Safe-street greetings from a fertile corner of the local internet.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
My brain worms and I have enjoyed the flowering of Madison-area Twitter activity. It took a while to reach critical mass. For years I did not think Twitter was really for us. But especially in the last few years, things have reached a critical mass, and this being Twitter it’s not just one conversation but an endless splintering of niches. You’ve got your shitposting-about-Plaza Madison Twitter, musicians-subtweeting-each-other Madison Twitter, all-the-reporters-tweeting-out-Marquette-poll-results Madison Twitter, intra-left-bickering Madison Twitter, academic Madison Twitter, and so on, each one a strand in a vast tapestry.
The most reliable corner of Madison Twitter, however, is Madison Transportation Twitter. This is a small but highly active subset of people who spend a lot of time thinking about bike lanes, buses, cargo bikes, curb cuts, pedestrian safety, urban design, and above all the failures of car-centric infrastructure. It’s got personality, it’s got earnestness, it’s got analysis. It will help you get into the weeds of very specific but very important transportation policy nuances, including bike-path improvements and intersection design.
It’s an authentic and accessible conversation, from the anonymous fury of @DrivingUsMad to Mary Pustejovsky’s (@mpusto) wide-ranging insights and bicycle roundabout humor to Madison Transportation Commission member @HaraldKliems’ incisive data-driven analyses. It helps people cut through all that is technical, remote, and bureaucratic about transportation policy.
“I could practically cite Madison Transportation Twitter as a background source for this article,” Tone Madison’s Managing Editor, Oona Mackesey-Green, told me earlier this week as we worked on editing her story on changes to Madison Metro’s bus routes in South Madison.
Just as importantly, Madison Transportation Twitter challenges our city’s self-conception as a haven for cyclists and pedestrians. Put aside the Madison exceptionalism, the aren’t-we-already-progressive-enough-ness. Madison is still very much a car town, too much of a car town, and Madison Transportation Twitter analyzes the ins and outs of that on a near-continuous basis.
“In Madison we like to think we’re a fairly bike friendly place, but the truth is, there’s a ton of work to be done,” says the operator of the @DrivingUsMad account, who opted to stay anonymous when answering my questions. “For example, in recent years, we’ve been lagging in parking and zoning reform. Twitter makes this apparent.”
Taken as a whole, the perspectives are clear-eyed—people on Madison Transportation Twitter are honest about frustrations and about Madison’s shortcomings, and @DrivingUsMad does enough venting for 10 accounts—but don’t succumb to cynicism or despair, either. Through direct example and simply by keeping big ideas in the conversation, these accounts constantly remind us of the possibilities: Yes, you can live without a car! What if B-Cycle were available year-round, as #DrivingUsMad’s display name currently proposes? What if we stopped building so many damn parking lots?
“At a local level it feels like we’re in a place where there’s a lot of rhetoric about making things better but little action,” says Jonathan Mertzig (@mertzigzag), a software tester at Epic Systems and a self-described non-driver. “So part of the appeal of Twitter conversation is just kind of the reassurance that I’m not the only person seeing this disconnect. It’s a great place to share ideas and critiques of what’s happening.”
The collective work of Madison Transportation Twitter includes helping people navigate the infernal tangle of processes through which local and state governments make decisions about transportation. Councils, committees, agendas, Robert’s Rules maneuvering, confusing government websites like Legistar. It’s a less intimidating way into the fray.
“Madison government processes are also exhausting for anyone interested in participating,” Mertzig says. “I’ve found the Twitter community really useful for identifying what’s on the agenda and how to effectively contribute through comments, testimony, etc.”
Madison Transportation Twitter is also pretty good about not getting buried in jargon. Pustejovsky tries “to make sure I am using language that is easily understood by a newcomer. Not everyone knows what acronyms like TOD, TDM, LPI, etc. mean, and shouldn’t have to, in order to have their voice heard.”
Some of the accounts in this realm are people who work on transportation issues professionally, and some come from entirely different education/work backgrounds but are simply very engaged with transportation as citizens. This mix turns out to be a real strength of Madison Transportation Twitter.
“I particularly like that we have a handful of people on the ‘inside’—working in city agencies—that are pretty active in the Twitter scene,” Mertzig says. “It gives a nice insight into what constraints they face, and it’s reassuring to see particularly among the younger city employees that there is interest and competence in doing things better—if only they had the budget and approval to do so. There’s an unpleasant tendency among some transportation activists to reduce city decision makers to being some sort of evil bureaucrats, when really, more often than not they want to do the right things but it’s complicated.”
The interactions on Madison Transportation Twitter have also resulted in actual, tangible, on-the-ground changes. “I reached out to Jerry Schippa (@jerryschippa), a City of Madison engineer, to tell him that the light cycle timing was too short for my kids to get through on their bicycles, at an intersection near my house,” Pustejovsky says. “He was able to direct me to how to officially request a change, and it was made! Now I can get through the light with (slow) kids!”
On the other hand, this ongoing conversation is far from myopically local—it gives you the larger international context for the transportation decisions Madison faces. “I think Twitter is pretty good at connecting local issues to things that are happening at a wider scale,” says Kliems, who also created a bot account, @MSN_VisionZero, that tracks traffic-fatality statistics.
Schippa, on a professional level, also finds that big-picture aspect helpful. “For me, the exposure to other projects or designs from around the world keeps me thinking about what the standards are here in the U.S. and how they can be improved upon and why they should be improved upon,” Schippa says.
Schippa continues: “Basically the more people share their experiences, good/bad/otherwise, the better we can all understand how to improve upon the infrastructure that impacts our behaviors and helps cause us to have those experiences. However, I will always recommend anyone, wherever they are, to contact their elected officials and city with comments, complaints, and praise when needed. Social media is fun, but if you want something done or your comments heard, it’s best to go through official channels.”
Even when Madison Transportation Twitter is downright apoplectic, it’s still ultimately leading to a substantive, constructive place.
“I hope my rather unfiltered Twitter account gives some validation to other people with similar frustrations, and sparks some ideas,” says the @DrivingUsMad account operator in a DM. “But at the end of the day, transportation advocacy starts by organizing in our communities.”
For those looking to enter the conversation (or just do some very fruitful lurking), here’s a list of accounts to start with, or you can just follow this Twitter List.
@marbeff (who moved to Milwaukee recently, for which we forgive her)