Sunday, February 15, 2009

Destroying What You're Trying to Protect

The divide in understanding transportation's value to working families is rather disheartening. At one time, automobiles were seen as the great equalizer, allowing upward mobility for the masses. Sometime along the way, they went from being a benefit to being a burden. Costs of ownership increased as land use patterns led Americans to drive even further away from their workplaces in search of an inexpensive place to raise a family that had a yard for the dog. But that house was in a place where the family had to buy two or even three cars to keep mobile.

But that push through subsidy towards the suburban ideal, has left us with lopsided policy that spends more money than we need to on urban development and mobility. It also leads people to believe that transit is a tool of the poor alone, not seeing the possible benefits to them personally. A recent New York Review of Books (via T4A) article notes that the poor are a large part of the transit constituency and that the regressive effects of a carbon tax should be offset by building more buses.
Investment in the infrastructure of a post-auto-industrial society would provide some compensation for the regressive effects of a carbon tax (or of the increase in prices that would result from a "cap and trade" scheme, as industries passed on the costs of compliance to consumers). It would be an investment in the technologies that are used by poor people, including buses, bus stops, and information about the departures of buses and transit vans.
But what about the middle class? They are squeezed as well with rising costs of automobiling and rising home costs in cities. An answer that has become more palatable is increasing transit funding and moving towards better land use patterns and policies that would increase housing in the core. This change would allow people to save money, and allow them to live within their means by saving money on transportation costs.

But others don't see it that way. Some conservatives and especially libertarians would have you think that freedom is the automobile and that everyone wants to live in a big house with three cars. They believe so much so in this that anything else is forced upon those who we know are actually self selecting. Here is Milwaukee uber conservative Patrick McIlheran:

What's more, people can and do live transit-oriented lives along these Milwaukee streets and others. While Bernstein argued that people here are made poorer by having to drive a lot, the fact is that there's a lot of reasonable real estate next to scheduled transit, should you want it.

...

Dense, transit-oriented living is good and useful for those who seek it. Where its enthusiasts err is in feeling that many more people, maybe all, should be seeking it and that spending lots of tax money will make that happen.

Yeah, TOD isn't going to be everyone's choice, rational thinkers know that, but the problem here is that we're spending lots of tax money to make automobiling happen and not investing in the other pieces of the transportation spectrum or sustainable development. But the mistake he makes here is the idea that buses are for the poor or people who want that lifestyle, but they don't deserve better service that might increase the demand.

Sure people could choose to live a transit oriented lifestyle on the existing bus system, but last time I heard, Milwaukee conservatives have been starving it to death, creating a situation where its not really an option. They don't just have a thing against trains, they have a thing against quality transit. And that is too bad because they are punishing those who they think they are trying to help. Since when did the idea of pooling money for an outcome that is a common good become a bad idea? The savings would be incredible and its unfortunate that the disconnect is even there.

The thing that Patrick is railing against is actually what he's advocating on the other end. It's hypocrisy at its greatest, pushing away from what the market is actually working towards and artificially going the other way. One would hope that if he really wanted to save taxpayer money, he would advocate for the most efficient land use patterns and push for less tax revenue going to large road projects and into projects that could save a lot of people money. In essence, he's pushing for people to spend thousands more so they can save hundreds. This never made sense to me.

6 comments:

arcady said...

It's interesting that the libertarians are such big fans of the almost entirely government-owned and government-funded road system, rather than the (originally) privately owned and privately funded system of long distance, interurban, and street railways. I'd like to also remind them of the Broken Window Fallacy. Making people spend money on something they don't really want or need (cars) doesn't provide any net benefit to the economy.

Rhywun said...

Where its enthusiasts err is in feeling that many more people, maybe all, should be seeking it and that spending lots of tax money will make that happen.

It's pretty obvious that people ARE seeking it. Just look at the bursting population figures of cities like NY and SF, which are full of refugees from cities that either gave it up or never had it to begin with.

Anonymous said...

"Dense, transit oriented is good and useful for those who seek it. "

Yes, but in the marketplace, the only people who "seek" it are yuppies like me. If people in lower tax brackets are seeking it, the market isn't going to notice, because when it comes to housing for the lower and middle classes, the market listens to the government, and the government therefore needs to do some due f*cking diligence.

Morgan Wick said...

"If people in lower tax brackets are seeking it, the market isn't going to notice, because when it comes to housing for the lower and middle classes, the market listens to the government, and the government therefore needs to do some due f*cking diligence."

But! But! The free market will always provide the best result for everybody! That nasty government just needs to stay out of it! You couldn't possibly be saying...

Rhywun said...

The free market WAS a good sight better at providing low-income housing back before the housing market got so overheated and gentrification exploded around 1995. And it may well be once again now that the housing market is collapsing.

Anonymous said...

The market was good at providing housing that was cheap and fast. It was not good at providing housing that was cheap fast and walkable, because the homebuilders were using templates written by the government.

Yuppies like me can get housing that is walkable and fast. The rest of the country get what is offered them, take it or leave it. And what is offered needs to change.