Minneapolis in Purple

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.

Robin Garwood

About Robin Garwood

Robin Garwood is Policy Aide to Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon. He serves on the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Minneapolis Tree Advisory Committee, and on the board of FairVote Minnesota.