Let’s Really Talk About Privilege in Transportation

A recent Streets.mn piece attempts to make the case that Minneapolis policies, including but not limited to the draft Comprehensive Plan, are part of a broader war on cars, driven by the “privilege” of people who cannot or choose not to drive. I feel like I have a responsibility to respond, because I’ve worked for transportation equity in our city for years, in various ways.

A little about me: I work for the one Green Party member on the Minneapolis City Council. I helped craft the City’s Climate Action Plan and Complete Streets Policy, helped found the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition (now Our Streets), and have served on the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee for years, among other things.

There’s quite a lot to react to in the piece, but two themes jumped out: let’s remember that transit exists, and let’s have a clearer and more reality-based conversation about privilege in relation to transportation choices.

Transit exists

You would never know it, reading this most recent entry in the “war on cars” genre, but public mass transit is a thing that exists. It has existed in Minneapolis since the city’s earliest days. The development pattern of the city was not actually driven solely by the limitations of walking or the Model T, but by a robust system of streetcars that connected residents to their workplaces and services. Those old streetcar lines remain many of our current bus routes, and define many of our commercial corridors. (They are also the places one is likeliest to see old apartment buildings, another part of the urban fabric that, like transit, exists.)

Please go through the piece and check my work. The word “transit” does not appear in it. Ditto the words “bus,” “train,” and “streetcar.” This is in stark contrast to the 2040 Comprehensive Plan draft, which talks about transit a lot.

It’s a false dichotomy to pretend that the only two choices are driving a car or walking and biking. And it’s rather silly, because most of the non-car trips in our city are made by transit (13% of trips to work, versus 7% for walking and 4% for biking). And in the other US cities where people aren’t forced to be as car-dependent as we are in the Twin Cities, a large share of trips are taken on transit.

It’s pretty clear why the piece erases transit: acknowledging transit’s existence cuts to the heart of the writer’s argument. While it’s (more than) a stretch to claim that people who choose to walk and bike have privileges that people who choose to drive do not, it’s downright laughable to advance a similar narrative about transit riders. The data are clear: transit is used more by low income people and people of color. Transit serves people with physical disabilities who can’t bike or drive, and is safely available to undocumented persons in a way that driving is not.

It’s impossible to advance any kind of reality-based argument that transit riders – especially our transit-dependent neighbors – are more privileged than people who can and choose to drive. Choosing to solve this rhetorical problem by erasing the very existence of transit shows the intellectual barrenness of this argument that drivers are the real underprivileged class.

Let’s talk about privilege

I have a lot of different kinds of privilege. I’m white. I’m male. I’m young-ish. I am not disabled. I come from a middle-class background and make a comfortable living.

I’m also privileged in a lot of other ways. I was fortunate to be able to afford to buy a house in a neighborhood – where I could almost certainly not afford to buy a house today – that is wonderfully walkable. Within just a few blocks of my home are a grocery store, a coffee shop, a hardware store, a record store, a park, a few restaurants, and more.

I’m also privileged to have a safe, comfortable bike route between my home and my workplace. When I choose to bike to work, I get to be physically separated from cars for almost the entire trip.

I’m also privileged to live in a neighborhood with pretty great transit access. My home is within walking distance of the 21 and 9 bus routes, which easily connect me to fast, reliable light rail.

I also have the privilege to be able to drive when that feels like the best choice for a given trip. I am a citizen, and have a driver’s license. I don’t have physical disabilities that would prevent me from driving. I could afford a car, if I chose to buy one, and I can afford to belong to car-sharing services. Some of my friends and family have cars, and I sometimes have the privilege to use one of their cars when that seems like the best choice. When I drive, I’m cognizant of my privilege to use a heavy, complex machine and a whole lot of fossil fuel energy to move further and faster than most people in the world, and absolutely everyone who lived more than a hundred and fifty years ago. When I drive, I know that it will be pretty dang convenient, safe and comfortable to get where I’m going, and that when I get there I’ll be able to easily find a place to store the car I’m driving, probably for free.

