Debating mass transit: a format for discussing whether it is dead or can be revived

Even though I did not attend a recent debate in Washington D.C. between two mass transit commentators, I wish we could have more conversations like this one:

O’Toole opened with a whirlwind of statistical bullet points documenting the transit death spiral. He seized on the latest national transit ridership data, but his message was vintage O’Toole: Government funding of public buses, trains, light rail, and streetcars has failed and should stop. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about the future of the transit industry,” O’Toole said. “Transit ridership has been declining steadily and it’s declining in all major urban areas, whether it’s rail or bus. I don’t see hope of recovery because the forces that are causing it to decline are not going away.”

Subsidies can’t overcome what shapes people’s preferences, O’Toole argued, and what people want is to live out in the suburbs and drive their cars. In recent years, transit ridership has really only grown in places where there’s been a dramatic boom in downtown jobs, such as Seattle…

For Walker, a consultant who works on improving transit systems in cities around the world, the narrative that O’Toole spins about declining transit ridership doesn’t frame the story quite right—it’s zoomed out too far. “A lot of what seems like an urban-rural culture war is actually just people at different densities understandably trying to solve the immediate problems of where they live. The national statistics are useless. [The decline of urban trips since 1976] is also a history of urban density, of course, because transit is a response to density.”..

Rather than directly rebutting each bullet point on O’Toole’s laundry list, Walker made a more values-based case, stressing that the big problems public transportation systems now face come down to just a few things: emissions, labor, and space. And those can be addressed with fleets of electric vehicles that are either large—think electric buses—or small e-boosted bikes and scooters. He’s optimistic about self-driving technology, but believes that their truly transformative deployment will be in city bus fleets, where they could dramatically trim labor costs.

It sounds like the debate accomplished two major tasks:

  1. Each side was able to put forth their arguments. One goes more with data. The other talks more about values. Both can explain what they think the problems are.
  2. The two sides had good conversation before, during, and after the debate. They found some common ground as well as points at which they still disagree.

Contrast this to two other public conversation options often employed by colleges as well as think tanks and other organizations interested in public conversations. It is common to have a single speaker present their book, article, or idea. There might be some back and forth with the audience afterward but the format generally assumes the one expert has the knowledge to share with the audience. In thirty to sixth minutes, the speaker can really get into their topic with some detail. A second option is the panel discussion where multiple people with insight to the issue talk in front of an audience. Each person might have a few minutes to share (this can’t go on too long or it becomes multiple mini-single person presentations) and there might be some robust discussion (though this can be difficult depending on the size of the panel and the temperament of the moderator and participants).

The debate seems like a better format to discuss difficult questions like the one these two debaters addressed. It works better if the two are skilled at presenting their sides and responding to others. The audience gets to hear two sides (better than the single talk but in less detail) and the conversation is only between two sides/perspectives (perhaps worse than the panel because some views will not be expressed but it is much easier to provide time for all participants).

And as for the result of such a debate? Perhaps the goal is less about winning and more about engaged listening, conversation, and trying to find a way forward between two people who might still disagree about important points.

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