Romanticism, Rail bias and why riding Link Light Rail can be so damn irritating.

Last summer I read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a philosophical text that deeply examines what constitutes “quality” (among other things). In the book, the author describes two ways of looking at the world, the classical and the romantic. The classical perspective focuses on the components and design behind something (one might say it’s an analytical perspective). In contrast, the romantic perspective focus on the thing itself as a whole and focuses on being in the moment. While the author initially focuses on the benefits of classical thinking, particular for its ability to help one fix and maintain a motorcycle, the author ultimately believes that both of these perspectives are essential and that a critical task for humans is to transcend being tied down to either perspective on reality.

When discussing transit on this blog, my perspective has been overwhelming, if not entirely, classical. I assessed the quality of ST3 plans by digging into project components like costs, travel times and projected ridership, the component parts that seemingly (maybe should) make a transit investment valuable. But the reality is that the romantic perspective towards transit plays a large role in how most people perceive the quality of transit and indeed in the experience of transit itself. Most people take transit and support (or don’t do those things) for decidedly less technical reasons. It therefore deserves some discussion.

“Rail bias,” the idea and to a lesser extent empirical reality that many people strongly prefer trains when given the choice between trains or buses with otherwise similar service quality (e.g. reliability, travel times etc.), represents an example of romanticism in action. Many people prefer trains not for function but for form. Trains are charming, cool, slick and the evoke in many a feeling of quality that simply cannot be replicated by a bus. In this context, attempting to convince people to ride or support cheaper bus proposals with similar functional attributes to a rail alternative requires changing a core component of people’s worldview, namely apply a classical perspective and ignore the romantic one. While changing this component of people’s worldview may be a worthwhile endeavor, it doesn’t help us make better decisions about transit in the short-term.

What may help though is noting the malleability of these perspectives. Not everyone views rail the same way. While I fell in love with transit riding the train systems of DC and Atlanta (where my cousins and grandparents lived respectively), I don’t feel the same affection towards Link. In particular, I sometimes find the experience of riding Link Light Rail extremely irritating. Not because of anything related to trip time, reliability, frequency or other hard metrics, but because I know that Link was planned and designed relatively thoughtlessly. This lack of quality in design harms the in the moment experience of riding the train for me. Thus, my romantic perspective reduces my overall perception of Link as a mode of travel. An even better example of this is Seattle’s streetcars which were planned with such thoughtlessness that I loathe riding them, function be damned.

Romantic perceptions matter and they should matter as they help form the real world experience of transit. This claim has at least two implications. First, transit advocates and this blog in particular should avoid always analyzing transit from the classical perspective. It’s sensible to focus on these classical aspects, especially because that’s more or less the stated purpose of this blog, but it’s important to contextualize and synthesize this classical analysis with a more holistic understanding of quality.

Second, greater effort should be made to expand or modify the scope of romantic quality in transit. This requires acknowledging that romantic notions of beauty are malleable, as my feelings towards light rail demonstrate. People have the ability to modify their views on trains and buses and people can expand their view on what constitutes quality if given a compelling vision that appeals to their romantic perspectives. It’s wrong to deny or downplay the existence of rail bias, but viewing it as a static unchanging reality and designing to that standard is equally misguided.


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