Bold is in Vogue

Did you ever notice how things change so dramatically sometimes that you don’t even realize it until it’s too late?

Recently I was talking with a transportation engineer at an event in Milwaukee and discussing transit options for the region as planners seek vision on a massive overhaul of the system. We got to talking about bus rapid transit and he told me he unearthed some documents drawn up from more than 40 years ago that were so visionary their only shortfall was a base grip on reality.

The plans were nothing short of grandiose. Busways were massive and served multiple mega stations that would’ve put the biggest transit centers in North America to shame. Needless to say, the system never became a reality, but still, even the idea of building such a system left us both with a slight sehnsucht for such bold planning even if those plans looked silly in retrospect.

But it’s happening in transit. The idea of bold thinking and deviation from the norm are being exercised and accepted. In El Paso, they’re starting up the first line of a massive BRT system that could become the new gold standard for how projects are done; and if all goes to plan, it could rewrite the game plan for urban planning and economic development nationally. It’s happening less than 10 years after Sun Metro nearly collapsed under its own weight.

El Paso is making this type of progress. A city that before writing about Sun Metro the only thing I knew about was a classical country ballad celebrating a bar fight and supermarket salsa.

Meanwhile, modern streetcars are popping up across the country. Pure-electric buses are getting put into service. Digital signage has made rider wayfinding interactive. And open fare payment is appearing in cities across the U.S.

We’re living in the future. I don’t know how we got here, but it snuck up on us and turned the new normal into things planners and riders only dreamed of years ago.

Of course there’s still a lot of work to be done to get all our transit systems up to snuff and to provide the best customer service possible, but when you look at efforts in El Paso and elsewhere it shows we’re getting back to the grand visions of the past, even if they don’t involve building five Grand Central Stations in a single city.