Tuesday, March 06, 2007

We need a transit users conference, now!

Cross-posted from Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.

For more than a year, I've been suggesting that regional transit advocates need to have an annual conference, and lay out an "unconstrained" transit agenda, and then have the agenda "down" so that it can be pushed at any and every opportunity.

E.g. the Bethesda-New Carrollton Purple Line initiative is somewhat disconnected from the Cross-Wilson Bridge initiative from Branch Avenue to Alexandria. Wouldn't it make sense for these two initiatives to use the same technology?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a transit users conference in Toronto, which brought about the power of "open source"--read civic engagement and deliberative democracy--to Toronto transit. See "Toronto "Transit Camp" engages citizens-users to improve the transit system."

DC1974 sends us a link to an article in SFist, "I wish," about ideas for upgrading and extending the Muni website and information services.

This reminds of the classic paper (later expanded into a book) by Eric Raymond, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" about the difference between traditional and open source methods for creating computer software. This paper predates by many years the idea of Web 2.0 and community-software applications (such as Flickr, Myspace, Youtube), and user-generated content platforms.

The thing is, this is a paper about top-down vs. bottom-up initiatives generally. When I first read it, I was struck by the similarities about how his points on software development relate to civic engagement and democracy.

Another paper summarizes:

In his paper, Raymond discusses the historical model for software development and compares it to building cathedrals, a slow and laborious effort with exacting methods carefully applied. Each brick and beam was carefully planned and the structure was erected with painstaking craftsmanship to meet the planned design and symmetry.

The bazaar, by contrast, was often created ad-hoc and in an evolutionary fashion. The bazaar started with a few street vendors and was later built up by additional vendors and merchants, each staking out a piece of the market place as their own and maintaining and adding to their stall until a full-blown Agora was in place.

Clearly each approach served its purpose well, but the cathedral method is rigid and static. It needs the contribution of each part exactly as designed in order to stand, and has difficulty adapting to any other shape or location. The open-source movement is all about flexibility and evolutionary development.

Raymond went on to review nineteen axioms of open-source development by discussing his experience developing "Fetchmail," a Linux application used to forward e-mail. These axioms are the basic tenets of the open-source community, and Raymond discussed them with detailed analysis and examples in the original paper.

Open source isn't just about "flexibility and evolutionary development." It is also about the power and creativity of the group. Open source links skill to a kind of organized, somewhat ordered, but messy democracy.

"Getting There" is the Baltimore Sun's transit column, and yesterday's column, "Awareness the ticket for better bus use," has a similar suggestion, but about ensuring connectivity between systems. (Note that Cableflame, now a co-writer on the companion Dr. Transit blog, points out that the new WMATA subway maps show the bus links to Dulles (5A) and BWI (B30) Airports.)

Michael Dresser suggests a regionwide system connectivity conference, although he is more focused on the Baltimore region, and the Maryland Mass Transit Administration.

From the article:

To its credit, the Transit Riders Action Coalition is prodding the General Assembly to adopt connectivity among adjoining local systems as a basic principle of state transportation policy. The advocacy group is pointing to such anomalies as a Carroll County system that connects with no other transit systems. Then there's that issue of base realignment, bringing thousands of new jobs to an Aberdeen area with woeful connections to Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.

The MTA could jump to the head of this parade. Here's a modest suggestion for you:

Convene a "Connectivity Summit" this summer, inviting every regional and local transit agency between Philadelphia and Northern Virginia along with transit activists, disability-rights groups and anyone who wants to participate. Hash out all the issues - from a common fare structure, to a universal "smart card" to a unified schedule database.

The long-neglected local transit systems are eager to join in and are looking forward to working with you."We're all hoping that with the new administration, things are going to get much better," said Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning for Howard Transit. "We have been fairly marginalized in the transit community for the last several years and we're hoping for a renaissance."

Note that MTA doesn't have a ride guide comparable to that created and continually improved by WMATA. I have argued that WMATA should license this system to MTA for the Baltimore region. Afterall, MTA is a funder of the WMATA system.

Anyway, I say we need to go beyond a strict conference on connectivity, and have a true regionwide transit users and advocacy conference, in part along the Toronto model, promoting the idea of the power of the group and "open source" transit and;

2. That this conference be co-sponsored by the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post, which runs the Dr. Gridlock column, as well as the Baltimore and Washington editions of the Examiner, which each run the "Sprawl and Crawl" column by Steve Eldridge.
Note that along these lines, in January 2005, the Philadelphia City Paper did a great cover story on 33 ways to improve SEPTA. See "Let's Go." 33 ways to reinvent, rethink and recharge our beleaguered transit agency. Other cities around the world have cool public transportation systems. Why can't we?

Wouldn't it be cool for the Washington City Paper and the Baltimore City Paper to do this for each respective region, but run the articles the same week?

(Note that Mark Jenkins' piece in the Washington City Paper more than 10 years ago, proposing a Purple Line, was a significant contributor to my eventual involvement in these kinds of issues.)

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home