Why Conservatives (and Everyone) Should Care About Transit

Big thanks this morning to Streetsblog Network member Trains for America, which links to a fascinating essay
from the Witherspoon Institute on why social conservatives should
support public transit and walkable communities. Here’s a taste of the
Witherspoon piece:

3042652252_5174fbe9ed.jpgLooking for real family values? You’ll find them in walkable communities. Photo by renee @ FIMBY via Flickr.

Sadly,
American conservatives have come to be associated with support for
transportation decisions that promote dependence on automobiles, while
American liberals are more likely to be associated with public
transportation, city life, and pro-pedestrian policies. This
association can be traced to the ’70s, when cities became associated
with social dysfunction and suburbs remained bastions of ‘normalcy.’
This dynamic was fueled by headlines mocking ill-conceived transit
projects that conservatives loved to point out as examples of wasteful
government spending. Of course, just because there is a historic
explanation for why Democrats are “pro-transit” and Republicans are
“pro-car” does not mean that these associations make any sense. Support
for government-subsidized highway projects and contempt for efficient
mass transit does not follow from any of the core principles of social
conservatism.

A common misperception is that the current American state of
auto-dependency is a result of the free market doing its work. In fact,
a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation
“market” is skewed towards car-ownership.

As Trains for America’s Pat Lynch says,
"Sensible transportation policies are good for families and
communities. Who would have thunk it?"

More from the network: The Overhead Wire
reports on how states are still lobbying for disproportionate spending
on highways, Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard links to the work of UC
Berkeley’s Robert Cervero on transit-oriented development; and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports on the governor of Delaware’s executive order creating a complete streets policy for that state.

  • I found this to be very interesting reading.

    Fred Camino had a really great essay on Socialist Libertarians when it comes to “free market” roads and “socialist” public transit. (Please come back, Fred.)

    http://metroriderla.com/2008/04/03/exposing-socialist-libertarians/

    I know people who own a car, but feel forced into a suburban-within-urban, automobile-based lifestyle because they (feel they) do not yet have options in Los Angeles yet and cannot wait for the Purple Line extension. They want the choice that subsidizing roads did not give them.

    I suspect much of the hostility there is on the right to public transit has less to do about “freedom” and “independence” and a lot to do “those people” and having to sit next to a stranger of a different race, class or culture.

    Certainly in the 80’s there more than a few “liberals” who tried to thwart the subway and other rail because of their underlying fear of “those people” and liberal politicians such as Henry Waxman thwarted the Purple Line for 20 years on their behalf.

    Having lived in multi-cultural New York and London, I don’t fear people of other races and cultures as much as someone who never meets them or who simply drives past them.

    Big oil has tended to skew this debate by casting their lot with campaign contributions on the political right. However, big oil has no problem funding politicians on all sides of the spectrum.

    There is also the tendency to view someone elss’e government assistance (such building transit infrastructure) as an unfair subsidy, but the one you benefit from (expanding roads) as a wise and well-deserved entitlement.

    There is a danger of seeing this a left vs. right issue, especially as it is unnecessary. There are many conservatives who respond well to the ideas of more liveable communities, more liveable streets, and economic prosperity that increased mobility via transit brings. For example, increasing Metrolink commuter rail can be sold as a manner to help suburban conservatives spend more time with their family and less time isolated in traffic.

  • nonsoconcon

    To clarify a few things, a social conservative is not necessarily a conservative as that description would be applied to the post world war II political movement. They were in fact late joiners only becoming part of the Republican coalition in 1980. There are overlaps of course, but for the issue of public transportation and other issues David mentions in the article there would be disagreements. David does a good job in addressing social conservative concerns in general but seems to conflate some of them with general conservatism. Two areas where there can be differences is in property rights and spending.

    A conservative is generally a strong supporter of property rights and is hesitant to have the government put restrictions on what one does with one’s own property. A conservative would be a natural ally in building walkable mixed-use developments. Social Conservatives aren’t necessarily against property rights but they are, as David notes addresses, protective of their families. Ultimately, it is the fact they choose to live a certain type of neighborhood, preferably in a cul-de-sac, is what new urbanists have to overcome. I don’t think this is a social conservative thing though as with would be true across a range of ideologies. On second thought, when a developer was wanting approval for a mixed use development in Huntington Beach called Ripcurl, the neighbors were against it but my family was like build what you want. My family’s street was lined with Yes on Prop 8 posters so maybe there is something to it.

