It's not quite a truth universally acknowledged, but engineers often make for terrible public speakers, particularly when it comes to discussing highly technical issues that affect neighborhoods. They focus on the details and don't describe them in ways that people intuitively get. But engineers aren't the only ones who do that. Governments as a whole have had a very hard time communicating why they need to do the highly technocratic things they need to do, like invest in public transportation. Why else do people support Governors such as Christie who scuttle multi-billion dollar projects, if not because they do not understand the critical function that infrastructure plays in our society and how important city and region building is. And its because policy wonks don't often try and communicate it in any way other than the technocratic language they always do, and they don't let other people see the underlying beliefs which drive them. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to do what I hope was just that, on WHYY's This I Believe, directed by Elizabeth Peres Luna. Listen over on WHYY.org, or read below:
For most people that first moment of liberation, of freedom, comes when they are handed their first car keys at sixteen. Mine came when I was twelve when I got my first trail pass. I still have the small yellow card with its bright red number 2. And to this day it's packed away in a box filled with the others just like it that I carried throughout middle school and high-school.
Suddenly the city was mine as I hopped on the train to go to school, the bus or subway to visit friends. I didn’t have to worry about learning how to parallel park or drive, all I did was jump on the next schedule bus and the city was mine.
Riding SEPTA was not just about a new freedom of movement I never had before. It was also about discovering new friends. I began to meet my neighbors, people I had grown up with but never knew lived right around the corner. Seeing these people day in and day out helped me gain a sense of community I never got when I was chauffeured around.
Later, when I took a year off of college to work at a local bakery, the Night Kitchen in Chestnut Hill, I was lucky that the very last train on the Chestnut Hill East line got me to work at 1 AM, the exact right time to start making muffins and cinnamon buns. If I missed it, the 23 took me through the heart of North Philly to the front door of the bakery.
I was raised in a neighborhood that grew up around the city’s first train lines. As an urban planner I can think of hundreds of reasons why transit is good for cities. But I don't need theory. Every day I see with my own two eyes how transit makes it easier to support thriving communities. Today I work in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities because I have seen the impact transit has had on my city.
I believe that we as a region need to invest in our public transportation system, not simply because it is what economists call a “public good”; but because everybody should be so lucky to have transit lines to get them to work at 1 in the morning. And everybody should find new opportunities to make friends and meet their neighbors.