Global citizenship: how we get there matters

By Aaron Brown

Last week, Governor Tim Pawlenty line-item vetoed the $70 million allocated for the Central Corridor light-rail along University Avenue despite financial backing from the counties, Congress and organizational planning by a multitude of neighborhood alliances. This setback will likely cost the project another $40 million as it waits for next year’s legislation. I originally wanted to write an opinion piece in the Mac Weekly encouraging students to show support for this project by voicing dissent, but after thinking about our place in the community and our stated interest in engaged citizenship, this is not merely an issue of sending a letter to our legislator or signing a petition.In light of recent discussions looming over campus regarding the confluence of global and local citizenship, I propose a critical analysis of one of the most integral parts of our lifestyle in the urbanity of the Twin Cities: transportation. I feel it’s important to encourage the discussion and self-reflection of how we interact with our community through movement in all its forms. A transit agency once held the slogan “How we get there matters,” and this phrase has left an indelible mark on me to consider the politics of transportation the same way a vegan or localvore interprets the politics of food. There exists a surprising amount of politics in everyday banality; how might Macalester community members concerned with global citizenship approach the inherently localized question of how we move about our communities?

A city has always meant different things to different people, but all cities exist on some basic level as nodes in a larger system where ideas, goods, and resources are transported and exchanged to create a higher standard of living otherwise not afforded without cooperation and coordination. Given the paramount importance of these exchanges, it stands to reason that the orientation and effectiveness of the physical infrastructures that facilitate these interactions play an important part in shaping how our communities are built, who they serve, and how we understand our relationship with the surrounding world. If we can agree that transit infrastructure and the corollary socially constructed delineations legislated and learned along with it are so vitally intrinsic to the metropolis, even a brief overview of the Twin Cities’ transportation options and financial priorities reflects a disastrously misguided approach; monstrous highways, encouraged suburbanization and pedestrian-unfriendly streets receive the overwhelming bulk of state financial support.

While it’s admittedly easy to pigeonhole mass transit and transportation alternatives as a partisan issue delineated by positions of government finance, I believe that this entrenched binary in public conception is a framework that prevents progressive, forward-thinking policy-making which is necessary in an era of geopolitical energy anxiety, climate change, and crumbling transportation infrastructure in our country. In short, this is the sort of binary that Macalester students, as suggested by one possible definition of a civically engaged “global citizen,” should strive to transcend by encouraging and engaging in an alternative conceptualization of urban modality.

As global citizens, we should strongly incentivize transportation systems that produce a fraction of carbon emissions compared to that of the automobile. This is not just an issue of preventing ecological catastrophe. In fact, this goes beyond paying more taxes at the pump to include rezoning so establishments legally require less parking (this includes Macalester; does the MARC need 150 more parking spots, as planned? Why?) This means building (and consciously living in) denser housing near transit infrastructure, and ensuring these developments include provisions for affordable housing and social integration. People often associate the limiting of the automobile as an affront on mobility and freedom, and yet, this same dominant car culture restricts those that can’t drive, let alone affronts those who want safer streets for pedestrians or those who want their tax dollars spent on different mobility options. A cost-effective solution involves the retrofitting of many neighborhood streets into “bicycle boulevards,” effectively creating safe, bike-dominant paths to foster car-traffic free transport around our communities while also improving community health and land-values.

Of course, there’s also a “call to action” entailed. This isn’t just an issue of waiting for a politician to build you a train or create standards of carbon emissions in your new automobile, or sending Gov. Pawlenty an angry email ([email protected]). This involves consciously living near your work, using the existing transit infrastructure that exists whenever possible, and maybe even not bringing that car from home back to Mac next fall to keep yourself on two wheels instead of four. Macalester has given institutional support in the form of a subsidized bus pass; it’s now our task to take the bus and rail to get to the airport instead of using a cab. Only a combination of individualized efforts and broader political support will create the socially just, economically efficient and environmentally sustainable transportation system that Minnesota desperately needs.

Aaron Brown ’10 can be reached

at [email protected]