Last week's Great Streetcar Crisis provided an apt illustration of what is wrong with the local broadcast media, and our local political culture in general.
For those who do not know the story, here is what happened. A jackass in a big SUV with Texas plates, we will call him "Big Tex," parked diagonally, and thus, illegally, in a space on Congress to patronize a local bar. His parking job, which left the rear of his vehicle well within the path of traffic, was at a sufficiently acute angle so as to make it clear that he simply did not care enough to check what he was doing.
Needless to say, this obstructed traffic, forcing cars to swerve into the other lane to pass safely. Unfortunately, Tucson's New Modern Streetcar, which is in the midst of its seemingly endless testing, was also motoring westward on Congress at the time, and could not change lanes so was forced to stop, holding up traffic for nearly an hour while officials sought out Big Tex.
Officials ticketed the vehicle to the tune of $188, but would not tow it. Whether this was due to some practical consideration or a matter of policy was not clear from press reports, though it seems to be a question that should have been asked. Big Tex himself was reportedly unapologetic, telling a local business owner who confronted him words to the effect that it was nobody else's business how he chose to park.
To most of us, the story should have been about one inconsiderate douchebag who made life difficult for dozens, possibly hundreds, of Tucsonans. However, this was not the focus for local television reporters, who apparently never thought to ask Big Tex to explain himself on camera. Instead, they chose to chase the narrative that has dominated media reports about Downtown for years, namely that nothing is going right.
Marana-based broadcaster KOLD, for example, posted their story online with the headline "Blocked streetcar raises questions about tight spaces between tires and rails downtown." The story referred to "growing concern" about parking Downtown, but the only person complaining seemed to be the reporter himself, who ignored the fact that he was standing in front of a street full of cars that were parked legally and safely.
In a description calculated to magnify the problem, the reporter disingenuously said that Big Tex parked only "a few inches" outside of the line, though the pictures made it clear that the vehicle was closer to a full foot, if not more, into traffic.
The incident, and the silly reporting around it has had predictable results. The usual voices have cited this as proof that the Streetcar, and by extension the whole project of Downtown redevelopment, is not worth pursuing, as if a major capital project should be halted because of the behavior of one lazy individual. No one should deny that the city's efforts Downtown have gone less than smoothly to say the least, and a healthy dialogue about the community's future is necessary, but what is going on here is not constructive criticism. It is mere contrarianism and makes one wonder if these folks, cranks, really, want to see Tucson succeed as a community.
Meanwhile, it needs to be pointed out that parking and traffic issues like this are an occasional but recurring problem in Portland and other cities with rail, but they have managed to find a way to cope. In Phoenix, transit opponents seized on a recent fatal crash as evidence that light rail in the Valley of the Yakes is a failure, even though the collision was caused by a driver making an illegal u-turn in front of an approaching train. In other words, the problem is irresponsible drivers and not rail.
Yes, rail Downtown will mean that drivers will have to look out for the streetcar the same way that they now have to watch out for bicycles, pedestrians, freight trains, motorcycles, busses and other cars. Of course they will complain about having to share the road and the community with others the same way that they do now. But, like Big Tex, they have to learn to look out for others, which is what they should have been doing all along.