Better transportation choices will be better for all of us — and we can flip the conversation on transit opponents.
If you live in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti or Ypsi Township, please join me, and a lot of other people, in voting YES on the transit millage tomorrow.
In Washtenaw County, even the opposition to the millage acknowledges the desire for better public transportation and is calling the “no” campaign “Better Transit Now.” Not that they are very clear on how a “no” vote will lead to better transit, but never mind that – they agree, at least in theory, with the goal, even if they don’t want to pay for it. And it’s hard to argue with the benefits of improving public transit, even for those (like me) who rarely use the bus. Even if you don’t take the bus, making it convenient for other people to leave their cars at home means traffic is better and we have less need to build more parking. Using less gas means less pollution, which is better for our health. And it’s better for our economy, creating jobs and economic development downtown and letting low wage workers get to work. (More details about the specifics of tomorrow’s millage are here.)
Focus groups and polling I have done on these issues suggests that a big portion of the public gets the benefits of public transit for the quality of life of our communities. Others have found the same thing. Pew Research, for example, has found consistent support from more than six in ten Americans for spending more money on subway, bus, and rail systems (PDF). And AATA’s own survey found over six in ten registered voters here would support the millage (PDF).
But there is a strain of public opinion in America that is downright hostile to public transportation, especially trains, and that is having some success killing transportation improvements, such as blocking planned streetcars in Wisconsin. What motivates this? And what can public transportation supporters do to change the conversation and continue making progress?
First, we have to understand that the people who are hostile to public transit are worried about threats to their freedom. This may sound silly to some, but readers from Michigan especially have to know how deeply the automobile and freedom are connected in our national culture. When you are driving a car, the feeling is, you are in control. In control of where you go, when you stop, what you listen to – you are free. Of course the reality of traffic means we often have less control than we think, but even so, the cultural connection is powerful. Behind the wheel, you can be master of your own kingdom. In a train or bus, someone else is in charge.
Although this is a powerful motivator mainly for a small core on the other side, it can also reach some voters in the middle if they worry you are trying to push them into changing their behavior. So transit supporters need to flip the freedom value on its head and claim it for their own – better public transit increases your freedom by giving you more choices. We are not taking away your car; we are giving you another way to get around.
So, if you live in Ann Arbor, Ypsi, or Ypsi Township, join me tomorrow in giving everyone who lives or visits here more freedom and better transportation choices. Give us the choice to go downtown for an evening without the hassle and cost of parking. Make it convenient for downtown workers to commute by bus, maybe making it possible for a couple to get by on one car and spend the money they would have spent on a second car on saving for a child’s college. That’s freedom, and we should own it.