So let’s break all of that down. Some of my privileges are demographic, and are not transferable to anyone else. For those privileges, my only ethical course of action is to recognize and acknowledge them, and to work to dismantle structural inequities (institutional racism, sexism, etc.) that benefit me to the detriment of others.

But many of my privileges are environmental, which is to say they aren’t intrinsic to me, but a reflection of the community I am lucky enough to live in. These can be shared, and my ethical course of action is to work to share them. So that’s what I’m doing. I think everyone should be able to live in a walkable neighborhood, with easy access to safe and comfortable bike routes, reliable and frequent transit service, and goods and services close by. That’s the kind of city I want to live in, the kind of city I want us all to build together. And I think that if we are successful in building that kind of city, more people will choose to walk, bike, and take transit (which exists!) for more trips, and that will be good for everyone. I believe that desire is broadly shared, and that’s the idea that motivates the proposed Comprehensive Plan, the Complete Streets Policy, and other public policies I’ve been proud to work for.

The ultimate privilege: living now

And then there’s maybe the most important privilege that I have. I share it with you, the writer of this most recent piece, and everyone else on the planet today: I have the enormous good fortune to be living now, rather than a hundred years from now.

Because all available evidence points to a grim reality: unless we radically alter the course we’re on, the lives of people a hundred years from now will be far, far worse than our lives are today. We have the privileges of clean water to drink, plentiful food, and a still relatively stable climate. Our descendants will not, if we stay on this track. Any analysis of privilege in our transportation and land use policies that does not consider the people who will inherit this world from us is wildly irresponsible.

We have the privilege of spending our time debating where people can and can’t leave their sophisticated and expensive pieces of personal mobility machinery. If people in a hundred years have the luxury of fighting over anything but the bare necessities of life, it will be nothing short of a miracle. The only way that miracle will occur is if all of us – but especially those of us who have the privilege of living in this wealthy, energy-intensive society – make fundamental changes to our lifestyles. We all need to use a lot less energy, and we need to make that transition pretty much immediately.

One of the ways that we use the most energy is in transportation. Road transportation accounts for 26% of our carbon emissions in Minneapolis, second only to the energy used in buildings. And electric cars won’t save us. According to work the City did with the Siemens City Performance Tool, in order to reach our goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, we need to both substantially electrify the car fleet and shift at least 10% of driving trips to other modes like walking, biking and transit (which, again, exists!). And all of that relies on moving to almost entirely renewable electricity – in itself no small feat. It’s very clear that in order to avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate change, collectively we must drive less.

We have absolute power over the lives of the people living a century from now, more power than any of us living today have over anyone else living today. We have the privilege of deciding whether they live in a world with a stable, livable climate, or try to survive on a planet we have effectively set on fire. It is our privilege to live in a time before the worst effects of this self-imposed catastrophe. And with this privilege comes the responsibility to get it right.

That – not our own personal convenience at this moment, whatever our relative privilege – is the way I hope we will all judge public policy – very much including Complete Streets and the Comprehensive Plan.

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27 Responses to Let’s Really Talk About Privilege in Transportation

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson April 17, 2018 at 8:37 am #

    Another streets.mn posts I’m hoping to not miss out on the comments.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller April 17, 2018 at 9:30 am #

    Thanks for this Robin. You said it a lot better than my various attempts.

  3. Ben Franske April 17, 2018 at 9:53 am #

    FYI. You should probably edit out the word public when talking about mass transit historically. Until the 1960s mass transit in the Twin Cities was privately owned. I certainly don’t think that’s a viable or suggested way of doing things today. Also, if I were being really pedantic I would suggest that there hasn’t been mass transit ‘from the earliest days’ it was actually 1875 when the first horsecars started operating and probably the early to mid 1890s before you could really consider there to be much of a transit system. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a long time ago, but it’s not as if the city has always had mass transit since inception in 1856. Indeed, the struggle to get around from the 1850s until the 1890s was very real and mass transit had a lot to do with the ability to get around in those days and of the city to support growth.

    • Erik Ostrom April 17, 2018 at 12:14 pm #

      Is this a commonly held distinction between public and mass transit? Wikipedia and I think the “public” in “public transit” refers to the users, not the owners.

