By now, you have read about the meeting in Saint Paul where an unruly crowd of citizens booed and shouted at public officials and experts about parking meters. Yes, parking meters. I have also been reading comments on social media that express amazement that people can get so worked up about minor changes to transportation infrastructure.
However, I’m not surprised. I have been to other meetings in Saint Paul about transportation and have encountered similar bizarre reactions to proposed changes in transportation infrastructure. I’ve concluded that these extreme emotional reactions are not really about bike lanes or sidewalk bump-outs or parking meters, but are really about something far more sensitive, something as uncomfortable to talk about as personal finance or sex — status.
Human beings are social animals and like other social animals, we need to know our place in the pecking order. Having broken with the Old World and its inherited class system, Americans tend to rank status according to wealth. And one easily discerned measure of wealth and status is the brand of automobile a person drives. At the top of the social ladder are the people who drive (or are driven in) expensive, usually foreign-made cars, and at the bottom are people who drive old, used, and often domestic cars. Beneath the bottom rung of the social ladder are people who do not own cars, but instead ride mass transit, walk and ride bicycles… until recently.
Recently, particularly in Europe, the car-free status has been climbing up the social ladder. One example is Maxima Zorreguieta, Queen of The Netherlands who showed up a couple years ago on a bike to dedicate a park looking very confident in her status, even chic (looking chic on a bike seems to be a thing in Holland and Denmark).
The recent decisions by officials in Paris and Oslo to remove private automobiles from their city centers is another indication that the days of the automobile as a badge of rank in society is on the way out.
In American cities and towns, the decoupling of status and private automobile ownership is proceeding more slowly. Even in cities with adequate bicycle and transit infrastructure, I often feel like a second-class citizen riding a bicycle.
However, I usually feel there is progress. The exception is my hometown, Saint Paul, where we seem to be sliding backwards into the dark ages of automobile dominance. Minneapolis shames its twin with its growing network of protected bike lanes. Saint Paul is being lapped by Indianapolis with its Cultural Trail.
Collective vs. Individual Status
The key difference, I think, between Saint Paul and Minneapolis is Minneapolitians are more secure in their collective status. Saint Paulites don’t have as much pride in their city as their neighbors across the river. Without a confident and secure collective status, Saint Paulites fall back on the traditional barometer of individual status, the private automobile. Any attempt to alter the car-dominated urban landscape personally threatens them as if it were an attempt to restructure the social order. This affront to their status, a perception of transportation equity as “social engineering”, often provokes them to angry outbursts at meetings. Their outrage is often expressed by shouting things like “You won’t make me ride a bike!” (other variations on that theme include riding a bus, riding a train, and walking).
I don’t think this is an impossible or even difficult problem to resolve. After all, I’m sure Saint Paulites would experience a boost in their collective pride if their sports teams won a championship. Few Saint Paulites actually play professional hockey or baseball, but most Saint Paulites feel pretty good when the home team wins. That collective pride in the hometown team is the usual justification civic leaders give to spending millions of public dollars building sports facilities.
City leaders in Saint Paul could use the same appeal to civic pride to spend a fraction of those public funds on bicycle, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure. Saint Paulites could feel as much pride as Minneapolitians for being ranked among the top bicycling cities, even if they drive all the time and never ride a bike.