Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pulling the spool

Imagine a giant spool of rope, tied to a basket full of people descending into frigid, stormy water. There are handles on both sides of the spool, and you and your friends are pulling desperately on those handles, trying to pull the people to safety. On the other side of the spool are another set of handles, and there are people pulling on the handles in the other direction. They are not all bad people: some believe that it's really for the best. They will occasionally stop pulling and come attack you and your friends. Sometimes one of your friends goes to try and pry your opponents' hands from the handles.

Neither side has a single leader. Sometimes people will shout directions at their team, but not everyone will listen. Sometimes a whole bunch of people will all grab on one handle and pull; that's good in theory, but not everyone can grab the same handle so there will be some who can't find a grip and simply stand there. Sometimes one subgroup will yell at others to let go of their handles and grab the one that the subgroup is pulling. And sometimes that backfires, because the wheel gets stuck at the very spot that they left.

Now imagine that the people in the basket are Clean Air, Clean Water, Energy Security, Street Safety, Economic Stability and Fairness. The higher the basket rises, the more we approach those goals. The handles on the wheel are Parking Pricing, Parking Quantity, Road Pricing, Road Space, Fuel Pricing, Development Density, Transit Availability, Transit Value, Taxi Availability, Pedestrian Safety, Pedestrian Comfort, Placemaking, Bicycle Safety, Bicycle Infrastructure, Electoral Reform, and others.

It's not a perfect analogy (there are no perfect analogies), but it gets at a problem I've been running into. Some people have a particular angle on the campaign, and they think theirs is the one that everyone else should be working on. Maybe it's buses, and they think everyone should stop worrying about trains and bikes and walking and get behind the buses. Maybe the people who think density is the key get into a fight with the people who think pricing is the key.

I've gotten into a few of those arguments recently, in the comments and on Twitter. Someone will see something I've written and tell me that I should really be focusing on something else.

Now there are legitimate sources of disagreement. Two groups may simply not share the same goal. One may not believe that the energy supply is in jeopardy, and another may not believe that pedestrian deaths are worth worrying about. They will of course have different priorities.

One group may also be misguided, actively engaged in counterproductive behavior. For whatever reason, I seem to wind up in a lot of these arguments. In those cases, it can be hard to tell whether they are actually misguided or their critics are.

It may also be that one particular handle needs a whole bunch of people pulling on it at once, to get it past a sticky point. In that case, it makes sense for some people to stop working on what they're doing and go help out.

It may be that one particular strategy is so much more effective than any of the other ones that more people should focus on that. Pull that handle and the spool will spin further.

Even in last two cases, sometimes it just makes sense for someone to keep doing what they've been doing. Maybe they're really good at lobbying elected officials, or maybe they know a lot about taxis. Maybe they just like working on sidewalks. If that's what they're happy doing and they're not actively undermining your activities, just let them do it. Not everyone needs to be working on your issue.

So my point is: if someone's part of the movement but not working on your issue, and you've asked politely, as long as they're not working against you, just let them do their thing and get out of the way. It doesn't mean that they're not an ally.

And then of course, as Milton said, "They also serve, who only stand and wait."

1 comment:

The Amateur Transporter said...

Cap'n: Help us out here. In the past, you've called out Tri-State. Are there organizations out there more in-line with your thinking? Can you name them?