Tim McCormick, public transit evangelist, answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with?
I’m planning manager at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. It provides public transit for the state of Rhode Island.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
My job is really about being a liaison between the public and the bus system. Bus systems are not static things, and if they are good ones, they respond to all kinds of stimuli by changing and adapting. New shopping centers or work sites, the entrance changing to the other side of the building on a hospital, street closures, sidewalk enhancement projects, parking policies, and a newly relocated food bank are all things in which I have recently been involved.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
So I was standing in the office of the National Gay Rights Advocates on a lovely late-summer day in San Francisco in 1989. The World Series was about to start at Candlestick Park and boom — earthquake. As a result, I lost my job doing fundraising there because everything just fell apart (literally). I applied around and by November was desperate. I applied for a temp job as a department store Santa and so my career in government was born. The Santa slots were all full but they were hiring damage inspectors for the quake. I took the job.
Within a month I was supervising a team of 15, and within two years was running my own field office. I found myself loving government service. All you had to do was come to work and work hard and you were a star! But something was missing. Broken buildings were not that compelling to me. I went to the library and looked up Masters programs in architecture. It said, “see ‘planning’.” I looked up planning and began to read. Suddenly I was home. Who knew there were others like me?
I applied for my M.A. degree program from City University of New York (Hunter College) and graduated in 1993. The city was in a hiring freeze so I went to work as an operations administrator (grunt) across the street from the World Trade Center at Bankers Trust Company. Four years later, ready to pull my hair out, I quit, packed up, and went to Rhode Island. I argued my way into my dream job and here I am. I owe the Five O’Clock Club a world of gratitude. They taught me how to sell myself. Check them out if you can’t get the job of your dreams.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
People who don’t take the bus and have decided that there is no room in the world for people who do, regardless of the applicable laws. This includes businesses and churches (believe it or not) that don’t want a bus stop in front of their property, even though it has every right to be there, and property owners who want bus routes removed from their streets. The selfishness and disdain for those less fortunate is mind-numbing.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Given what the riders often have to put up with, many of them are very understanding when it comes to our failures as a system. They will put up with serious inconvenience and even agree it is for the best in many cases when I explain the reasons behind a change in service to them.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Warwick, R.I., and currently live in North Kingstown, R.I.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?
When I was 19 years old I lived in a rural area with little bus service. The route I lived on came only every few hours. I worked as a maintenance man in a hotel and had no car, and life was tough but OK. I was standing in a bus shelter one day and someone drove by and threw a beer bottle at me, yelling “Get a car!” It exploded on the wall behind me. I thought at the time: One day I am going to do something to bring some dignity back to this choice I have made. I am not a second-class citizen for not driving, I am a responsible citizen. That needs to get recognized, and there should be no shame or abuse in riding the bus.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When we are short of money and I must decide which service to cut, which I well know means deciding which person will lose their job after I cut their transportation.
What’s been the best moment in your professional life?
I argued extensively in meeting after meeting for more pedestrian consideration in projects at the state level. It became a joke amongst my colleagues that I had to “sing my song,” usually in vain. Finally, it shifted and in a large meeting the second-in-command at the Department of Transportation announced a new focus on pedestrian accessibility. He said that no projects would go forward until that man approves them, pointing at me. I literally looked behind me to see who the guy was. Since then, we have done tremendous work. I always tell people that my accreditation for “pedestrian accessibility expert” is that I have legs.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
What’s on your desk right now?
Piles and piles of problems about three inches thick.
How do you get around?
I’m ashamed to say almost always a car right now, although I spent 10 years without one. For a year I commuted by bicycle in Manhattan, and did lots and lots of transit riding.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Dominican beans, rice, and chicken.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Over-earnest mid-level government hack trying to make a difference.
What’s your favorite ecosystem?
Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A $4 per gallon gas tax — and fund transit with the proceeds.
Who do think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
Much depends on what happens in those last four weeks. I think it will be close, so an event favoring one or the other could have tremendous impact. If there is anyone left who does not realize that Osama Bin Laden will be “caught” in August or September, you heard it here first.
I wish that several thousand years of human history on the karmic wheel had shown us that things work out just fine. Unfortunately, often it is just crap for whole lifetimes. So I trust in karma and keep going, patiently waiting for justice.
As for what I will do, I will continue to travel the Middle East every year and share my stories. I will vote (already made sure I’m registered) and will send whoever can beat Bush $100. That’s my bit.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, because I believe we should each personally use as little land and resources as possible to get by. I don’t have a lot of baggage about it. For me it is like being polite to strangers or not. It is a way to treat other people, animals, and the planet itself.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Attracting the political right.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Talking Heads. Madonna.
What’s your favorite TV show?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
When you travel to another city, always look to see if you can use public transit exclusively. You will learn something about the place and its people that you never would have otherwise, and I guarantee you will have some fun.
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