There are two distinct streams among modern American transit activists, both of which support more transit investment but in ways so different that the arguments between them have taken over debates on such transit issues as California High-Speed Rail and New Jersey’s ARC, and led to scores of back-and-forths on transit blogs. It’s a wonky division rather than a culture war like the mode war between cars and transit, but it discusses issues that are critical for transit revival.
Lacking better terms for the two camps I’m going to call them politicals and technicals, but there’s a fair number of people on the political side who are quite technically minded, and vice versa. Politicals are the people who tend to trust the transit authorities, support a general expansion of all rail transit projects, and believe the primary problem is defeating oil-funded anti-transit lobbies. Technicals are the people who tend to distrust what the authorities say, and prefer their own analysis or that of technically-minded activists; they support transit but are skeptical about many projects, and treat agency inertia and turf wars as the primary obstacles for transit revival.
Because the politicals are much more likely to be rooted in activism, predominantly of the progressive kind, they are better-represented in the major transit advocacy organizations; Streetsblog, Transportation Alternatives, and Transportation for America all deal with the politics and almost never with the little regulations, except for various road engineering standards. NJ-ARP, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, and other ARC critics are perhaps the few organizations that focus on attacking bad transit projects and promoting better alternatives.
Concretely, the best was to understand this division is to compare Clem Tillier’s writings on timetables and train control with anything on California High-Speed Rail Blog or with Bruce McFarling’s Sunday Train series. While the major bloggers are politicals, the split is more even than among the major activist organizations. In addition to the aforementioned, the Infrastructurist‘s views tend to echo those of the agencies that support more infrastructure investment, and Second Avenue Sagas‘ Ben Kabak is a major-league fan of the MTA’s work today. On the technical side there are Systemic Failure, Clem Tillier’s Caltrain-HSR Compatibility, this blog, and increasingly even The Transport Politic on such issues as the Fairmount Line. Writing on other issues such as urbanism can avoid these battles, but it’s almost impossible to transcend them; the only people who can are those who represent well-run agencies, and on the Internet the only blog that has done that is Human Transit.
Despite the name, being technical does not mean ignoring politics, or supporting technocracy. On the contrary, the primary impetus for the technicals, mistrust of transit and government authorities, is often bundled with mistrust of engineering standards, and with preference for practices that have worked abroad (European commenters on American blogs almost invariably side with the technicals). The difference is that the political battle lines we draw are less about mode wars and more about the interests of agencies versus those of riders, how broader political ideas affect transit and cities, or just plain corruption and incompetence.
Conversely, being political does not mean ignoring everything other than the effort to get projects built. Although the politicals are less picky about what projects to support (Bruce McF once referred to the position that only true high-speed rail be funded, rather than medium-speed lines such as the since-canceled 110 mph Ohio Hub plan, as another form of HSR denialism), they often do care about alignment and regulatory choices. For example, opposition to security theater on trains is universal. The difference is that they subsume them into the main political fight, treating them as less important issues, or just believe that truly incompetent decisions such as airline-style security will not happen. Insofar as the government’s statements on train security send mixed signals, they may be right; on the other hand, the FRA’s self-reforms are half-baked.
Although transit activists of both groups tend to tilt left of center, the political distribution in the two camps is different. The politicals’ emphasis on being part of the progressive fight has attracted many down-the-line progressives, who write for Daily Kos and attend Netroots Nation. In contrast, the technicals’ emphasis on mistrust of authority has attracted both radical leftists and right-wingers: the complaints about train overstaffing and government incompetence appeal to conservatives and libertarians, while the unfavorable comparisons of the US with Europe appeal to anti-American leftists such as Richard Mlynarik (see e.g. here).
It’s important to note that the division is not as rigid as depicted so far. Although technicals tend to oppose more transit projects than politicals, some projects (for example, Second Avenue Subway) enjoy near-universal support, while others (for example, the Oakland Airport Connector) enjoy near-universal opposition. ARC is more or less split down the line in New York – politicals supported it, technicals preferred Alt G; in California, technicals universally opposed the choice of the Pacheco Pass alignment for HSR, while politicals had no opinion and prefer to stay the course. But apart from these two, projects often have a different split. Jeff Wood of Reconnecting America and The Overhead Wire, who has never mentioned the FRA or agency turf, opposes new commuter rail on account of its poor performance as well as some exurban rapid transit extensions. And Systemic Failure’s Drunk Engineer supported Florida HSR, and despite complaints about grandiosity and incompetence (“Diridon Intergalactic,” as San Jose’s overbuilt station is named after local power broker and former HSR board member Rod Diridon) Clem Tillier still seems to support California HSR.
Ultimately, the two camps are on the same side when it comes to supporting a transit revival. However, the strategies are diametrically opposed. Ask Clem Tillier or Systemic Failure’s Drunk Engineer how to do it and they’ll propose modernizing the regulations, minimizing community impact through smart engineering to reduce NIMBYism, and making sure to build the most cost-effective projects in order to appeal to fiscal conservatives. Ask a political, such as Bruce McF, and he’ll propose to build locally popular projects and spread money around until there’s a critical mass of train riders willing to lobby for more cost-effective regulations. The two camps’ goal is the same, and there can be agreement on individual issues such as the need for FRA reform or support or opposition for specific projects, but the general strategies have the opposite sequences of steps.