Notes From Babel

Why Mass-Transit Exuberance Should Make You Nervous

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Matthew Schmitz at the League is bothered at conservatives’ attacks on mass-transit’s proponents as shills for European style Progressivism.

[T]hey [e.g., Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnoru at NRO] continue to dismiss liberals who argue for mass transit on the basis that these liberals might be looking to foreign templates. This is extremely unhelpful. Mass transit is not the love child of left-wing infatuation with Europe. It’s a policy with a long American history that should be debated on its merits.

I replied with the following in the comments:

In fairness, mass transit does go hand in hand with Progressivist planning agendas:  these days, you don’t get the kind of density that warrants mass transit without a firm grip on land use planning.  To laser in on the real critique conservatives/libertarians are making (or, perhaps, should be making), land use planning, including the push for mass transit, would be just fine were it a response to what people really wanted.  Now, maybe, in some places, it is.  But my guess is that, outside the very old American cities whose densities owe to the booms in American industry during the 1800s, roads tend to serve transit needs as well or better, for less money, and nominal difference in environmental concerns.  This leaves goosebumps as the primary motivator for mass transit initiatives.

An example.  I live in Long Beach (south LA county) and commute to Irvine (Orange County).  The commute is 25 miles, and I’ve found the right times of day to ensure I’m not on the road longer than 30-35 minutes.  A friend of mine in LA who commutes 15 miles from Hollywood to Santa Monica each day, by contrast, averages an hour each way.  Why?  Because Angelinos have drunk the mass transit Kool-Aid and keep dumping bonds (serviced by higher sales taxes, which is the wife and I head south to do our shopping) into one rail boondoggle after another.  Orange County, by contrast, spends its transit dollars on wide open freeways, and lots of ’em.

Would it be cool to take a trolley or a shiny new train to work?  Sure!  It’s why I visit Disneyland sometimes.  If I want to go about my life, though, the smart money’s on freeways.

Though it’s at the southern tip of LA county, Long Beach still shows symptoms of the mass transit disease.  A few years ago, I was sitting in at a city council meeting, and listened as Suja Lowenthal—an urbanist proselyte just like her father-in-law, Alan—carried on for something like 20 minutes on a soliloquy about some idyllic urban paradise of the future that sounded almost borrowed from a passage from a Robert Heinlein novel.  There was no point to her speech that I could discern.  She was just full of beans over the mass transit systems she had seen elsewhere and wanted us to know how eager she was to get to work spending our tax dollars to build her own life-size train set.

Now, downtown LB is kind of a hip, somewhat dense little pocket.  But there’s simply no justification for some kind of grand retrofitting of this city, particularly just because some freshman councilmember’s got the glad eye about trains and trolleys.  Everyone here has cars.  It’s a suburban community.  Next item on the agenda, please, Ms. Lowenthal.

And that ought to go for every city council member throughout the country.  Unless you were elected to build trains, keep it to yourself.


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Written by Tim Kowal

March 9, 2010 at 6:44 pm

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