Technos versus politicos–which one are you?

Reader Gabriel sends along this piece from the National Review online, which is responding to this distinction made by Alon Levy in a piece on technos versus politicos in transit thinking.

The politicos are the fanboys that advocate for every transit project under the sun, no matter how much of a boondoggle, because they know that spreading the money around is the right way to keep the money flowing.

The technos are the fanboys who actually do analysis and think that money should go to effective service and projects. If you are going to live in a reductive world, I’m probably a techno. (I reduced, not Alon, who goes on to discuss the camps in far more nuance and detail.)

Here is Alon’s attempt to reconcile the two:

Ultimately, the two camps are on the same side when it comes to supporting a transit revival. However, the strategies are diametrically opposed. Ask Clem Tillier or Systemic Failure’s Drunk Engineer how to do it and they’ll propose modernizing the regulations, minimizing community impact through smart engineering to reduce NIMBYism, and making sure to build the most cost-effective projects in order to appeal to fiscal conservatives. Ask a political, such as Bruce McF, and he’ll propose to build locally popular projects and spread money around until there’s a critical mass of train riders willing to lobby for more cost-effective regulations. The two camps’ goal is the same, and there can be agreement on individual issues such as the need for FRA reform or support or opposition for specific projects, but the general strategies have the opposite sequences of steps.

I’m dubious of that description, but if it fits the sites Alon reads, perhaps he is right. For me, anecdotally, I personally don’t know as I believe in a transit revival. I’m not sure I even really know what a transit revival really is, as I don’t believe there was a golden age of transit to begin with, and if there was one, it took place in regions that are entirely different than the metropolitan regions we’re staring at today: smaller, less affluent, less connected trade-flows, etc. I think there was a prior age of hot and crowded streetcars contemporary transit fanboys can look back on with adoration because they never had to ride the damn things. (But that were, nevertheless, useful in providing mobility to people without the means to have a car or a cart, and thus, worth having.)

The way I see it: I’ve got a job, and that job is to train urban planners and policy professionals to work effectively in transit agencies, and that means you have to understand both the technical side and the political side. That way, when the political side spends billions on a train to some far-flung, voter-rich suburb, your technical side can explain the empty train in techy, importanty-sounding terms and keep your job.


A bit more seriously, transit is a fact of life in urban areas; it’s an urban service. There’s cost-effective, useful transit, and there are projects that pretty much such suck up billions and keep construction companies and politicians happy. My job as a researcher is to help sort between those and try to get more to fall in the first camp than the latter, or–home run–derive cost-effective services that make politicians and a whole bunch of other people happy. My job as a teacher is to help my students become the sort of professionals who can walk through the minefield, contribute to the endeavor of good cities and good government (yes, I believe in those things), even though we wind up falling short more often than we’d like. I tend to teach the technical stuff because by the time they get to graduate school in planning, they have drunk deeply from the religion of advocacy. They don’t need me to teach how to scream and shake their fist on transit’s behalf, or to blither on for hours about how it fights obesity, stems pollutions, creates jobs, turns grey skies to blue, and builds community. They already know how to do those things–and I can’t help with the agency-level politics because I’ve never been able to stand to work as anything other than a freelancer. Instead, I try to help them understand dwell time models, capacity calculations, signalization, and the pros and cons of mid-block stops.

One thing I will note: the technos and the polticos have one thing in common: virtually all of the places Alon and Salam talk about on their blogs are fanboy sites.

Can’t a girl play?

Transport has always been male dominated, and in the loudmouth world of transit advocacy, that’s been especially the case. But there are girls out here, too, fellas.