      • Ben Franske April 17, 2018 at 2:54 pm #

        Yes, I think that it is commonly held, at least among those who deal in these areas. I think it is the exact reason there are two terms “mass transit” and “public transit”. It really only comes into play if you’re talking historically though as there are very few examples of private mass transit left. I’m not sure when the term mass transit came into general use or the term public transit but I am pretty sure I haven’t seen original source articles talking about public transit when the system under discussion was privately owned.

        It’s certainly a pedantic thing, but given that public transit and mass transit are both areas fraught with disagreement I’d say it’s worth being clear. Especially because you will run into (some) people who would support mass transit but not public transit and others (but almost certainly fewer) who would support public transit but not mass transit.

        • Paul Strebe April 18, 2018 at 8:45 pm #

          Ben, you may make this distinction in your mind, but the dictionaries disagree. “Mass transit” is defined as “public transportation, especially in an urban area.” And “public transportation”? “Buses, trains, subways, and other forms of transportation that charge set fares, run on fixed routes, and are available to the public.”

          If you start heading down the road (hehe) of trying to re-purpose “public transportation” to mean “receiving a public subsidy”, you’re headed for trouble IMHO. Exhibit A: Amtrak.

  4. jeffk April 17, 2018 at 10:15 am #

    The greater density offered by the new comprehensive plan would do wonders to make transit use more viable.

    Perhaps the “green” party member on the city council would be wise to support it.

    • jeffk April 17, 2018 at 12:26 pm #

      … However, this snotty sarcastic observation aside, this is an excellent piece of writing.

  5. David Markle
    David Markle April 17, 2018 at 12:14 pm #

    I understand that emissions from vehicle engines account for most of the air pollution in Minnesota.

    But we’ll never get away from such great dependence on motor vehicles in the metropolitan area unless we create a skeleton of truly rapid transit. Otherwise it will remain fastest and most convenient for many residents to go by automobile,.

    • Nick Minderman April 17, 2018 at 6:17 pm #

      And the Minneapolis Comprehensive plan will level that playing field by removing the advantage that cars convey, putting more people closer to their destinations (and making it more challenging to drive for those that choose to do so anyway). Those who argue chicken and egg need to remember that the buildings are around for a lot longer than the buses and trains. If we fail at land use, we will never be able to serve people with transit, regardless of how much we build. Improving transit use is not an issue that we can supply our way out of. There needs to be increased demand.

      • Miller Jozwiak April 19, 2018 at 9:58 am #

        I never thought of it this way. Very well put! Thank you, Nick!

  6. Nicole Salica
    Nicole Salica April 17, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    thanks for the more detailed and reasoned response piece. well said.

  7. Tom Basgen
    Tom Basgen April 17, 2018 at 2:33 pm #

    Hey! Good stuff!

  8. Katie M. April 17, 2018 at 3:49 pm #

    Thank you for your work on transportation equity!

    And…I’m also going to take a moment to harp on one of my pet peeves:

    “…because most of the non-car trips in our city are made by transit (13% of trips to work, versus 7% for walking and 4% for biking.”

    Nope, not true.

    Most of the non-car *commute* trips might be made by transit–but the vast majority of trips people take aren’t commuting.

    If we’re serious about addressing travel and privilege, we can’t start with data that privileges commute trips over other kinds of trips. Because guess who the most privileged people out there are? They’re the ones who commute.

    How would our transportation policies and city design change if we reframed them to focus on modifying the 86% of trips that aren’t to and from a job site during the peak commute hours? What would that mean for our the design of our transit systems and roadways? Important questions that I do not hear people asking often enough…

  9. Robin Garwood
    Robin Garwood April 17, 2018 at 4:21 pm #

    Great point. I wish there was a source for non-commute modal choice data that was as granular and frequent as the census data on work trips. Ethan from Our Streets sent me info on non-commute modal choice, but at the regional level: https://metrocouncil.org/Transportation/Planning/Transportation-Behavior-Inventory.aspx. For the whole region (and way back in 2010) transit accounted for 3% of all trips, and walking and biking 8% combined. I’m very confident both numbers would be much higher now, and in Minneapolis specifically.

