Interview: The Inquirer’s Jason Laughlin talks transportation

Alex Vuocolo Interview, Issue 6 0 Comments

Jason Laughlin used to drive everywhere. He started his career as a staff reporter at the Courier-Post, where he bounced around suburban Camden County, New Jersey, covering general news and politics. It wasn’t until 2014, when he got a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer and moved to Old City, that he started using public transit. Now he takes the Market-Frankford subway to work each morning.

After taking over the transportation beat at the Inquirer in 2015, Laughlin found himself writing about all aspects of how people get around in a big, complicated city. Here, he tells us about striking a balance between his big-picture reporting on the transportation system and telling human stories about the everyday people who use it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Before transportation, your beat was the suburbs. What was it like to move from covering general news in one part of the region to focusing on a specific topic across the entire region?

It’s been really interesting and worthwhile, because my previous assignment didn’t quite require the level of expertise that this does. I’d done a couple of transportation stories before taking on the beat, and before I started, of course, I read my predecessor Paul Nussbaum’s work. A year in, it’s still sort of like climbing that ladder and realizing there’s a lot of knowledge that’s worth having.

In order to learn your beat, what did you read? What journalists, experts, or others in the field do you trust now?

For me, what has helped most is not so much reading as talking to people. There are people from a lot of the different [City]  agencies, particularly former workers that I don’t want to name, and talking to them has been really helpful. I do read Next City. PlanPhilly is great. I respect the work they do a lot, and in some cases their knowledge exceeds mine.

What assumptions about transportation in Southeastern PA did you have going into your beat, and how did they mesh with reality?

This is something that I’m still struggling with. I’ve written a lot about Regional Rail, in particular. But when you look at the mix of transportation, I think something like 2.8 percent of the city’s population uses Regional Rail. About 97 percent of the city doesn’t. There are massive swaths of this city where the only access to public transportation is busing — or walking or biking. That’s something I still haven’t fully figured out how to cover.

In many ways, Philadelphia is a city where big parts of it don’t interact with other parts. I live in Old City and I very rarely go to Northeast Philadelphia, and the reverse is probably the case as well. I’d like to look at that. Is it because it’s harder to get here from there? What role does transportation play?

Do you think your background covering the suburbs is a part of a bias?

I should qualify: It’s not time poorly spent to write about Regional Rail or the Schuylkill Expressway or I-95. Massive numbers of people use the highways. But in the suburbs, that was definitely the major concern. My early transportation stories, before I took over the beat, were very suburban-oriented. As I spend more time in the city, I’m looking to diversify that.

As you’ve gone through this learning process, was there a particular moment where it really clicked?

The thing that really strikes me is the sense of a disconnect between what people want and the service they are getting. There’s an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with SEPTA. People appreciate the system. They are glad it’s there. But they don’t really think it’s where it should be. SEPTA seems to be aware of that. They keep talking about getting on-time rates improved and trying to get things more reliable. But so far, that seems to not be happening in the way that people would like it to. There are all kinds of reasons. I would never say that SEPTA is operating in poor faith. I think they are trying to make changes.

What do you find lacking in the way the general news media usually covers transportation?

I think we — and I will accuse myself of this — get too wrapped up in agency coverage. It’s part of the beat. It’s part of accountability and watchdog journalism. But for me, one of my favorite stories that I did this year was going out to North Philly in January after that big snow storm, and talking to people about what it was like to live with no buses for days. So there’s the big-picture stuff you have to do, and there’s the agency stuff you have to do. But the stories like the one about the snowstorm are where the intersection between what these services provide and how people use them really becomes interesting.

“In many ways, Philadelphia is a city where big parts of it don’t interact with other parts.”

As a Philadelphian, what do you think is your personal stake in our transportation system?

For a long time I worked in New Jersey. My first paper was the Courier-Post. And I was a driver. I drove all over the place. I very, very rarely used public transportation until about 2-3 years ago, when I started working at the Inquirer and suddenly it was the easiest way to get around. So to some extent covering this beat has been a discovery for me, too. I’m sort of still reckoning with public transportation in this region.

The most personal thing I can say is, as somebody who has disabilities, I rely on my car to a larger extent than a lot of people do. I’m not going to use a bike. That’s not going to happen. I do walk a lot, but there’s a certain range that is a little more limited for me than it would be for other people. It’s been to some extent a requirement to get out of my own comfort zone, my own experience, and think about people who do bike and walk. I have to open myself up to that.

As someone with a disability, you have certain transportation needs that able-bodied people might overlook. How does the way you engage with the city affect your reporting?

I try not to let it. I’m not an advocate. But that said, it is a reality that disabled access for a lot of public transportation isn’t great. SEPTA has done a really good job with bus service, which is fantastic. They are working to get trolleys that will be wheelchair-accessible, which is a really good thing. My condition [VACTERL association] being what it is, I’m lucky that I don’t really have any limitations as far as stairways or stepping on a train or bus, but a lot of people do. Obviously those are important stories, and I do write about disabled access. But I want to be cautious that it’s not a drum I’m beating for personal reasons, because that would be inappropriate. I’ve never let any of my physical limitations drive my career or point of view.

What among the stories you covered in the past year stick out most in your mind, and what do you think they reveal about where the city is headed?

I’m not sure that my job is so much to look at what’s coming as to look at what is. When there are stories about the future of transportation, I write them. I did a big piece last year about what’s happening with the trolley system and how they’re buying an entirely new fleet, which is unusual for big cities. You could fill this room with the plans of transit projects that never happened. My time is better served by looking at where we are.

Transportation typically doesn’t rank up there with education and jobs on the list of pressing concerns. When front-page news like the SEPTA strike isn’t happening, how do you emphasize the importance of your beat?

Always focus on users. I wrote a story today about the DRPA [Delaware River Port Authority] budget that will probably get minimal readership. It needs to be done. It’s good agency coverage. But that’s not how you engage people. You engage people with the story about the trolley car operator who lost his wife last year and is decorating his car for Christmas. You write about the guy who was being disruptive on the train, how other passengers dealt with it, and how limited SEPTA was in what they could do about it. That’s stuff that connects with people. The best stories I can do, the best work I can do, is talking to people that are using this system. Sometimes that means finding the outlier, the thing that’s different. Sometimes it means finding the universal. If you get too removed from that, you lose connection with real people. ◆

Photo by Jennifer Kerrigan

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