Longform Sunday: Freedom vs. the Opposite of Freedom

Good morning everyone. I’ve got this post set to go up early this morning, because I have two really big, really important asks on your time today that really need to go together. So I’m setting the timer early so you have plenty of time to watch, read, and process.

The first is this video of a presentation by transit guru Jarrett Walker, given earlier this year in Toronto. Walker’s basic philosophies have been informing this blog since its beginning, and I am ecstatic to see so many of his best concepts distilled into such a relatively short span (27 minutes and 30ish seconds), and posted online in a free-to-watch format.

Jarrett Walker Presentation “Abundant Access” from DeepCITY Project on Vimeo.

The key moment:

“What exactly is it that we do?” “‘Abundant Access’ means:

  • As many people as possible,
  • Able to reach as many destinations as possible,
  • As quickly as possible,
  • So that they have as many real choices and opportunities as possible,
  • And are, therefore… free.

The bedrock foundations of a small-l liberal society, as it turns out, demand very specific things from us, in the built realm, and in the way we operate our transportation systems (of all things!) At least, they demand those things of us if our rhetoric about the rights and responsibilities of the citizen actually means anything at all.

Now, compare that philosophy to the nightmare scenario of suburbia gone septic, as illustrated in this ~10,000-word excerpt from danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The teenagers of boyd’s research turn to social networking sites as their last and only outlet for ordinary socialization. It is their only choice because, in large part, their parents live in a state of constant moral panic and have architected away any possibility that they might be allowed to have any personal contact whatsoever with other actual humans. A paragraph from the most illustrative section:

When I arrived at Sabrina’s house at the edge of a picture-perfect cul-de-sac in this idyllic community, I casually remarked how odd it was that no one was outside. She looked at me strangely and asked me where they would go. I knew that, at fourteen, she didn’t have a driver’s license, so I asked her if she ever biked around the neighborhood. She told me that doing so was futile because all her friends lived at least ten miles away. Because of how the community assigned students to schools, she said, she knew no one who lived in walking or biking distance. She had once walked home from school just to see if she could, but it had taken her over two hours so she didn’t try it again. She told me that there was a shopping mall in walking distance but that it required crossing a major road, which was scary.

(boyd closes her excerpt with a citation to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in case the point was at all unclear.)

Much as I despise Facebook as software (I do not have WordPress automatically post links to this blog there on principle, despite knowing that it would bring at least twice the traffic of Twitter, where I do autopost), thank goodness for Mark Zuckerberg and his predecessors. Without them, suburban America might have been producing an entire generation of unsocialized neurotics. Instead, Facebook becomes the main provider of city streets in the online world; to crib from Strong Towns’ definition of a street: a platform for creating and capturing value within a place. That the people coming together may be united in their love of Doctor Who instead of geographic accident is not a particularly interesting distinction to me.

But it all points to an enormous cultural gulf between people who believe that their children are best served and protected by maximizing their physical isolation, and people who believe that their children are best served and protected by living in, and among, a watchful society that allows them to become full participants as soon as possible. My own children are strictly Hypothetical and Future at this point in time, but I do know that if I can’t trust them with an unlimited transit pass on or before their 14th birthdays, then I will consider myself to have abjectly failed as a parent. If there’s a culture war on, I know what side I’m fighting for, and for whom.

Strike watch: City Transit Division

Conditions are favorable for the development of negotiation breakdown capable of producing a strike. If deadlock has either produced a strike or radar has indicated intense walkout activity, then a Strike Warning will be issued.

With apologies to the National Weather Service, that’s really the only way to accurately describe the will-they-or-won’t-they situation of TWU Local 234 as City Division’s contract expires at 11:59pm tomorrow night. Militant union president Willie Brown has told his rank-and-file to prepare for a strike, but he has not gone to them yet for a strike authorization vote, so he can’t recreate the zero-notice strike that he called in 2009, the night after the World Series left town. He has also expressed a desire to have a co-ordinated strike action with the suburban transit unions (including the suburban divisions of TWU 234), whose contracts run until April 7. So we probably have a three week reprieve, and even if we don’t, we’ll have at least 24 hours warning before the workers walk out.

Despite BLET’s not having had a contract for four years, and Willie Brown’s fervent hopes of co-ordinated action, Regional Rail workers are covered by the Railway Labor Act, and cannot strike. At least, they can’t strike without going through a months-long process involving multiple interventions by the Federal government. Regional Rail will keep running, although if it’s the last service in town, it will see absurd levels of overcrowding. I’ll go further into detail in a Strike Warning post, should one be necessary.

ETA: The Inky’s Paul Nussbaum is reporting that TWU 234 is officially holding off its strike threat until April 7th.

Google, please unfuck yourself

I’m writing this on board a Paoli/Thorndale train I’m taking to tonight’s meeting at the Chester County Library in Exton about Chester County transit. (Ed note: Second row, far left at the meeting.) I’m taking this train to the 204 bus, which acts as a feeder between Paoli Station and destinations farther out on US 30 not accessible to train stations. As to why there are destinations not accessible to train stations along US 30, quite a lot of that is Chester County’s historical attitude towards pedestrians, which is to build roads that are completely indifferent to whether pedestrians live or die. (For instance, the all-rail method of getting to the Chester County Library involves a 20 minute walk from Exton Station, which wouldn’t be bad at all except that that walk involves a path along roads designed for 50+mph, with limited sidewalks, through an interchange with limited-access US 30.)

My beef today is that, for all that this will be a remarkably straightforward trip beyond the edge of the world, it was a 90 minute struggle with Google Transit before I could actually figure out that there was a straightforward, non-suicidal way to do it. That’s unacceptable. Google’s transit directions before the most recent upgrade could be described as adequate. They weren’t always optimal, but they were close enough, often enough, that it wasn’t worth worrying about. Now, after the transition to the “New Google Maps”, any itinerary involving a transfer is often sufficiently ridiculous as to beggar belief, and the expanded scope of detailed information just turns into a trail of breadcrumbs for the expert user to follow, one to the next, to figure out her actual best plan.

This is especially terrible because accurate GTFS-based trip planning available on everyone’s smartphone is an enormous boon to transit agencies. I actually can’t underoverstate how liberating it is to know, even in a strange city, that you have every transit schedule you might possibly need in your pocket. And having a computer help with the decision between two or more mutually-incompatible transit options takes a lot of the stress out of daily life.

Transit networks that are useful are complicated. That’s simply a fact of life. Not even the most obsessive nerd (like me) is going to know enough details about it to actually navigate freely, outside of a few narrowly constrained corridors. That’s no way to live in a big, beautiful city like ours, or anywhere else. So many people, before the advent of online trip planning, simply didn’t bother, and drove. The number of people who might give up again if Google doesn’t restore reliability to its trip planner, or anoint a successor, may be the difference between health and insolvency (or a fare hike) for SEPTA and many other agencies that are now carrying the choice riders they failed to attract during the dark years of the late 20th Century.