Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

February TatB Recap

“When you’re on the street as a pedestrian, all cars are monsters. When you’re in a car, all pedestrians are idiots.”

 “Designing a street IS social engineering – what you do with it and why are questions of social policy.”

 Those quotes give you a taste of some of the discussion of the February Theology at the Bottleworks (TATB), which took up the topic of “Bikes, Cars and Mass Transit – Transportation Wars in The Lou.”  The discussion went all kinds of places, and truly, you just had to be there to benefit from the variety of perspectives that came up.  A friend of mine came to this for his first TATB and was impacted by thoughts of how transportation choices are lifestyle choices and affect both our personal value formation, and the way we see, use and participate in our city.  TATB in this case met one of our important goals – prompting people to think new things, see new perspectives and consider the good of our city at large.

 Bikes, cars, mass transit and transportation infrastructure may not at first blush sound that compelling  to you.  Drill deeper.  One of the most fascinating things to me about the topic is that our transportation choices can be lived-out expressions of our most deeply held values.  For example, if we value autonomy and personal freedom and flexibility above all, our transportation choices often reflect that.  If we value other things more highly, perhaps preservation of natural resources, frugality, safety, interpersonal contact, or sustainability, we may make other transportation choices.  Some choices are focused more on us as individuals, and other are focused more on the good of the city at large or of multiple others.  I think some introspection can show you that your attitudes toward, and choices of, modes of transportation can be a litmus test for some of your deepest values. That’s pretty interesting – it gets into “ought” questions, into ethics territory.  How ought we live, and move around, and what values do we hold and live out in doing so?  What transportation is good for people, and what factors make for “good”?   Surely  considerations would include freedom, autonomy, health, air and water quality impact, energy resources, financial responsibility, safety for travellers and others, efficiency in moving masses of people and costs of building and maintaing transportation infrastructure (e.g., roads, train tracks, bus systems).  Of course, some of these factors may run counter to each other, and prioritizing them is required.

 Are you starting to see the depths of this topic?

 I think there are individual, and communal, aspects of considering and evaluating transportation choices.  Does your means of transportation have much to do with you prospering, as an individual person?  In what ways?  Is there room for improvement?  Then consider, what transportation options do we have in our city and are they sufficient?  Are they good for the city?  Best for the city? As a city are we settling, or improving?  I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but these are profound inquiries, large social policy questions.  Your deciding to take a car or bike or train or whatever to wherever you are going is rife with ramifications.  Deciding whether and how our city should spend millions of dollars in tax dollars on roads, light rail systems, trolleys, bike paths or other forms of infrastructure iare huge stewardship matters and develop a certain kind of city.   For example, it cost $525 million to rebuild 10 miles of I-64, one of St. Louis’s main highways.  And that highway will require more funds for maintenance and repair for as long as it exists.  Highway 64 is certainly better than it was, but $525 million certainly did not eliminate traffic problems on it.  We should ask whether we are building the kind of city we want to have with the funds we have available.  We certainly need roads – but are they only thing we need?

 Having touched on how transportation choices can serve personal goods, and communal goods, I’ll ask this:  can the good of the city, overall, and our own personal good, be connected or interrelated?   I’ll leave it to the urban planners, sociologists and theologians to tease out the details of that, but I will submit that while discussing “transportation choices and infrastructure” sounds like it could be boring, these things are important to how we live our lives and important to building our city to be a flourishing city full of flourishing people.  Flourishing can mean a lot of things, but would certainly involve safer rather than more dangerous, more environmentally sustainable than less, more economical than less, more supportive of more people than less supportive, and collective definitions of success and not only personal ones. Flourishing would mean an end of bicycle vs car hostilities; a cease-fire from judging as unimportant the people who use transportation modes we don’t use (such as the Metro bus and rail system); and choosing transportation modes that fulfill our values for what is “good”.

 What if we, each and every one of us, considered the good of ourselves, and our city, as we make transportation choices?  What if we sought the prosperity of our city more and more – if it prospers might you, too?