    But the essential point remains, whether we’re talking about commute trips or non-commute trips: transit exists, and is used by lots of people in Minneapolis to get from where they are to where they’re going.

    • Katie M. April 17, 2018 at 4:48 pm #

      So true, lack of data is such a challenge!

      And absolutely paying attention to transit is critical. The question is, what kind of transit are we building, and who will it serve? If we’re going to invest in transit to get people driving less, what sort of trips do we focus on? What’s the best system for those trips?

      Transit absolutely can maintain existing systems of privilege, if we’re building the types of transit (e.g., rail to and from suburbs) that mainly serve wealthier, whiter, employed populations…

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini April 17, 2018 at 8:18 pm #

        Here is a very detailed resource that pulls from the granular TBI (among other data sets): http://www.cts.umn.edu/Publications/ResearchReports/pdfdownload.pl?id=2628

        PDF page 131 has a table that lists mode shares for all trips by origin of destination. For all trips originating in Minneapolis in 2010, transit accounted for 7.8%, biking 4.9%, and walking 18.3%. These are year-round totals, which take into consideration winter’s effect on individual modes.

        These are, as Robin notes, much higher than the region’s average. They’re also much higher than the stats Carol Becker chose to cherry pick. They’re also likely much lower than 2018, and lower still than what’s possible with safer and more convenient alternatives. It isn’t crazy to imagine a city where 40-50% of all trips are taken outside a car.

        • Robin Garwood
          Robin Garwood April 17, 2018 at 9:19 pm #

          Great data, Alex. Thanks for the additions.

          It’s important to me that we add these up: nearly a third of trips were taken outside of a car in 2010. It’s almost certain to be higher today.

  10. bruce April 17, 2018 at 5:23 pm #

    Just think how much more mass transit can be utilized if we opt in to increase the density of housing near those light rail and bus routes. I’d advocate opening R1 and R2 zoning to everything up to fouplexes and amending the ADU ordinance to include non owner occupied ADU’s would add a lot of housing near transit points. New housing doesn’t have to be large apartment buildings but rather smaller options that can be more economical. ADU’s, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes answer that call because there is such a big opportunity to add them near transit without changing neighborhoods drastically.

  11. Dave Thompson April 17, 2018 at 6:40 pm #

    Thank you for redeeming streets.mn as a place to have a discussion. The previous piece was so aggravating that I wrote you guys off.
    In my experience as an active senior who is still working full-time, commuting to work seems more amenable to mass transit than all the other trips I make. I live in the Wedge and work in Bloomington, and during daylight savings time (when it’s warm enough and light during evening rush hour), I bike down the Greenway to Hiawatha and take the LRT to work. The rest of the year, I put my bike away and drive my car. During the cold months, I am appalled to see all the bike lanes that should have been converted back to car lanes. Everyone talks about biking, but nobody does it in January.
    Oh are you one of the exceptions? Having a bike lane that serves one rider per half-hour seems pretty privileged to me.
    Other than my commute to work, all my other trips are point-to-point. Trips to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, the coffee shop, the hardware store, the grandchildren, all require timing, load capacity, and/or travel routes that are best supported by personal transportation. Seniors can’t continue living at home without reliable point-to-point travel capability. Either I am going somewhere, or someone is coming to me.
    I assure you that I am not alone in this. Parking pressure in the Wedge increases every year (more people = more cars), and every year the Citywide Transportation plan removes more on-street parking from my neighborhood.

    • Robin Garwood
      Robin Garwood April 17, 2018 at 9:15 pm #

      I’m genuinely curious about which “previous piece” you’re referring to. Is it the piece to which I’m responding?

      Yes, I am one of the people who bikes during the winter. During the cold months, I continue to use all of the modes of transportation I use during the warm months: I walk, bike, take transit, and sometimes drive.

      I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that any of the infrastructure I use in any of those modes of transportation will entirely go away when the snow falls. I expect that I should still be able to walk on sidewalks that are clear of snow (though this is, unfortunately, rarely the case), bike on bikeways that continue to exist and are clear of snow (this is hit-and-miss, and getting better), take transit, and drive.

