MEDIA vs REALITY: The “Bike Lane Backlash” & Big Dig Disasters

Is the media’s job to reflect unpolished reality back to us?  Or to help us interpret the reality hidden in the chaos of daily events?  Or to convince us of its own version of reality?  Usually, no matter how sincere a media producer’s claims of journalist objectivity, it’s a combination of all three.

(Actually, as my publisher once told me, back when I was a magazine editor, our ultimate job was to attract desirable eyeballs so that he could then rent them out to advertisers.  If I could get the desired audience through quality material, so much the better for our reputations and the world.  But if it took something else, from a business perspective, that was ok, too.)

This posting looks at two recent incidences of media mediated reality:  the backlash against adding bike facilities to our roads that is supposedly sweeping the country and the recent failure of the brackets holding up light fixtures in the Big Dig tunnels.  In both cases, the media seems to be looking for – or perhaps creating – the “screamer headlines” that pander to the public’s supposed desire for emotional titillation.  As a result, policies are being distorted, one person’s career has been hurt, and the public is missing the truth – or at least the truth that I think lies behind the headlines.

We should not be surprised that opposition is emerging around the country to the current push to take some road space away from cars in favor of pedestrians and cyclists.  Car drivers are like two-year-olds who are suddenly forced to share their toys.  Temper tantrums are inevitable.  But most two years olds rather quickly grow out of an infantile insistence on their proprietary privileges.  What makes the anti-bike lane protesters isolated complaints about their lost status significant is that their otherwise marginal voices have been amplified by the scandal-seeking media.  The fact that the complainers tend to be upper class, well-connected, and white probably also contributes to the attention they command.

New York City’s alleged “bike lane backlash” is a case in point. The New York Timeshas given enormous prominence to the whining, as if they represent a significant percentage of the population rather than a small rear-guard minority.  Coverage by the Times then incites the rest of the media to follow, leading with a piece by John Cassidy in the New Yorker complaining that the bike/ped changes have “gone too far” given the limited number of cyclists in the city.  Not only have his economic arguments been totally trashed by none other than the Economist magazine, but his complaint about bicycles being the reason he is now unable to find a free, dinner-time parking place near his favorite restaurant in downtown Manhattan set him up for endless put-downs.

Best of all, he starts, as do so many critics of less auto-centric street design, by announcing that “I don’t have anything against bikes” – so long as it doesn’t stop him from doing anything else he wants.

But the bottom line, the fact that much of the backlash is a media-induced non-reality was proved by a recent poll showing that a majority of the city’s residents favored continued expansion!  And rather than backing down, the city has issued a strong statement pointing out the many benefits that their road changes have brought – to motorists as well as pedestrians and cyclists.  For example, injuries to all three drop between 40 and 50 percent on streets with physically separated bicycle lanes (aka “cycle tracks”). The city also points out that even while the number of cyclists has significantly increased over the past four years, the number of bicycle crashes that lead to injuries or deaths has fallen.  In the statement, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson pointed out the Transportation Department had held dozens of public meetings for each of the major street redesigns and the plans had all been approved by local community boards.

The same media dynamic started to play out in Boston, when some “community leaders” in Charlestown demanded that the city stop stripping bike lanes in their community.  The city immediately scrapped off the paint, but insisted that there be open community meetings to discuss the issue.  The Boston Globe, now owned by the Times, immediately started running front-page stories about the up swelling opposition to the city’s overbearing effort to impose unwanted methods of travel upon the population.  But advocacy groups and the city’s own bike program had done their homework.  The public meeting was swamped with people from the neighborhood who said that they bicycled and that they wanted the lanes.  The “community leaders” suddenly began issuing statements that they never realized that the lanes might serve community residents rather than fly-by commuters – as if it was better to have commuters use space-hogging and polluting cars than bicycles.  The Globe didn’t give nearly as much play to these stories.  But having been embarrassed once, neither has it spent any more time fanning the flames of opposition.

