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A Few Minutes with Darrin Nordahl

We had a few minutes with author Darrin Nordahl and asked him his thoughts on how to transform transit. Island Press: Why are Americans so obsessed with driving? Darrin Nordahl: Cars deliver a sense of freedom and thrill. The former may only be a perception, as traffic choked streets hardly make one feel liberated. But the thrill of driving is undeniably real. Americans love cars because they are part of our collective culture and part of our individual identity. Island Press: How can stronger transit help a city’s economy? Darrin Nordahl: Taking transit puts money in people's pockets. To wit, the American Public Transportation Association found that taking transit saves the average American over $9,000 annually. And car costs, according to the National Resources Defense Council, were a key factor in pushing homeowners into foreclosure. Good news that both Democrats and Republicans can rally behind. Island Press: Why do you believe transit needs to be more fun? Darrin Nordahl: People—stubborn as we are—tend to choose positive experiences over lesser ones. Taking transit satisfies many of our rational demands. But it fails to satisfy our emotional needs, namely that we should be given an opportunity to discover joy in anything we do. We cannot browbeat people to take the bus. We should want to. And the best way to excite a desire to take transit is to make it fun. Island Press: What needs is transit infrastructure not yet meeting? Cycling? Pedestrian? Darrin Nordahl: Transit isn't alluring the way the automobile is. It isn't sexy, or even cool. But it needs to be. We have to erase the pervasive stigma of getting around a city without a car. Transit needs to be more useful, certainly (meaning more convenient). But it cannot be banal—or worse—unsafe. The bike lanes we stripe, the sidewalks we build, and the buses we construct currently do little to offer comfort, safety, and joy. Island Press: What are some of your favorite examples of ways cities are making getting around without a car more enjoyable? Darrin Nordahl: Los Angeles has arguably the most creative marketing strategies of any North American municipality. They are serious about making transit cool; and they do that through not-so-serious advertisements. Indeed, it is the humor and whimsy that suffuses each transit ad that makes it difficult to hate transit. I think the buses used in the Quad Cities—with their audacious orange color, their rounded, Studebaker style-rear ends, and perhaps most importantly, their glass ceilings—are a fine example of creating a public transit vehicle today with allure. Folks can't help but gawk at these buses, and wonder why more of them can't be designed this way. Island Press: How can citizens convince their cities to invest in more enjoyable alternatives to cars? Darrin Nordahl: It is really the other way around: Cities can convince citizens to drive less by providing them with something everyone desires, an enjoyable experience. If you build infrastructure that is useful and joyful, there is really no need for convincing; citizens will flock to partake in it. Island Press: Of the places you include in the book, which do you think would be the most surprising? Which places most surprised you? Darrin Nordahl: I would say Columbia, MO and their biking / riding campaign using the effective whimsical messages surprised me. For one, being a college town, I just assumed biking and walking was common, as it is in most college communities. But I was also surprised at the quality and breadth of media for an otherwise "small town in the Midwest." L.A. was a welcome surprise as well. Obviously, given the media attention and fame bestowed on L.A., and its dim views of transit, any transit marketing would have to be stellar to grab attention. And it was. That Metro got this, and employs a 30-person design team just for marketing surprised me.