    The second point is that a conservative is much more concerned with tax money and how it’s spent. Judging by the past 8 years, I would say that social conservatives aren’t as preoccupied with wasteful government spending. The cost of public transport is much more likely to be attacked as wasteful from the former. In addition, public transport also creates a larger bureaucracy and public sector union with which to contend. I’m not trying to debate anything here but rather give an idea what goes through conservative minds. Trying to get into why a social conservative might be for or against is tough. My guess is that it would be a much easier sell to a socon as opposed to a con.

    Like I said at the beginning, a conservative can be a social conservative but not always. For new urbanist issues, it really comes down to the fact each group will have a different emphasis in their ideologies. A conservative will support mixed-use development but not public transport because of cost. Social conservatives will have different priorities informed by their religious beliefs which may or may not intersect with new urbanism. Dropping the cost issue and talking about community is probably a better way to convince them. I know I said no debate, but cost is one you can’t win. Measure R would never pass in Orange County.

    Since I’m here I will say that as a conservative I do support building subways, light rail and so forth. My caveat is that it should be done in areas with the density to support it and that neighborhoods running along the tracks be dezoned to allow for additional density so that it can come as close to being self-supporting on an operational basis as possible.

  • Spokker

    Have any light rail and subway lines been built in areas that lack the density to support them, in your opinion?

  • [quote]Since I’m here I will say that as a conservative I do support building subways, light rail and so forth. My caveat is that it should be done in areas with the density to support it and that neighborhoods running along the tracks be dezoned to allow for additional density so that it can come as close to being self-supporting on an operational basis as possible.[/quote]

    As a liberal, I basically agree with the same thing. Density should be clustered near rail stops.

    I’m glad we found common ground. :)

  • Marcotico

    I just finished reading the article, and the thing that I found interesting is that this article, and other articles from this social conservative institute are interested in articulating conservative visions of the public good. However, following up on the distinctions that Nonsoconcon makes above, I would say that I’m not sure fiscal conservatives or small government conservatives (or whatever they are calling themselves these days) have a platform regarding public goods. Libertarians for example seem to be saying that any political process for arriving at a conceptualization of the public good is by definition fraught with corruption,a nd elitism.

    So the essay linked to brings up some good points about auto-dependent transportation priorities being just as much politically driven, but it has always seemed to be more diffuse political power, which gives it the illusion of free-market activity. Transit planning, because of the numerous hurdles and regulatory actions that must be taken (alluded to in the essay) seems more centrally planned. Planning and deliberation about what is the best provision of a public good stikes current conservatives as big government, and elitist. This is one reason why they are in so much trouble right now. As Peggy Noonan said, there is nothing wrong with elites. Even Joe the Plumber should want to be an elite plumber.

  • Hey nonsoconcon,

    Just to correct something you said:
    Measure R would never pass in Orange County

    Actually a similar measure (Measure M) was passed and even re-newed in Orange County. It was a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements.

    http://www.octa.net/measure_m.aspx

  • Spokker

    Measure M was mostly for highways though. Metrolink, which serves middle class commuters, is about the only mass transit Orange County can stand.

    In their list on their completed projects all buses get is discounts for seniors and the disabled. They hardly expand bus service and Bravo! is still on the drawing board after countless delays.

  • nonsoconcon

    “Have any light rail and subway lines been built in areas that lack the density to support them, in your opinion?”

    I actually started a rant on the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Claremont. This would pass through some of the least dense urban areas of Los Angeles county. I live in Claremont right now and we are well served by Metrolink into downtown. Money spent for an extension would be better served for more problematic areas. My view is that most of LA would be dense enough to support some sort of rail. Even Central and North Orange County could as well. The density is already there plus this region is ripe for redevelopment. How many strip malls or shopping centers never have parking lots more than half full?

    “As a liberal, I basically agree with the same thing. Density should be clustered near rail stops.”

    Yes, we do have common ground. A problem with conservatives and the Republican party in general is that we have abandoned urban issues entirely. The City Journal writes about it, but they are alone.

    “Nonsoconcon makes above, I would say that I’m not sure fiscal conservatives or small government conservatives (or whatever they are calling themselves these days) have a platform regarding public goods.”

