From Michelle Dibblee, Senior Organizer

Last week in Portland, I was initiated into Rail~Volution – the annual conference of people working “to build livable communities through transit.” The breadth of perspectives clearly demonstrated that the industry is growing quickly, as is (in some regions) the public and political will for transit. Planners, elected officials, consultants, architects, engineers, and advocates participated in lively and informative workshops that sparked so many ideas for Minnesota that I’m not sure what to do with them all!

On the other hand, amid all the celebration about how far the movement has come, I wondered if an organizer was out of place. Broadly defined, an organizer’s work is to unite people in work for change – in my case, to work for expanded and improved transit, bicycling, and walking. So what does an organizer do when that change is actually happening?

Minneapolis/St. Paul and other regions are building LRT, commuter rail, and seriously exploring streetcars. The county now has at least three major bike-share programs, including Nice Ride in Minneapolis.. In October the Twin Cities metro area was awarded a $5 million federal Sustainable Communities planning grant and St. Paul received federal TIGER II funds for a Complete Streets study.  With all that is happening, do we still need to organize people to fight for change?

After a day at the conference, I began to fully appreciate the breadth of the players in the rail/transit industry. At my first workshop (a bicycle tour of Portland‘s “green streets“), engineers and planners asked technical questions about “bioswales” (near as I can tell, a fancy word for rain garden). Tuesday brought an introduction into real estate (FAR = floor area ratio), architecture, parking formulas, research, case studies. Fortunately, I found all this interesting. Without doing some research, it’s tough to know which ideas are the best ones. Without engineering, ideas never become trains or buses or buildings. Without regional or community planning, those buildings and trains might not come together into a coherent whole. What a fun challenge, to go from idea to PROJECT. Cool and less emotionally demanding than conflict.

Even so, I missed the push and pull of creative tension and conflict resolution.

So I was grateful when Councilor Rex Burkholder, a member of Portland’s regional elected body, cut through all the industry-speak to remind us that this work is actually about freedom — “the ability to participate fully in the life of your community.”  Not just about cool projects, or transit for transit’s sake, but about making sure that everyone in our communities can be connected- to work, school, family, health, play, and each other.  Without access to transportation, that connection is either impossible or so impractical that it might as well be impossible.  In Minnesota, forty percent of people don’t drive – and for some of those people, even the bus is too expensive. All of these people deserve to be connected, to us and to each other.

What about the fight? Is there one? Is it necessary?

For now, yes – regardless of the breadth of the industry and the monies coming to it, until our transportation system equitably and practically connects us to opportunity and to one another, a healthy fight is necessary. The good news is, it’s much broader than I thought. The success of Rail~Volution is in its cross-disciplinary gathering of allies working for equitable, practical transportation choices. Smart, experienced partners from many disciplines are moving the things we want to move. There’s so much to know that it would be virtually impossible to assimilate all of it in a lifetime. We have to keep talking to each other and working together. Rail~Volution helps make that happen.

Rumor has it that Rail~Volution will make it to Minnesota in the next few years. If so, my hopes are two-fold.

First, I‘d love to see the conference include more people from our neighborhoods and communities as speakers. We need to highlight their experiences in this process to balance out the industry perspective brought by people who are paid or elected to participate. Second, I wish there had been more creative tension at Rail~Volution. Even among friends, areas of conflict highlight important issues such as those that show up in Minnesota. Witness the fight for the missing stations on Central Corridor, regional east-west transit expansion tensions, neighborhood resistance to or embrace of bicycling infrastructure, or the continued heavy spending on highway expansion. Every single one of those conflicts involves people who support expanded transportation choices.  So let’s unearth those tensions and learn how other regions are successfully grappling with theirs to advance livability and connections among communities.

I’m sure that my colleagues who also went to Rail~Volution – Barb, Dave, and Owen – have brought their own ideas back from Portland. So, on we go – with a movement that’s broad, smart, connected, and exciting. See you in Minnesota! Also, check out Michelle in this Streetfilms clip.


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