Focus on coinage, not carbon (image from size8jeans on Flickr)
If you’re trying to convince the public of anything, the face you put on your efforts is fairly important. This is especially true for a movement livable streets and urbanism, which seeks to do unpopular things like remove highway lanes and charge money for parking. Unfortunately, the movement is terrible at this. Despite pushing policies that disproportionately help the working class (good transit, jobs in downtowns, etc.), urbanists manage to be viewed as a bunch of white cycling-crazy technocrats, while people pushing for more lanes and parking and cars get to claim the populist mantle. It’s bloody tragic. And Streetsblog – and I don’t mean to pick on them, because they do great work – provided a pretty good example of why this week with this post talking with some degree of fascination about the fact that a lot of people bike not by choice, but out of necessity.
So what to do about this? How can people who love cities and transit claim the social justice mantle? I’m not ready to do the heavy lifting here, but I’ve got a few ideas about how to start:
1. Dial down the climate-change rhetoric: I hear a lot on the blogs about how transit is great for the environment, but fair or not, environmentalism is frequently viewed as a luxury concern of the upper-middle class. Hitching our star to the climate change bandwagon just confirms people’s suspicions that livable streets advocates are part of the nanny state that wants to tell them how to live and judge them for using cars. It certainly doesn’t broaden the appeal, even if it helps get the message out there a bit more.
2. Talk about jobs: Why is transit great? Why do we love walkability? For me, a big part of it is that transit helps everyone get to work more cheaply, and walkability can allow for more vibrant and healthy downtowns that create more jobs. I know that this gets a lot of play in a broad way, but there’s not that much focus on the impact on the working class. Yes, a walkable and accessible downtown is a delight for middle class families, but it’s a lifeline for a working class person looking for and commuting to a service industry job. This should be a bigger deal.
3. Talk about suburbanites too: Suburbs continue to grow, and grow faster than the cities they surround. But their faces are changing – inner ring suburbs in particular are becoming more diverse, and poverty is on the rise. These towns are going to look more like cities in some ways, and while I don’t expect a subway in every suburb, I do think that tweaking our solutions to appeal to different settlement models will provide an opportunity to widen the constituency.
4. Faces matter: Let’s be honest – it’s pretty rare to see a minority face or voice on Streetsblog. When it is, it’s usually a child or an elderly person. This is a serious problem. Streetsblog NY likes to get annoyed with NYC pols who avoid making hard decisions about transit funding, but then turn around and stage rallies with a bunch of “regular folks” about how awful all the subway cuts are, but it works. It’s time to play that game and make the movement look as diverse and grassroots as it is, or at least as it should be.
The fact is that livable streets are a huge boon for the middle and working class. Lower transportation costs, more jobs, and greater variety of affordable housing are all goals that have every right to be popular, but are currently painted as “elitist”. It’s time to think about how to turn that around. Recognizing that we’re not our own target audience is the first step.