    Yes, the problem with saying that one is for limited government or small government is that the term is poorly defined. Do conservatives support funding the Police? Sure. The fire department? Yes. Roads and highways? Heck yeah! Welfare? Um. Military? Can I push the button to blow something up? Farm Subsidies? No, wait I live on a farm, hell yes! No, we don’t for a broad range of issues. As far as public goods goes, I would say that a conservative would the define the traditionally labeled public goods as such. A conservative is actually part libertarian but without the libertinism. I’m actually a libertarian but I feel guilty about my hedonism and like to blow stuff up so I call my self a conservative. I kind of made the point that conceputalizing public goods is frought with corruption when I said that conservatives would be opposed because of bureaucracy and unions. I didn’t mean it directly like that but in the same spirit. Conservatives would say that the private sector should provide the service and that the government should cut a check to the individual to buy it. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

    “Planning and deliberation about what is the best provision of a public good stikes current conservatives as big government, and elitist. This is one reason why they are in so much trouble right now. As Peggy Noonan said, there is nothing wrong with elites. Even Joe the Plumber should want to be an elite plumber.”

    Excellent point! You see this is why I can’t finish my dissertation; 5 different ways in which to respond so I’m frozen. This is a major difference of opinion that I can’t really answer in a comments section. Conservatives right now are having a rebellion against the their elites for the failures of the last two elections. The anti-elitism comes from a couple of places. The first is that the center of gravity of the party has moved towards the south and west. The other is that Bill Buckley, who would seem elitist if anyone was one, said “I’d rather live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” As a person getting a Phd, I agree with this. Yeah, there are those professors from both sides of the aisle I would vote for but not many (Between Dem and Rep it’s about even).

    The main point is that central planning can’t achieve the stated purpose. I gather that you would say elites are needed to make laws forcing society to adjust to certain way. This is a bad way to think about how an urban environment works. Frederich Hayek is an intellectual patron saint of the right. His premise is that socialism will fail since it isn’t reliant on the price mechanism. It is price that contains all relevant information and is the best gauge on which to base economics decisions. It isn’t humanly possible for a person to do the same.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say diffuse political driven as much as market driven. My interpretation is that there isn’t much difference as suburbs are very protective of their property values and will vote along market lines. People are generally reactionary, either liberal or conservative, so that they oppose any change in the neighborhood. I brought up Hayek above and you elitism because both ideas are at complete odds with a planner changing a typical neighborhood. Here in California NIMBYISM is strong.

    To be blunt about it, the city should just build the subway to the sea and dezone Wilshire. You don’t need elites to tell you as much. You don’t need endless meetings where people stand up and say that building the expo extension will give my little rover a heart attack. People voted for the politicians and they voted for R so they should live with consequences. Not sure how this last paragraph became a rant but my point was that elites shouldn’t plan too much since an urban environment is a dynamic culture. If you build it and dezone it, they will come. It is well established that building infrastructure enable development around it. A planner doesn’t actually have too plan to much as the market will determine the best use. The problem is Nimbysm can stop redevelopment.

    “Actually a similar measure (Measure M) was passed and even re-newed in Orange County. It was a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements.”

    Yes, forgot about it and thank you Spokker.

  • nonsoconcon

    Also I forgot to add, I have lived in several cities around the U.S. and overseas. The issue that conservatives can’t recognize is that a great public transport system is beneficial to a city in the dynamic sense in the same way liberals can’t understand that cutting taxes helps the economy.

  • Spokker

    “How many strip malls or shopping centers never have parking lots more than half full?”

    It’s really depressing when you think about how much urban space is wasted to parking. Here’s an excerpt from a book I’m reading on urban transportation.

    “The low cost and widespread availability of ample parking also encourages auto use in the United States and deters not only transit use but also walking and cycling. The 1990 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey found that over 95% of car trips made in U.S. cities benefit from free parking. Most other parking involves nominal fees, often subsidized by employers. U.S. firms usually offer free parking for their customers and employees-a tax-free fringe benefit for employees and a tax-deductible expense for firms. The subsidy entailed in free parking is enormous, estimated by some studies to exceed $1,000 per year per urban vehicle. Indeed, the country’s leading parking expert provides convincing evidence that free parking entails more subsidy-and more inducement to drive- than would the provision of free gasoline.

    Virtually all local governments in the United States set high minimum parking requirements for new buildings, even in the city center. Such requirements have virtually no valid justification and lead to a large oversupply of parking spaces.

    …ample free parking is a strong inducement to drive. One study found that it is also one of the most important factors deterring transit use. Most Americans and their politicians appear to be convinced that free parking for their cars is an inalienable right and thus take it for granted. Few realize how much it distorts their transportation choices and travel behavior.”

    From “The Geography of Urban Transportation.” I did not include the in-line citations.

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