Today I took a stab at writing a holiday letter and discovered that, right at this moment, I can’t figure out how to cheer up transit advocates, or people who work in local government, or anyone else who loves cities. Since consultants like me are expected to exude at least some degree of optimism, this is more of a problem for me than it is for the average person.
Why? At the Federal level in the US, powerful forces, especially in the Senate, are happy to watch local governments implode in budgetary crisis, weakening the only level of government that citizens can influence. Particular hostility seems to be directed at transit agencies associated with big cities. In an absurdity that only Federal policy could create, high ridership in the big agencies before the Covid disaster is exactly why they are in such trouble now. New York, Washington, Boston and possibly others are looking at service cuts that will simply devastate those cities, undermining essential workers and destroying the access to opportunity without which an equitable economic recovery is impossible. Smaller agencies are in better shape at the moment, but if there isn’t a new funding package soon we’ll see devastating cuts across the US.
Tomorrow or next week, I will express optimism again and encourage constructive action. But I know that the journey to any authentic optimism goes through the anger rather than around it. So today I feel the need to state, for the record, that I’m absolutely furious: about what’s happening to transit in the US, and about many larger things of which that’s just an example.
Again, working consultants like me aren’t supposed to say this in public, and if I were at an earlier stage of my career I wouldn’t dare.
Please remember that when you deal with public servants or consultants at this time, and they don’t seem to be reacting in the way you think they should, that they are probably furious too, but are in roles where they can’t express that. In addition to being furious about all the things that you’re furious about, they have also been through a period of unprecedented assault on their professions. Because they did the long, hard work of learning about a topic so that they can help people deal with it, most have been slandered and a few have been threatened physically. So when you see these people managing their own emotions to keep working constructively, consider expressing some gratitude and admiration for that.
When I am in a room with some citizens trying to solve a problem together, we can’t get much done if everyone is just expressing anger in every moment. But even if we park it at the door in order to do our work, we shouldn’t deny it. In almost every meeting, I wish I could say: “I know how furious you are about all the injustice and cruelty and oppression and destructive behavior that surrounds us, in addition to your fears for yourself, your family, and your community. I’m angry too.” Maybe it’s my work to figure out how to say that, even to diverse audiences who may be angry about different things.
There will be many places where it’s not safe to talk this way. But I know I speak for many calm-seeming professionals when I say: I’m absolutely furious, and I hope you are too.