose an alternative to driving is bold and in many cities, downright unacceptable. St. Louis, for instance, is not a city that truly allows for a car-free lifestyle, at least yet. So what then matters is making the idea of transit and alternatives acceptable, when they're offered, to help fire enthusiasm and public support for building a new way of commuting. Bicycling advocates, I would here note, are especially sensitive to the image of bicyclists in our culture. When Zipcar featured ads that allegedly mocked the idea of bike commuting, several voices rushed to comment.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

What these proponents of transit, bike commuting, and alternatives fight against is, of course, the tides of recent transportation history, and that's not easy.

Everywhere I looked in St. Louis, I saw the signs of a car-centric culture. We deeply ascribe our vehicles with our personalities. I saw a Moo Car covered with cow spots at the St. Louis Zoo. I saw a collection of old license plates saved and for sale at a Missouri antique mall. I saw a button that championed the use of Chevy auto parts. I know people who gave toy automobiles as gifts and the other week in Baltimore, saw a car topped with a fancy Menorah. Nothing is inherently wrong with any of that but it underscores the obstacles that transit proponents face. How to give up that world of culture?

Chocolate strawberries
License plates at an antique mall. (Photo: John Hendel)
Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

Yet people never have to choose one mode or another, at least any time soon. Most approach their commutes in a multi-modal fashion. I personally own a car but ride the Metro into the office. In D.C., we complain about broken escalators and the genuinely troubling incidents that arise on occasion (such as with the recent brake problem that resulted in hundreds of commuters evacuating into WMATA tunnels). But despite those problems, a handful of American cities like D.C. and New York have created transit systems that function and are widely used, a feat worth noting and in many ways a model for the rest of the country. These types of systems have arisen in several global cities over the past half century, from Paris to London and even to the capital of North Korea, and are a testament to how an urban environment can integrate a Metro system ... and how a supportive culture goes along with its use.

That culture, in many occasions, begins with cheerleading such as in these examples in St. Louis, sometimes goofy and sometimes a little self-righteous but always with a spirit of openness. Transit can likely never match the $20 billion budget of automobiles, nor should they hope to currently. But these silly, lighthearted touches provide a human face to transit. D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning once spoke of uniting commuters via social media and T-shirts, collecting the isolated group of commuters who may share a bus line, for instance. These happy little messages speak to that same broader challenge of rallying support and carving out a new option in the public consciousness. Washington, D.C. frequently offered its own celebratory little tokens as the Metro rose. Consider the pride our city's residents have for the WMATA map. I've walked into an apartment here and seen it framed prominently on the wall. District residents tend to like the strange and compelling events of the Metro, like our recurring Christmas caroller and the comedic Orange Line train conductor. St. Louis has begun to follow suit, and earlier this fall, held its fourth annual MetroLink prom.

Options matter in our growing cities and culture will help open more. Sometimes people need to hear that St. Louis, despite a half dozen stretching highways, would rather be riding light rail, after all. Let that idea evolve and settle and one day, before we know it, it may even be true.

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