The bottom line is that most people don’t like change.  They know how to manage their current situations and aren’t sure how to deal with something different.  Change is worrisome – ask anyone working on reforming the health care system!   We need to introduce the future cautiously, using pilot projects and small scale experiments to let people see that they can handle it.  Then we need to use the initial acceptance as the basis for a large-scale public education campaign so that the new idea and its non-destructive or even positive impact becomes part of the “common knowledge.”  And finally, we need to massively and permanently implement the change as much as possible in as many places as possible.

Anyone with doubts about the effectiveness of this approach should watch what the anti-government, far-right-wing forces are doing.  They get it.  We who believe in the value of public action and the need for protecting the common good need to learn from them!

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The Big Dig Light Fixture Fiasco – Another Media Event?

The continuing discovery of Big Dig safety hazards is infuriating.  And Secretary Mullan’s changing explanations of who knew what when is certainly confusing, if not obfuscating.  The ceiling-collapse-caused death of Ms. Milena Del Valle made Big Dig safety into a third-rail issue, so it’s not surprising that the media was able to pump the tension up enough to require the sacrifice of someone’s job.  But, in a deeper sense, the media campaign missed the real story and ignored the important good news hidden within MassDOT’s handling of the falling light fixture problem.

Secretary Mullan and his staff did not cause any of the tunnel’s current problems.  The Dig’s problems mainly occurred because, in pursuit of the supposed benefits of private sector outsourcing, post-Dukakis governors stripped the Highway Department of its staff and therefore of its ability to supervise the work.  The problem wasn’t too much staff but too few to do the job right, not too-big government but too-little.

There’s no question that the Governor and the public should have been more quickly informed.  Frank Tramontozzi, the former Chief Engineer, was asked to temporarily fill in as Acting Highway Administrator, a highly visible position with public relations and political demands clearly outside his expertise.  But that issue is easily correctable by his “demotion” back to Chief Engineer and the incorporation of “lessons learned.”  It’s a shame that he had to be sacrificed as the price of moving on.

However, the real news – ignored by the headlines – is that once the fixture fell, public safety was protected. Like a good engineer, Tramontozzi’s first impulse was to fix what was wrong.  And he did.

Here’s the true headline news:  Under Secretary Mullan, public employees feel empowered to take initiative.  MassDOT staff took immediate action to deal with the problem then investigated to see if it signaled something larger.  Sure, they should have passed the facts up the chain of command.  But better that they acted!

The fact that MassDOT staff took this common-sense initiative may not seem like much, but it represents a huge accomplishment – which preserved public safety.  When the Legislature created MassDOT, they walked away from the need for increased revenue and left the Secretary with the Herculean task of uniting five separate and sometimes warring agencies into a coherent and pro-active whole.  Part of the challenge was that, after years of poor management, staff in those agencies had learned to push every decision to the top, to not do anything to stick out their own necks.  It meant no one could be blamed for anything.  It also meant that very little got done very quickly.

Faced with the mandate to “repair the airplane while it’s in the air,” Secretary Mullan and his senior staff have been creative and relentless about re-inventing MassDOT while keeping everything moving.  MassDOT appears to be creating a unified organization out of bickering factions, creating a culture that stresses customer satisfaction and excellent performance, even creating a hierarchy that engages and values worker involvement.  It is an impressive piece of work requiring state-of-the-art management skills that any cutting-edge corporation would happily spend a fortune to obtain.  And the result is that front line MassDOT workers took self-initiated action that kept the light fixture failures from causing harm.

Some of us wish that MassDOT would move even faster on its other mandate – to create a transportation system that increases and improves public transit, reduces greenhouse gasses, emphasizes bicycle and walking accommodations, maintains equipment and infrastructure in good repair, and meets the challenges of the 21st century.  But through policy initiatives such as GreenDOT and Complete Streets, Mullan’s agency has at least begun the process.

Rebuilding an effective and trustworthy Transportation Department is a long term project that will surely have some bumps in the road.  But for the first time in recent memory Massachusetts has a Secretary, a MBTA General Manager, and a Board of Directors that are working in tandem to bring Massachusetts into the 21st Century.

It is likely that Big Dig problems will continue to surface.  And we hope the public is better informed about them.  But Secretary Mullan deserves praise, not criticism, for the changes he has already achieved.

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