Monday, January 19, 2009

Getting Back on Track

Ok, we took a break from posting as we developed some other pressing projects during the latter part of 2008. But now we're getting back on track.

We'll begin our regular posts this week continuing to address issues pertaining to the light rail in the Metro East. We recently completed an essay about the light rail in the region, which restored our faith in the significance of our project. In the process of researching the topic over the last couple of months, we became even more aware of how little reading materials exists about the cultural benefits and drawbacks of this mode of travel.

We'll work to share some of what we've learned riding and researching light rail transit here. Our hope is that we can develop a broader body of knowledge on the subject and that we can raise awareness about why and how mobility matters in some distinct ways for folks in the area.

Each week, we'll also publish a post or two on other concerns relating to light trail travel, public transit, and mobility beyond our immediate region. In the past, we've mentioned a few examples of literature that influenced us to take up this project on the light rail, so we'll devote more time to writing about movement and mobility as represented in literary art.

So, that's a preview of where we're going over the next few months. We hope you continue to join us for the ride.

[Source for the above photo.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

Writing the Metro East

If we had a body of popular literary works focusing on public transportation in the Metro East and St. Louis, how would the outcome of the Prop M vote been different? Wouldn’t the existence of poems and short stories, novels and illustrated narratives showcasing the light rail have progressively shaped the public imagination regarding what it means to travel along the tracks in Missouri and southern Illinois?

Those are the kinds of questions we’re inclined to ask when we consider writings by Margaret Atwood who focuses on Toronto, Edward Jones who concentrates on Washington D.C., and Colson Whitehead who reps for New York City. Actually, a whole host of writers have tackled the dynamics of the city that apparently never sleeps.

Check out the massive collection Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, and it becomes clear that generations of creative artists, including Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Don DeLillo, and Vijay Sesha, utilized the city as a backdrop and foreground for their literary works.

We realize that creative writers are hardly responsible for how the public perceives cities and regions. Nonetheless, their literary art can have some effects, right?

Creative literature encourages readers to believe in the safety, violence, cleanliness, dirtiness, history and hipness of particular cities. Writers influence readers to explore local fashion trends and regional cooking. Most of all, literary artists convince readers that some cities “work” better than others.

And the very processes of writing about a region can also stimulate new ways of thinking about that area and its residents. In our own experiences writing about the Metro East with our focus on the light rail, we have learned that we have a rich body of underground artists in our region.

We have also started to view the area as a competitive arena for schools and businesses.

It’s probably a stretch to assume that the prior existence of a body of creative writings about the Metro East could have swayed the Prop M vote in the direction that we favored. But the bigger point might be a consideration of the influence that literary art showcasing light rail travel or transit in general can have on the public imagination.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Writers, Urban Spaces, and the Light Rail

In an earlier post, we noted our interest in particular creative artists, including Colson Whitehead, Edward Jones, and Margaret Atwood, whose writings charted the cultural dynamics of New York City, Washington D.C., and Toronto, respectively. Those writers have served as useful models as we began considering how to represent southern Illinois along the light rail.

Given our interest in gender, urban space, and political territory, Atwood’s are particularly intriguing. Often times, Atwood presents women in her fiction who use the spaces of the city to advance their careers as professional artists. In one short, a female visual artist paints the people she sees from her rooftop—a vantage point that provides her with an especially omnipotent view. In another story, a female photographer takes pictures in storefront windows.

For Atwood’s women, urban spaces serve as both a home and muse.

The mobility of her female protagonists also prompted our fascination. Atwood’s women are established and professional artists because they wander the streets on foot and explore the ravines of the city.

The mobility of Atwood’s women has served as a point of departure for our considerations of women on the move as they travel along the light rail. What opportunities and obstacles do they face as they utilize public transit to navigate any urban space or the St. Louis region in particular? How might painters, photographers, and graphic designers, for example, traveling along the light rail in our region draw on that experience for artistic inspiration?

