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‘Culture Wars’ Break Out Over Public Transit, Urbanist Ideas

From claims about an "Agenda 21" to attacks on 15-minute cities, a range of conspiracy theories have taken aim at progressive ideas around urban mobility and city design.

A mobility hub in Millennium Park in Chicago in May 2022.
Skip Descant/ Government Technology
Movements to remake American cities as places that are more walkable, less dependent on cars and more diverse in the types of transportation options are not immune to conspiracy theories and political divisions.

“Someone is trying to make a concerted effort against new mobility. And I think it’s a concerted effort to politicize it,” said Alex Roy, co-founder of mobility consultancy Johnson & Roy and a host on the Autonocast podcast, speaking on a panel at the CoMotion Miami conference May 11.

Roy was referring largely to tweets admonishing concepts like new mobility, and even urban design ideas like "the 15-minute city," a philosophy within urbanists that cities should be places where the many aspects of city life — working, shopping, attending school — should all be easily accessible.

“There’s been a constellation of lucid, well-intentioned urbanists talking about the need for better city design, and improvements to the design to accommodate new modes, and improve upon things we know to be true, which are pedestrian zones, walkable neighborhoods — 15-minute cities. These are commonsense ideas,” said Roy, adding, in the last year, these generally “commonsense ideas” have seen pushback as even urbanism falls victim to American “culture wars.”

“This person — I’d love to know who this person is — has launched ad hominem attacks on some of the best urbanists thinkers on Twitter,” said Roy.

“I think these are being funded, and I think there is something happening, and we’re going to see it before the next presidential election,” he added.

That mobility in cities should become politicized in America should come as no huge surprise. In ways large and small cities have become targets for attack by conservative politicians, taking aim at what they see as coastal “elitism” and even “wokeness.”

In the history of mobility, “every mode that arrived became politicized. It became the darling of the left, or the right,” said Roy. “So we can generally say that bicycles, bike lanes, pedestrian zones are generally enjoyed in cities that skew blue.”

Even in my own small, rural town in Yreka, Calif., a recent City Council meeting to approve a housing plan was disrupted by residents saying the plan and the city’s planning department were part of a dark global conspiracy known as “Agenda 21,” pushing a plot to erode property rights and advance “15-minute cities.”

“We’re not going to have any more nice traffic in Yreka. That’s all going to go away, because they’re going to make driving crappy, so that you stay home, so that you ride your bike instead of drive your car,” said one resident, offering an image of her own sort of hellscape where bikes fill the streets. It was a comment that drew loud applause from those opposing the housing plan.

So while urbanism and transportation conferences are exploring the many benefits of designing and building cities with more biking infrastructure, better bus networks and fewer emissions, there’s a movement afoot to fundamentally attack these ideas, good as they may sound to most of those in the government and urban tech space.

And while its easy to dismiss the chatter on Twitter and conservative media as simply white noise, “the culture wars are coming for transportation,” said Roy. “And the best funded companies need to focus very clearly … on their problem-solution-fit. Because there are vast forces arrayed against them, and the optics around AI, automation and job loss — which I think is a bit of a straw man’s argument — they face enormous headwinds.”

Given the many challenges facing cities, ranging from changing commuter patterns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, shifts in how we shop, and how we work, the problems facing cities are real and will require solutions rather than growing political divisions. Karina Ricks, who led the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) and is now a partner at Cityfi, offered dire warnings around the fiscal cliffs too many transit agencies are currently teetering on.

“These are huge gaps,” said Ricks, pointing to a $1.2 billion annual deficit faced by New York City transit, despite the MTA’s sizable budget.

“And still, these gaps are enormous,” she told her panelists at CoMotion Miami.

“Who’s going to come in and save transit in this moment that we’re in?” said Ricks.

And perhaps more to Ricks’ point, does public transit and new mobility really need another challenge to take on? And will those same cultural warriors taking aim at progressive urban solutions show much interest in saving transit as it faces significant fiscal headwinds?

“I hope they do,” she remarked, in a comment that seemed to be dripping with doubt. “I do think there’s a culture war that we need to face.”

This article was originally published by Government Technology, a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic, LLC.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.
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