Conservativism (heart) Public Transport: Apple Pie meets Jane Jacobs

David Schaengold, of the Conservative U.S. Witherspoon Institute, has a very interesting piece on the contributions that public transportation can make to upholding Conservative values. He argues that Community, Family and Entrepreneurship all benefit when the state acts to promote transit and remove the current bias toward building more highways.

I have to say that I disagree strongly with many of the arguments made by the Institute on other issues like gay marriage and abortion. But that just makes Schengold's piece all the more interesting. Along with the much discussed “greening” of the economic recovery, this seems to be another example of the way environmental issues are loosing their old ideological associations.

Some highlights:
Pro-highway, anti-transit, anti-pedestrian policies work against the core beliefs of American conservatives in another and even more important way: they create social environments that are hostile to real community.

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.’

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.

Consider how small businesses are affected by Americans’ dependency on cars. Since businesses are obliged by zoning restrictions to locate far away from residential areas, most Americans drive to every store they visit. This means that store visits are often discrete trips that must be undertaken consciously and planned out ahead of time. As a consequence, shoppers will want to visit stores that carry the most diverse inventory—Wal-Mart, Costco, et al.—and avoid shops that specialize in one particular kind of good—the local paint store or flower shop, for instance.

As the market diminishes for these specialized stores, so too does opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship. If opening a small business were a viable option in more markets, more Americans would be interested in starting them. The current situation, where only very large stores can compete in most retail environments, makes starting a business impossible for the vast majority of Americans.

Dense, walkable settlements are not just a pleasant lifestyle choice. They are a precondition of the strong, inter-connected communities that social conservatives desire. It is not difficult to envision how these communities can make our lives comprehensively better. Americans are not obliged by any law of nature or rule of the market to live in mediocre, anti-social places. With changes in public policy, over time we can begin again to create neighborhoods that promote real community.
Early American conservation movements where also, well, Conservative. But it is interesting to see this being extended to transportation policy. In the past, high profile conservative critics have argued that public transit amounts to mobility welfare and should be designed to serve the working poor. Let the elite drive their cars!

I have a feeling that I would disagree with Schaengold about the apple-pie-meets-Jane Jacobs values that would guide these denser more walkable communities. But if walkability and transit really do create stronger ties – something that I also believe – I am sure we'd have a chance to talk it over when we bump into each other down by the corner store.


2 Responses to "Conservativism (heart) Public Transport: Apple Pie meets Jane Jacobs"

Lunatrix said... 23 April 2009 at 10:39

Very interesting!!

Yesterday I thought a lot of you: it was Earth Day, and in a program called Quest (CNN) they talked about how to "green your business" -- pure (conservative?)green consumerism!!! They'd love your entry.

Later gator :o)

Alex Aylett said... 24 April 2009 at 08:35

All those silly "green" products (a backpack that charges your iPod, WOW!) drive me drive nuts! The thing about this article is that Schaengold is arguing for the same transportation planning principles, but from a different political angle. As opposed to, say, just painting the same old choices green with some tweaking around the edges - which is what green consumerism comes down to.

The funny thing is the way that family, community and innitiative are discussed as somehow distinctively Conservative. As if the Left are all asocial lazy orphans! Like I was saying in the end, at a general level we all value these things, its justs how we define them that differs.

Thankfully, we don't ask public transportation systems to sort out those more difficult issues...

hasta pronto!


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