This is how to do transit advocacy

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On Sunday we were walking around downtown Valencia when we came across a crowd of people making its way down one of the city’s main boulevards. Some were holding signs. My first assumption was another rally of public sector employees, in a similar vein to the firefighters protest I’d witnessed a few days before in front of City Hall.

But as we reached the boulevard we realized that this was hardly a niche cause for one group of disgruntled employees. The sea of people as far as the eye could see recalled the 2017 Women’s March in Austin. The generational diversity –– from children to the elderly –– also suggested the cause had a broader base of support than the typical labor grievance. What the hell were they demonstrating for?

Many of them held signs that read, “Teruel Existe,” or “Teruel Exists.” I had no idea what Teruel was. But in smaller font on the same sign read, “#NoPierdaselTren,” or “Don’t Lose the Train.”

It turns out that Teruel is a small city (pop. 35,000) about 95 miles northwest of Valencia. I’m not clear on all the details, but based on my very likely flawed reading of the local paper, people in Teruel and some other small cities are pissed because the European Union just announced that they will not be included as part of a long-awaited rail line connecting the northern and southern coasts of Spain. Their exclusion from the rail network will exacerbate ongoing population decline in the area, protesters argue.

The organizations that organized the protest claim that 50,000 attended. The police estimate 15,000. The newspaper claims “tens of thousands.” Whatever the figure, it’s exponentially greater than anything I could imagine in the U.S. surrounding rail advocacy.

Can transit advocates in Austin figure out a way to organize a similar display of passion in support of public transportation? Austin is very different from Teruel, and urban transit is completely different from a long-distance railroad. But the fundamental argument in favor of both is similar. In both cases the argument is an existential one. Teruel needs to reverse years of declining population that is a result of its isolation from the regional economy. Austin needs to halt an affordability and mobility crisis that threatens to drive the middle-class and creative economy out of the city.  The overarching existential crisis, of course, is the one faced by our warming planet.

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