      We size a lot of our transportation infrastructure for the times when it will be used most heavily. In conversations about roadway design (and I’ve now been in approximately 10,000 of them), it’s really common for traffic engineers to talk about “AM peak” and “PM peak.” Those are the few hours of each standard weekday when the road will have the largest numbers of cars.

      I was just in one of these conversations today. The City and County are working together (with input from the U of M and several other stakeholder groups) on a plan to make the existing bike lanes on University Ave and 4th Street SE into protected bikeways. One of the hopes that I and others had for this project was that we could reduce the number of car lanes from three in each direction to two in each direction. I hoped that not because I have an underlying hatred of cars, but because reducing lanes has been shown to reduce speeds, thereby reducing the chances of serious crashes and injuries, and because we can do other, better things with that space (including on-street parking, which I generally favor). But the County felt that the peak demand – just those few hours a day – was high enough that we have to keep all three lanes. And the U of M felt that the event demand – just those few hours a day on those few days a year – warranted keeping those lanes as well. So we compromised, and there will continue to be three eleven-foot car lanes, along with one protected bikeway. It will be there year round.

      I hope this is a useful analogy. In no other case does a demand that transportation infrastructure somehow “go away” when it’s not being used seem reasonable. The airport is still there, even on the slowest air-travel day of the year. The freeways are still there at midnight on Sunday. And yes, bikeways and sidewalks and buses and trains should be usable year-round.

      • Jenny TH April 17, 2018 at 11:59 pm #

        Definitely not an expert, but I’ll chime in to say that privileging a single transportation mode is not the only rationale behind bike lanes. Reducing street lanes on *some* strategic traffic corridors is a deliberate effort to lower speeds and save lives (those of bikers, pedestrians, and drivers). This rationale stands regardless of whether hundreds of cyclists are in bikes lanes or a smaller number.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller April 18, 2018 at 10:33 am #

      Most of our bike lanes are too small to serve as car lanes. Also, January is exactly when you most need separate space.

      And yeah, I bike in January. Not all the time, but when it’s not too snowy, icy or cold. Looks like I only commuted twice this year, but that’s in part because the bike lanes actually do go away when parked cars mean plows can’t clear snow to the curb which “forces” cars to park in the bike lane.

  12. Kyla Cromer April 18, 2018 at 10:37 am #

    Excellent piece, Robin.

    I want to throw in, I heard someone from the MN EPA on MPR a couple of years ago say mowing a lawn once a week emitted more pollution than commuting all week. (In recent years, those horrible leaf blowers are all over the place. Where are they blowing them?)

    Thanks for all you do!

    • GlowBoy April 18, 2018 at 5:31 pm #

      Small gas engines do pollute a lot. That’s one of the reasons I use an electric mower despite the minor hassles of managing the cord. No leafblowers for me, thanks: I mulch the leaves back into the lawn, eliminating the need for both a leafblower and fertilizer.

      And after three winters of shoveling by hand since I moved here, I had a premonition this winter would be a bit snowier, so I made the decision last fall to get an electric snowblower. No small-engine hassles or pollution, and sure beats shoveling the 80+ inches we’ve had so far. This “little blower that could” even handled last weekend’s 15 inches, though it took more than one pass!

  13. Roger Kiemele April 18, 2018 at 6:40 pm #

    You do not understand the “privileged” City property tax paying construction worker that needs to drive 20 mile to his job hauling over 200 pounds of tools every day. Or the night nurse that has to go to St. Paul for her shift. The absurdity of being stuck on 26th or 28th St in traffic when no bikes are using the “lanes’ and these drivers have no reasonable way to get on a bike. BTW I own four bikes and two cars.

    • Kyla Cromer April 18, 2018 at 7:40 pm #

      That’s a good point on tradespeople, Roger – a perfect reason to build up all the other options for those that don’t fit into that kind of category, or driving trucks. Then the roads would be clearer for you. I’m not sure why the night nurse would be hung up in rush hour traffic…?

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