Note: TDM stands for Transportation Demand Management. I sometimes get wrapped up on my acronyms.
This summer, I’ll be presenting on this topic – Integrating TDM into Arts and Culture – at the International Conference of the Association of Commuter Transportation in Chicago (you can find me in the last breakout session of the last day of the conference, so I’ve got the feeling I’ll be speaking to a much-diminished audience). The abstract for my presentation is this:
Working with employers and local governments is the best way to get TDM programs implemented, but working with arts and cultural groups can be a powerful way to bring relevance, awareness, and community support to those same TDM efforts, as well as building a broad base of volunteers and citizen activists to take on promotional efforts and events. RIDE Solutions in Roanoke, Virginia, has worked with a number of artists, art groups, projects, and other creative efforts to build awareness and support for TDM activities in the community at-large. Attendees will get a sense of where to start looking to get involved in arts groups, working with artists and creative types, and how to leverage successful programs to improve their brand image.
Sounds nice, but there’s only one problem: I’m not sure where to go from here.
The impetus for this presentation comes from three major sources. The first was the Car Less Brit Experiment, for which I credit its progenitor, River Laker, with a lot of the flowering of local bike culture we’ve seen in the last three years. I think the strength River brought to his experiment with carlessness was not merely his position in the community and his willingness to undertake and heavily promote the experiment, but his close relationship with area artists and creatives through the Emerging Artists program at the Roanoke Libraries (the link goes to the program’s Facebook Group). My sense is that this helped reinforce bicycling for transportation as not merely a mode choice, but also something of a creative endeavor. Certainly, River was creative about the way he introduced people to cycling through things like the Car Less Brit Party and its attendant fashion show, the Manif Spaciale, the Car Less Brit Museum, and other events. He promoted cycling not by talking about the benefits we all know about (though those came up, of course), but by turning his carlessness into an act of creativity and inspiring others to do the same. There have been many factors in play, and a whole range of players, that has led to the increase in cyclists in Roanoke over the past couple of years, but I can’t help but to think that River’s particular approach helped lay the foundation for other efforts by drastically increasing cycling’s cool factor, and helping to make it acceptable to do other weird and wonderful things with bicycling, like riding very tiny ones very fast down mountains.
The second was the Roanoke Arts Commission program which led to two artistic bus shelters in the City, one at each high school. I’ve written about each of them on this blog, one favorably here and the other much less favorably here. Though I wasn’t pleased with the design of one of the shelters, it was invaluable to have a discussion about transit that wasn’t solely about the operation or financial issues surrounding the service, but about how transit infrastructure could serve as a way to beautify a community, to turn something eminently drab – a bench, a roof, a route sign – into something unique, interesting, and discussion-worthy.
The last is in a similar vein, an upcoming installation of an artistic bike rack in the Grandin Village this Saturday, May 21st, at 10:00 A.M., a joint effort of RIDE Solutions and the Arts Commission. Like the shelter, this will provide a piece of useful TDM support infrastructure (safe bicycle parking in a dense, multi-use neighborhood) that also doubles as interesting public art that, I hope, the community will embrace in a way they wouldn’t embrace a simple series of U-shaped bike racks. Another element of the bike rack unveiling will be an Art by Bike Tour, a guided tour of some of Roanoke’s public art pieces entirely on bicycle, utilizing both greenways and on-road accommodations.
I’ve got a sense from these three efforts that TDM can benefit enormously from these kinds of partnerships. In part, I think this is because TDM – as a transportation strategy that challenges the dominant drive-yourself-by-yourself-absolutely-everywhere idea – has a natural affinity with artists and creative subcultures who simply enjoy challenging the status quo for the heck of it. I also think that Roanoke is in a unique position to capitalize on this because we have some strong leaders and lofty goals for our region as a place where arts and culture (particularly music), the outdoors, and the environment all coalesce. TDM is a bridge between all of these, supporting environmental goals and maintaining our outdoor amenities through clean transportation, and encouraging multiple safe, convenient transportation modes that increase mobility and access to cultural centers and venues.
I’ve also got a sense that this is where TDM can really compete with traditional transportation. After all, part of our competition is not merely the practical matter of bike/bus/carpool/telework vs. drive alone – its a matter of image, and car companies have done a fantastic job of telling you that buying an expensive car and driving fast with the stereo blaring will make you very, very happy. Truth be told, some cars can also be amazingly beautiful machines. It’s tough to say that of a bus.
But I don’t think it needs to be.
I think that examples like the bus shelters, like (I hope) the bike rack, show that making TDM interesting and creative and beautiful will help it compete. Make a bus shelter that people want to stand under, a rack that people want to bike their bikes in, and they are likely to use it. I think there’s an enormous value in making these things so interesting they become destinations that encourage you to use the mode they support. They become elements of a community that hold a lot more pride than a parking lot. I think River’s example show that approaching mode choice as something fun, exciting, and creative also helped it compete against a mode of transportation that more and more means expensive refueling, slogging traffic lines, ongoing debt, and environmental damage.
I don’t know if there’s enough here for an hour-long presentation, though. Am I crazy? Is there anything really here? I’d be curious how other communities have seen the arts and TDM interact, particularly where venues have really embraced encouraging alternative modes (I’ve begun that discussion here in Roanoke, but we’ve still got a long ways to go – the Taubman Museum, for example, has a list of nearby parking garages but doesn’t say anything about the much more convenient bike parking under the nearby Pedestrian Bridge, or the fact that the Campbell Court Transportation Center – just a block away – provides easy bus access to the museum via both Valley Metro and Smart Way Buses, and that the Star Line Trolley has a stop less than a block from the museum entrance). Do you see TDM as being in a position to take more advantage of a community’s artistic and creative impulses more than than traditional transportation modes? And, finally, how does arts and culture influence the way a community develops that naturally supports TDM – I wonder, for example, if the City’s Arts and Cultural plan will reinforce ideas of density and mixed-use development, and if there’s anything to the fact that the urban City is pursuing an Arts and Culture Plan while the suburban County does not?
UPDATE: Something else I had intended to add but forgot (chalk it up to writing most of this late last night way past my bedtime): One of my goals in thinking through this is, really, to consider our marketing strategy and how we grow program awareness. Since arts and cultural organizations and efforts are almost always focused on the community in which they serve in a way that goes beyond just doing business, those kinds of partnerships also seem natural connections for TDM, which is also a very local, community-focused activity. The RIDE Solutions sponsorship of/partnership with The Shadowbox Community Microcinema is one manifestation of that. We do get our name in front of the Shadowbox’s audience, which is, I think, an important group for us to reach; but by supporting an organization that supports local filmmakers and other artists, we contribute to growing a cultural venue that makes downtown Roanoke a more attractive place and, therefore, supports the kind of urban density that’s an important part of the success of TDM.