When I explain to the barber/doctor/party-goer that I'm a doctoral student in geography, the response is invariably something like, "What's the capital of Djibouti?" [Djibouti] or, for the serious quizzers, "What's the capital of the largest double-landlocked country?" [Tashkent]. Naming capitals on a whim is the geographer's cross to bear. I don't particularly mind because I know my way around an atlas, having competed in the Connecticut Geography Bee in the 7th grade. But geography is a vast and diverse discipline that spans from peat bogs to continental philosophy, and I'm sure there are highly-regarded professors who don't know Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan.
Where do I stand among all the fields of geography? I occupy a tiny niche in the field of transportation geography. It hides somewhere amid engineering and economics, sociology and public health, and it literally moves us [some of us more emotionally than others] from node A to node B. However, it has a reputation for being boring and stodgy, reliant on pretty models and ignorant of the on-the-ground realities. Perhaps transportation geographer Susan Hanson says it best:
"Yet transportation geography as such has become a quiet, some might say moribund, corner of our discipline. How has such an important area of inquiry become so marginalized? It has not always been this way: in the 1950s and 1960s transportation questions were central not just to economic geography but also to human geography" (Hanson, 2003, p. 469)._
How could this happen? Have we taken transportation for granted as transatlantic cruises give way to flight, as the sights and sounds of the open road are replaced by podcasts and soundproofed electric cars? Or are people so turned off by the poorly-fitting suits of permeable asphalt salesmen at the TRB Annual Meeting that they deliberately avoid transportation science altogether?
This is not a peer-reviewed journal article, so I'm going to make the bold assertion that the public unjustly focuses on "problems" with the transportation system and that this detracts from transportation's perceived value. It's not uncommon in the United States, and even here in Quebec, for television news stations to rely on high-gas-prices/too-much-traffic tropes on days when there's little else to report. It makes me shake my head. Imagine me pointing agitatedly at a crowd of confused people:
"You treat transportation with disdain. It's more than 'high' fuel prices and traffic congestion [which you're a part of! you can't just experience it from a non-contributing abstract state]! Grow up!"
People should take more pride in the way they move around by deliberately envisioning transportation alternatives - from walking to FTL-capable battlestar - and advocating for what works for them and their community. What might the world look like when people think about transportation as a priority? Behold: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
When the the Metro is completed in 2019, it will be a symbol signifying modernity and prosperity in the kingdom. The project is expensive, as if every cent produced in the F.Y.R.O. Macedonia were devoted to transportation for five years. But by prioritizing the Metro's development, the city will have a spatially-widespread network that seamlessly integrates with buses and... my god, the whole thing is technically and aesthetically gorgeous. I am currently involved on a project assessing how the Metro will augment mobility for the city's residents in a place where no car alternatives previously existed.
Of course, transportation megaprojects are often more hype than substance. Where can cash-strapped North American cities turn to innovate their transportation environments? My hometown of New Haven, USA has piloted lower-cost version of complete streets; that is, streets where all modes of transportation can coexist and individuals of all abilities can feel safe as they travel. Complete Streets 2.0 are quick to set up [one day, as opposed to months of concrete and street-shifting] and have the potential to revolutionize the ability of municipalities to accommodate alternative modes of transportation where car is king.
These cases are being repeated across the globe, especially in areas where the insulated Westerner would least expect it: the Addis Ababa Light Metro; the Bogata Transmilenio BRT; the bike lanes of Bangalore. I've traveled on a bullet train between Chengdu, China and Qingchengshan National Park - 30 minutes for $2.50 (!), although there are all sorts of political and development reasons why that line was constructed and why it's so cheap. Alongside highly-publicized automobile innovations such as Uber and self-driving cars, transportation is very exciting [if not sexy] these days. People just need to open their eyes and see it.
Hanson, S. (2003). Transportation: Hooked on Speed, Eyeing Sustainability. In A companion to economic geography (pp. 468–483). Oxford; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.