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Meet the NUMTOTs - the future of transportation

Meet the NUMTOTs - the future of transportation

Simultaneously sincere and deeply ironic, the Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens is a haven for mostly twenty-something adults who hate highways.

A picture of the new parquet flooring of a subway car in Seoul is shared, immediately gaining likes and launching a discussion of bourgeois aesthetics. Next on the group feed is a conversation from a spin-off group, MTA Memes for Perpetually-Swiping Teens. And below that is a meme of WWE founder Vince McMahon looking increasingly excited as people save street space by switching from cars to light rail. Refreshing the page, there are even more debates about an article profiling the world's most frequent flyer: “[T]his is delusional. Aviation, just like every sector of the economy, must either become carbon-free or eliminated. Air travel as it is today cannot continue indefinitely;" and an invitation to the event Yeet all the scooters onto the white house lawn."

Who are the NUMTOTs?

Founded in 2017 by three American college students having an online argument over the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens, or NUMTOT for short, is an unabashedly politically left-leaning group of mostly millennials and gen-Z advocating for the strengthening of public transit and infrastructure, while bemoaning the systems that prevent the world from reaching what they call “peak transit."

A scroll down their Facebook page quickly reveals what NUMTOTs are all about. Mainly, they love trains. American NUMTOTs wish that they could experience the speed, reliability, and efficiency of high-speed Japanese rail in their own cities. There are regular calls for improved rail networks on local, national, and intercontinental levels that would, ideally, be publicly rather than privately owned. News of cities or countries investing in subways and light rail is celebrated as progress, and NUMTOTs mourn collectively over news like Amtrak removing dining cars, New York's MTA spending money on fare-beating rather than repairs, or statistics revealing increased car ownership.

Prompted by news articles, screencaps of tweets, memes, personal anecdotes, and more – comments on the NUMTOT page regularly blossom into discussions of the many sociological, environmental, economic, and other effects that transportation plays in the modern world. Though there are plenty of jokes similar to other online conversations, NUMTOT discourse generally reaches higher levels, because its contributors are genuinely invested in urbanist ideals.

Why NUMTOTs lean left

Reflecting general populations, the majority of NUMTOTs live in dense urban areas, and are personally affected by policy that allocates resources to or away from public transit, bike lanes, public housing, and other linchpins of city living. Though the more exaggerated claims of love for public transit could be seen as a quirky affectation, it's also impossible to argue that NUMTOTs don't have real affection for the time, space, and money-saving transportation options that make their lifestyles possible.

Nor is it a mystery how public transit plays into the NUMTOTs' other political beliefs. A big part of their disdain for cars and planes stems from the impact those modes of transportation have on the climate crisis. Many NUMTOTs see a causal link between access to public transport and overall economic mobility. As the generations who've come of age during the Great Recession, NUMTOTs use a government's stance towards public transit as a bellwether for how supportive it will be towards other socially progressive policies. To them, expanded public infrastructure is well worth the increased taxes.

And those perspectives aren't staying on Facebook. NUMTOTs' engagement expresses itself offline in the many members who have (or are currently studying for) degrees in urban planning and engineering, work in public transportation, or have even run for local office in their communities. One of the group's founders, Juliet Eldred, has recruited members to the Democratic Socialists of America.

While the NUMTOT page official rules asks members to remember that, “at the end of the day, this is just a meme group about trains," the ideas and feelings expressed on it are far from facetious. NUMTOTs are the reflection of a generation of people who see the state of public transportation as a symbol of - and solution to - many of the problems they face and will have to face as they transition from Transit Oriented Teens to Transit Oriented Forty-Somethings. Making memes may be a first step to many NUMTOTs finding themselves enacting real urban mobility solutions.

Noah Waldman

Noah Waldman

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