About five minutes into my first streetcar ride last Saturday evening, the shiny, sleek, three-segmented transipede stopped so abruptly that some of the 150 people on board lost their balance and bounced off one another.
As traffic moved on through several green lights while we stood still, it became apparent that we were stuck, right at Fifth Avenue and Congress Street—the exact spot where the streetcar had formally launched with great fanfare the day before.
The irony was delicious. I'd gathered there Friday morning with hundreds of other curious onlookers in a sweltering haze, taking in speeches from a potpourri of politicians and poobahs, bemused by the marching band and the phalanx of media footmen who seemed intent on committing streetcar suicide by congregating directly in the path of its inaugural voyage until they were told to move.
Now, trapped on the streetcar for reasons that were not immediately apparent (when one car in the system is delayed, they all must stop, to avoid throwing everything out of synch), I expected grumbling, but what I observed instead was quite remarkable. I looked around the comfortably air-conditioned car and marveled at the diversity of faces, ages, and styles. People were laughing, joking and meeting their neighbors. Our streetcar snafu was pleasant, friendly, and I must say, a bit surreal—I found myself wondering what city I was in.
I thought of a quote I'd seen on T-shirts worn by friendly folks from the Tucson Bus Riders Union, who'd like to remind you that if the streetcar does not yet get you to your destination, the bus most likely will. Enrique Peñalosa, transportation miracle-worker and former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, spoke this truth: "An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport."
After 20 minutes a cheer rose up when we lurched forward again, and the spell was broken. Maybe the blush will wear off, but on its first day of service 17,000 Tucsonans rode the streetcar into their future, and it looked like they were enjoying it. I saw little kids waving from the streetcar windows and big folks acting like little kids with a new toy. There were a handful of delays, but considering all the pre-launch carping and controversy, you might've expected empty streetcars and technical disasters.
City officials were incensed recently over a Facebook parody posted under the fake acronym of CLITT—Community Link Integrated Transit of Tucson. I thought it was a harmless, humorous way to publicize Tucson's new, grown-up transportation option. It strikes me that the only people offended by it are those who think "clit" is a naughty word.
Another kerfuffle erupted a few days before the launch when officials were quoted in the local daily to the effect that bicycles would be banned from the streetcar route, although they later claimed to have said no such thing. Then, in an online chat, one official gave this incredibly boneheaded reply to the sensible suggestion that autos be taken off some sections of the route: "Part of the reason for the streetcar project is to allow multi modal transportation. By eliminating cars along 4th and Congress, we won't be able to accomplish that goal."
That statement is so breathtakingly backward, it would be easy to assume that it was another misquote. Unfortunately, it's just another example of the pervasive, inside-the-box mentality that's retarded true transportation progress for decades. MEMO TO TRANSPORTATION BUREAUCRATS: The definition of multi-modal does not necessarily include cars! Here's my first streetcar ride: My partner and I bicycled over to Fourth Avenue, walked to the nearest streetcar stop, and rode the streetcar to the festivities at the Mercado San Agustín. See? Three modes, no car.
My first streetcar destination was more than a little symbolic, as chief trolley booster and original Tucsonan for Sensible Transportation Steve Farley had noted amidst all the hot air at the grand opening. He said the streetcar would unite two halves of the city, and for me, it was true. I don't ride my bike to the Mercado because I don't care to risk navigating through various bicycle deathtraps downtown. Now, on the streetcar, it's a cool breeze.
Centuries ago—when there was only one mode of transportation—the original inhabitants of this place came together on the land that is now the Mercado because they had to in order to survive. Saturday, with the modern voice of Tucson, Salvador Duran, ringing out from the Mercado courtyard into the dusky monsoon sky, we came together by choice, to celebrate the simple yet profound community sacrament of traveling together to mutual and diverse destinations.