The Danger of Mode-Centrism

News came through this week that the Oregon Bike Summit was being re-christened as the Oregon Active Transportation Summit.

Reaction in the twitterverse was critical – some suggested transit was a very different thing from biking and walking, another suggested that if the tent gets too big, “we might start eating each other’s lunch”.

I find this disturbing. One of the goals in creating Portland Transport was to provide a forum where advocates of various modes could gather for discussion around a “common water cooler”.

I think it’s important to remember that modes are a means, not an end. The objectives for our transportation system are human and environment health, safety and access. It’s a tenet of this site that these goals are improved by reducing over-reliance on single-occupancy automobiles.

I find “Active Transportation” to be a very useful umbrella for the collection of modes that promote human health through personal motion as an alternative to over-reliance on autos: walking, biking and transit (and yes, there’s a lot of personal motion involved in using transit, you very seldom get a door-to-door trip).

There is no question that historically transit does much better at the funding table than the other modes in this bundle, and we need to fix that. But we’re not going to succeed by tearing each other down.

Auto-centrism is pretty ugly. But a single-mode-centric perspective for any other mode is no prettier. The only way we’re going to build a healthy city for the needs of all our citizens is with a strong mix of a variety of modes.

11 responses to “The Danger of Mode-Centrism”

  1. …another suggested that if the tent gets too big, “we might start eating each other’s lunch”.

    But a single-mode-centric perspective for any other mode is no prettier.

    I couldn’t agree more. However, it seems due to funding sources/constraints and personal perceptions, we have arguments that are something like bus vs. rail vs. carpools vs. cycling vs. walking vs. 20-min. neighborhoods vs. moving close to your job vs. telecommuting. As we’ve seen here on this site, the “vs.” debate is self-defeating, and everyone loses (even if one group thinks they’ve gained something such as funding, when in reality they’ve lost overall perception).

    I didn’t mean to leave any mode out, in case I did.

  2. Unicyclists and pogo-stickers everywhere are offended, Jason.

    As are our corporate overlords who fly Learjets to work. :)

  3. If you want to reduce single-occupancy auto travel, it would help very much to ensure that there are no laws or regulations against private drivers accepting a payment from people they give a lift to. This has HUGE potential in this day and age of GPS’s, Blackberries, etc

    I hope your “broad tent” includes advocates of this idea.

  4. I can’t see how the government could effectively preclude someone from paying another private driver for a lift. “I’ll give you a lift to work if you’ll toss in two bucks for gas money.” Some kind of on-line ride-share clearinghouse that you could access from your smartphone could let people share rides on short notice. (“I’m at NE 78th and 15th in Vancouver, and I need to get to downtown Portland in the next two hours. I’ll pay $2 for gas. Anyone heading that way?”) High-tech hitchhiking.

    I imagine that cab companies and limo services would complain, but really — how could you stop it? And — other than blocking competition for cabs — why would you want to?

  5. I think the greater impediment to routine picking up of strangers with an expectation of payment would be private motor vehicle insurance.

    It may vary from company to company, but from what I understand, standard policies do not allow for anything beyond friends and occasional coworkers chipping in for expenses.

    How one defines the boundary between occasional private interactions and operating a side-business can be very tricky.

  6. I’m the one that made the “eating each other’s lunch” quote. Chris, I appreciate your post and your thoughts on this topic, but please understand those are thoughts I posted on Twitter, which is a very short and quick way to share things. The nuance of my feelings around this issue are much more involved than you’ve made them seem here.

    I am absolutely not wanting to tear any mode down. My concerns lie in the motives behind the name changes and my opinions about the effectiveness for bicycling of that strategy.

    I’ll elaborate more on BikePortland as soon as I can. Thanks.

  7. It was my understanding that a outdoors group that I have been a member of had a policy of carpoolers not paying until the end after getting back to the meet-up point. I believe the argument was that it then couldn’t be considered a paid ride and I think insurance or laws had something to deal with it. In addition, taxis may not be the only mode that loses out from paid casual ridesharing.

    Also, regarding the mode debate, I do think way too much time is spent arguing about/against transit (and biking, walking, etc) when the real problem is that transit is given a stacked deck because of subsidies given to auto travel. It seems that if there was a healthy marketplace where drivers actually had to pay for things like pollution effects and parking (and developers had to pay for their new schools, etc) a lot of the problems would go away as there would be a lot more desire for transit and other modes.

    For example, people complain about spending $1.4 billion on a light rail line to Milwaukie, but the real issue is that a lot of the factors that have lead to the project are out of TriMet’s control.

    Lastly, I have heard that transit riders are indeed more “active” and have better health.

    Gotta go.

  8. I too was criticizing use of the “active transportation” label for transit a few days ago.

    While the advocate in me can appreciate the positive framing (as opposed to all the unfortunate “not car” phrases) my problem is that it just doesn’t describe my personal experience riding transit, as I do most days. I find it a wonderfully passive experience — sitting back to get some work or reading done while somebody else keeps track of things for me.

    I don’t deny that the light physical activity surrounding mass transit has personal and public health benefits that should be better appreciated. But the description of it as “active” just doesn’t ring true, and therefore I think it’ll always have a whiff of artifice and boosterism.

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