The One Main Problem Confronting the LA Transportation Movement

The main problem for improving LA transportation is that most of our ideas for a safer, more sustainable network are not popular enough.

Taking space on the street away from cars for bus-only lanes?

Not popular enough.

Taking space to put in protected bike lanes?

Not popular enough.

Implementing safety-oriented design treatments that slow traffic? Increasing bus frequency? Devoting more money to fix sidewalks?

All not popular enough.

“Enough” is the key word here. Nobody is against the bus or sidewalks, and few people are against biking as an activity. But these things just aren’t popular enough for communities to prioritize them and endure the perceived loss of utility for cars.

The only really popular non-car mode in LA is light rail, but it’s a soft popularity. The evidence to date makes it clear that most people will not use the expanding rail system until the relative cost of driving goes up —and making driving more costly is another example of a transportation solution that is not popular enough.

In short, if you care about transportation modes other than cars, it’s bleak right now.

So what to do? I personally think it helps to have a “theory of change,” which is pretty much what it sounds like — a theory for how things might change within the current environment.

My own theory is simple: transportation advocates need to do more work in the area of changing people’s minds so they actually see more value in safer streets that provide travel options other than a car.

This is much more daunting than it sounds on paper. Changing minds around entrenched, often unconscious behavior is incredibly difficult.

But before moving to a discussion of how to make our stuff more popular, the first step is simply acknowledging this basic fact: our ideas are not popular enough.

At present, when I look at some of the prevailing theories of change in the transportation movement today, what I see instead is a state of denial about the fact that our ideas are not popular.

Political Courage

For example, one prevalent theory of change in transportation is based on the idea that our transportation ideas actually are popular, and people do want them prioritized — the problem is that we don’t have leaders with the political courage to enact them.

According to this approach, the transportation movement doesn’t need to rethink anything about how road diets and bus lanes are resonating with communities. We just need to help elect political candidates who will implement them and then stay strong in the face of resistance from “the vocal minority” that opposes them.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with supporting transportation-friendly candidates, but I personally find this “political courage” theory of change to be a profound misunderstanding of the political context in which elected officials make decisions about things like road diets and bus lanes.

As I outline in my overview of the role that elected officials play in transportation, elected officials and their staffs have far greater access to a wider spectrum of people in their communities than transportation activists and advocates do. If elected officials are not putting their political capital behind our transportation ideas, it’s mostly because our stuff isn’t popular enough with their constituents. Full stop.

The idea that there is latent demand for bike lanes and bus lanes that just needs to be activated is, to my mind, an act of wishful thinking by activists unaware of how people other than themselves feel about the things we ourselves cherish.

A variant of the “political courage” model is this: even if many of our ideas in transportation are relatively unpopular, then at the very least elected officials should be leading the campaign for transportation change.

I think this is another misunderstanding of how elected officials operate. In the crowded marketplace of ideas of ideas for making our communities better, it isn’t the job of elected officials to make bus lanes lanes and bike lanes popular — that’s our job as transportation advocates! We need to take responsibility for making our stuff popular instead of pawning it off.

The first step to making safer streets requires a different kind of “advocacy courage” — a willingness to take responsibility for leading a transportation movement instead of insisting they are popular or that it’s the job of elected officials to make them popular. If we make safer streets a more popular cause, city officials will be more likely to become committed to it as well.

Bridge Building

A second prominent theory of change that many transportation advocates are adopting right now is “building bridges” with adjacent causes within the larger progressive political movement in the areas of housing, police reform, and racial justice. This approach connects the transportation cause to the energy that these other movements are generating.

Just as I’m skeptical of the “political courage” theory of change, I’m also skeptical of this “bridge building” theory of change. As I see it, the transportation movement has a basic job to do: get more people walking and riding bikes and taking buses and trains. That’s really it. And while achieving this goal reaches into a lot of adjacent spaces, we should never lose focus on our main thing.

And I think getting too involved in solving the affordable housing crisis or improving the behavior of law enforcement, however important those causes may be, is a significant strategic mistake for a movement that is already faltering — it’s like a failing student adding additional difficult classes to her schedule. A transportation movement that can’t produce bike lanes and bus lanes is unlikely to contribute meaningfully to movements concerning housing or law enforcement.

At a certain point, there is no limit to bridge-building with adjacent causes, and the bridges end up diluting rather than strengthening the work done within transportation. If a person simply finds the police reform issue more compelling, that’s perfectly fine, but you don’t need to leave the transportation space to focus on racial justice.

This brings me back to the central question— how can we make our ideas more popular? How can we get more people to prioritize walking, biking, and public transit?

I’ll be the the first to admit there are no easy answers here. In fact, the absence of clear promising methods for making our stuff more popular is precisely what makes these questions so difficult to confront.

Complaining about elected officials is easy. Getting involved with causes adjacent to transportation is also relatively easy. But they are ultimately a waste of time and resources, because these approaches don’t operate within a valid theory of change.

The first step toward making progress is to acknowledge the fact that our transportation ideas are not popular enough, and to take responsibility as a movement for making them more popular. This is the main thrust of my theory of change, and is where our energy should be focused. A discussion of nuanced strategies for how to make our stuff more popular in different kinds of LA communities would be fantastic, and this is a topic I will write more about.

Do you think I’m off-base? Do you have an altogether different theory of change? No problem. Weighing the pros and cons of different theories of change would be a very productive discussion to have within the transportation movement in LA. We’ve been complaining for decades and nothing ever changes — maybe we need a new theory of change.

See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.

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Live in Los Angeles.

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Nathan S. Holmes

Nathan S. Holmes

Live in Los Angeles.

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