Aspects of Atwood’s work motivate those kinds of question. But then too, given the “no” vote on Prop M, we’ve recently been wondering about what decreased public transportation service might mean as well. For Atwood, increased mobility is integral to women’s professionalism. So what happens to females who receive diminished opportunities for moving around the city?

We will keep Atwood's work and women in our minds as we observe the changes to our public transportation system over the next few months. As routes are cut,various women around our region will have to find new ways to transport themselves around the city and surrounding areas.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Tensions of Light Rail Travel

Although some of us are disheartened by the failure of Proposition M, we are not entirely surprised with the results. For the past several months, tensions regarding the funding and expansion of the light rail have been running high.

Many citizens in the area rejected the bill because they are unaware of the benefits that come with having a highly competitive public transportation system. Many citizens who do not use public transportation frequently see the expansion of the light rail as a waste of money and resources.

And, they also think that the light rail will bring crime from the city to the suburbs. (Several studies have disputed these assumptions).

Other regions very close to ours seem to be under the same kinds of pressures that come from a misunderstanding of the benefits of light rail travel. A recent article entitled “KC 'blew it’ On the Light-Rail Vote” explains how some observers feel that Kansas City made a mistake by rejecting a vote for bringing light rail transit to their city.

"Kansas City blew it with that vote,” Christopher Lienberger, an urban scholar, was quoted as saying. "It's an essential part of infrastructure in the 21st century. It would have been like not building freeways in the 1960s.”

Indeed, the addition of a new system would have likely been transformative for the city. Nonetheless, the voters in Kansas City spoke and decided against the development of a light rail system.

Actually, the tensions involved with light rail expansion or public transportation expansion in general are hardly new. Encouraging voters to approve projects that come at the expense of increased taxes is perhaps always a hard sell.

Given our own role as observers and cultural commentators on the subject of light rail, we’ll continue trying to assess the implications of this form of public transit, especially now as services will surely become more and more limited.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cultural Losses

Although most of us were probably celebrating the results of the national elections on November 4th, our own region suffered a significant loss. St. Louis county residents voted no to Proposition M, a bill that asked for additional funding in order to sustain the current public transit system.

Missouri and Illinois residents who rely on public transportation will feel the immediate effects of the failed proposition. According to a recent Fox News article, “Metro Bus service is expected to be reduced 57%, including all service west of I-270." Additionally, "all express bus routes and night service will be either eliminated or reduced. Metro Link service reductions are expected to reach 42%, with no service after 8pm and no extra trains for special events.”

The financial and economic setbacks that our region will see as a result of reduced transportation are staggering.

What is more staggering, however, is the cultural losses that this vote will bring to our region. The cultural losses, in fact, can hardly be measured or put into words. In a recent post, we noted that “we’ll want to think through and beyond the economic and employment factors associated with the transit system.” So, where can we go from here?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008



The results from the Proposition M vote stunned us into silence.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Riding for Education

Each day, the light rail plays a crucial role connecting citizens to sites of education. In particular, a large and diverse group of student passengers regularly make "the college" station at Southwestern Illinois Community College (SWIC) their destination.

We've discussed the importance of the light rail for workers and fans traveling to Cardinals games, but certainly, the students making their way to SWIC along the light rail make up an integral portion of the trains' demographic. Students from various parts of the around the region, including Fairview Heights, O’Fallon, Cahokia, East St. Louis and St. Louis City, regularly ride the trains to this school.

Riders might find the ride to the SWIC college campus, in particular, to be easy and affordable. SWIC is the only school in the region that offers a free lightrail pass to any registered student, teacher, or faculty member.

With just a swipe of their college i.d. cards, college bound riders have instant access to the trains. And, they can unload from the trains and walk straight to classes. These incentives work quite well.

But, one of the biggest incentives for this demographic of students is that SWIC is the only community college in the area with direct Metro link access. The direct rail access helps make SWIC a more tangible possibility and destination for students and employees.