Public transit is shortchanged. Where’s the news in that? If you follow this blog you know, and you have the numbers to back you up. Public transit in the United States is underfunded. And what’s with the folk band? Where’s the bus, the train, the ferry, the beautiful route map? The graph? Was the wrong image downloaded? Where’s transit?
Standing on the stage. In 2014, Poetry on Buses, a collaboration of King County Metro and 4Culture, was awarded the #2 spot in the Top 10 Collaborations of Art, Music and Local Businesses judged by DO206, the Seattle Chapter of DOSTUFF. This is an image from the Poetry on Buses kick-off event that year. I was there. That evening The Moore Theater rocked with music and the spoken word. It was the first year the annual project really reflected Metro’s riders with poems in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and Somali, the five most spoken languages in King County. Metro transit riders, some of whom had never written poetry before but coached in workshops put on all over the county, proudly read their poems with family and friends filling the theater to capacity. It was a brilliant, powerful night.
Now back in 2014 we could be forgiven if we didn’t believe in the power of poetry. But in 2021 a young woman with a glorious red headband and bright yellow coat believed otherwise. Amanda Gorman reminded us we are a storytelling people.
Back in 2014 we had not yet experienced the power of narrative in derailing a public health based response to Covid-19. No avalanche of statistics, the latest that 1 out of every 500 Americans has died from Covid-19, will change the minds of our fellow Americans who are refusing to vaccinate.
So, what is the lesson in this for those of us who love public transit? That we, the advocates for public transit, have done our share of shortchanging public transit. We bury the story of public transit beneath our graphs and matrices and maps and projections. It’s there but barely breathing. In this, we shortchange its powerful story. Or in the more acceptable civic language, the narrative.
The narrative of public transit as a vehicle for opportunities. The narrative of public transit at the intersection of societal change. The narrative of public transit in fueling creativity. The narrative of public transit in connecting community. The narrative of transit in driving solutions to climate change.
“We do not credit easily the claims of poetry that are against the hardware of the day.” Walter Brueggemann
Walter Brueggemann, a wise interpreter of stories, warns of the need for poetics to move people beyond the present reality to the possibilities of a different future. For America to move from loving cars to loving public transit, it will take those who believe that to be a possibility to move others to believe. And storytelling may be the most powerful tool we have in our toolbox.
But do we have the skills to effectively use narrative to change minds? How do we move from shortchanging public transit to enriching the story? Before picking up the tool I think we have to regularly engage with storytelling. It’s a slow start for sure, but people know a truth-telling story when they hear it. Real stories come from deeper down than real numbers. Tomorrow, before clicking on the link to that beautifully designed transit map or that discussion of the latest bus design, the “hardware of the day,” consider picking up a book of storytelling or better yet, start with the poems from the 2017 Poetry on Buses. These are our transit customers telling us their stories. Click here for a poem for each day of the year.
Reading a poem doesn’t take long, but if it is a good poem, the questions it leaves you with, the images it uses will stay around, expanding your thinking beyond the binary and into narrative. With regular exercise, it could sneak into your thinking about transit, allowing you to dig out the story buried beneath the graphs and maps, and bring life to your advocacy for public transit. Elevate the powerful narrative of public transit, so we can hope for a future where public transit rules America’s heart.