Left = yes on trains, right = no on trains. Is this the politics in public transportation?

As an avid rail and public transportation fan I tend to look at a lot of blogs and news items related to those very issues. I have my political views, which my readers can easily recognize as being on the "left". That term of course is fraught with problems and danger, since, for example, being on the left in the USA usually means to the "right" in more progressive and forward thinking countries. For example the "conservative, right wing Tories" in the UK tend to be on most issue to the left of our supposedly left and progressive Democratic Party.

Quite frankly I have never even given a thought to the possibility that public transportation issues would be a matter of "right" or "left"!  Admittedly probably very naively so! Generally I confine my blog writings only to the wonderful technological issues confronting anything regarding steel wheels on steel rail.

But here comes an interesting take on that issue from Alon Levy on his "Pedestrian Observations" blog. Who knew that Public Transportation Policy could be so complicated:

Who are the Opponents of Transportation Alternatives?

Streetsblog has traditionally lashed at multiple factions that oppose bicycle and transit infrastructure, but reserved the harshest criticism for entrenched community groups and NIMBYs, and their representatives including most of the high-profile Democratic mayoral candidates in New York. Early community board opposition to some of Janette Sadik-Khan’s bike lanes and pedestrian plazas turned into full-fledged attacks by the livable streets community on NIMBYs, of which some were justified but some were cases without any evidence of community opposition.

But now the Wall Street Journal has run an editorial video calling New York’s new bikeshare totalitarian, adding to a Front Page article from a month ago saying that bikeshare was a failure in Paris and Montreal and that Sadik-Khan’s grandfather was a Nazi. Paul Krugman chimed in with an explanation relating the opposition to upper-class politics, New York Magazine tried to explain how bikeshare goes against conservative ideology more broadly, and suddenly there’s supposed to be a partisan realignment on the matter. When I reminded Robert Cruickshank on Twitter that Charles Schumer and Anthony Weiner were against bike infrastructure, he responded, “no, that’s not driven by values or ideology but by a search for votes.”

There’s a real danger in reducing the world to a struggle between Us and Them, in which the bad aspects on the Us side show that people on the Us side need to be nudged in the right direction while the bad aspects on the Them side show that people on that side need to be defeated. People who spend too much time in national or even state-level partisan politics think in those terms even in places where they are completely inappropriate, such as local blue-city transportation matters. Streetsblog has occasionally engaged in this as well, with the factions being pro- and anti-Bloomberg: it has let the city’s DOT off the hook for the truncation of the 125th Street dedicated bus lanes, though in past years it did attack the city for not extending 1st and 2nd Avenue’s bike lanes into Harlem despite community support.

What both of those sides – Krugman and the Streetsblog crowd – miss is that there’s considerably diversity of opinion in both the Us camp and the Them camp. Although there is something like an Us camp comprising supporters of rail, urban density, and livable streets, there are still sharp internal disagreements that shouldn’t be papered over. On the Them side there isn’t even a recognizable camp: what do Michele Bachmann, Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, Charles Schumer, and Anthony Weiner have in common except their opposition to bikes or transit? