Monday, May 04, 2009

Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit and TOD

Kirsten asked for my reaction to this article laying out 'conservative' arguments for transit and walkable communities. I am all for both within a free-choice framework, but I disagree with most of the arguments given here. Summing up and then addressing his arguments:

1. Federal funding is biased towards roads.

It depends on how you look at it, since 95+% of all trips are on roads. It also might be argued that government is pursuing the least-cost mobility solution because it leaves the vehicle, fuel, and driver costs to the private citizen, as opposed to government picking up those costs with transit. But we might agree that the feds should combine highway and transit dollars into block grants to localities, and let them choose the best transportation solutions for them.

2. Local zoning codes biases development towards roads.

Also true, and I am no fan of zoning, but is this conservative calling for federal action to overrule local control? I don't see that as a conservative argument.

3. Car-orientation "create social environments that are hostile to real community."

Nothing to back this up. My understanding is that studies show higher social capital, lower crime, more church attendance, higher charitable giving and participation, and many other pro-community advantages in the car-oriented suburbs. And there are certainly plenty of dysfunctional transit-oriented "walkable neighborhoods" in urban cores.

4. Car-orientation is hostile to small business.

He seems to think we'd all be shopping at the old mom-and-pop store on Main St. instead of Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, Best Buy, etc. if wasn't for cars. Maybe it also has something to do with superior selection and prices? Why should government decide where we shop? Shouldn't the free market sort this out? McKinsey did a research report a few years ago concluding that almost half of the productivity gains in the 90s were in retail, and primarily from Wal-Mart. Are we just going to wipe out those efficiency and income gains?

5. Car-orientation forces families to drive their kids everywhere.

Partially true, although I grew up in the suburbs and biked everywhere. I think kids today have the same option (a good argument for more bike trails), although parents are a lot more paranoid about letting their kids off on their own than when I was growing up. Do we really want to tell families "We're going to save you from shuttling your kids everywhere by making you live in a cramped apartment near transit"? Maybe parents are willing to make this trade-off for the other benefits of a suburban house? I thought conservatism was about free choice?

The overall argument seemed to be a call to go back to the nostalgic family values of the Great Depression, when people couldn't afford cars and walked or rode streetcars everywhere. It's an argument of "This (community values) used to be better in the past, and now we have technology X (cars and highways) that we didn't have then, so maybe if we got rid of technology X we would get back to that nostalgic past." You know, 'family values' and the divorce rate used to be better before we let women vote, work outside the home, or get much higher education, too. Should we also 'fix' that? Do you see the fundamental flaw in the argument?

Just to reiterate, I am all for cost-effective transit and private development of more walkable neighborhoods where there is consumer demand for that lifestyle. Government should certainly look at ways it can relax regulations that make these walkable, mixed-use areas harder to develop. But let's not delude ourselves that it is some sort of morally-superior, pro-community choice that government should be forcing on the masses.

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At 10:41 PM, May 04, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My economics take on your issues.

1)Federal spending is biased towards roads.

The way transportation funding is handled in this country seems to violate the user pays principle. Yes, The country as a whole is better off when there is an interstate system like we have that connects all the major markets and population systems. Once we pass the minimum sized interstate I think the argument for federal funding becomes much weaker. Yes there is the last mile problem, but most of the benefits of widening the Katy freeway to the extent we have falls to us. Why should tax money from other states help us build it. Why, but because our tax money is going to pay for their highway expansions. This ends up being a form of robbing peter to pay paul. This problem becomes much more apparent in the federal funding of the transit systems. Why should tax payers in LA, New York, Atlanta, DC, Austin, or Dallas have to pay for our trains when there is no concievable benefit to them. Why should we pay for theirs. If the benefits outweigh the costs then they should be happy to fund it locally, because they are recieving all the benefits.

The user pays principle is making the people who gain the benefit of a public spending pay the taxes for it.

2)Local zoning codes bias towards roads.

I agree. That is why I almost always argue against zoning. But, two wrongs don't make a right. It would be better to change those zoning codes (get rid of them) than to continue distorting our transportation policies in some other way.

3)Car-orientation "create social environments that are hostile to real community."

I personally agree, but this is completely subjective and possibly wrong given studies I have heard about and that tory mentions. Keyword there is the real in "real" community. Who defines this? I agree with Tory that this is best solved by freeing up the system and getting rid of the distortions in both directions and letting everyone decide what "real" community they want to live in.

4. Car-orientation is hostile to small business.

Again, the reasoning in this article was subjective based. That people prefer to shop at small or mom and pop stores. My question is at what cost. If you prefer it, pay the higher prices. If you dont want to pay the higher prices it must not really bring you that much value.

5. Car-orientation forces families to drive their kids everywhere.

Again another trade off.

At 8:21 AM, May 05, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the original historical argument for federal transit funding was that old northeast cities that didn't want to build any more freeways felt slighted with all the federal funding going to freeways in the south and west. It was a fairness argument. But I totally agree: the feds should maintain the minimum interstate network, and everything else should be paid at the state and local level.

At 2:26 PM, May 05, 2009, Blogger technophobicgeek said...


I agree that the definition of "community" and "vibrancy" is a subjective one. Personally, I'm solidly on the walkable-city persuasion, but I understand that people have other views on this. And we agree about more bike trails!

But really, do you seriously believe people who likes walkable neighborhoods are depression-loving nostalgics? Where did you get that kind of label from?

At 8:42 AM, May 06, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't think that at all - I just think that about this specific author given his tone and arguments (and the 'conservative' viewpoint).

At 9:35 AM, May 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to "Second" regarding the earlier comment on user pays.
I would like to add that 'Federal spending is biased towards roads' because, to my understanding, the majority of revenue is derived from taxes on automobile fuel sales. Why shouldn't it be spent on roads that automobiles use?

Furthermore, I think the Federal fuel tax should be eliminated and States should be responsible for maintaing/ widening/ building the highway system.
As others have commented, the money flowing to the Federal level rarely, if ever, gets returned to the states from which it came. In essence it's a shell game, States send their money to D.C. the money gets shuffled around (and some disappears) then dealt out. I'm not exactly sure how the spending is decided, but you can bet there is plenty of political favors being exchanged.
Long story short, remove the control of the money, remove the fraud.


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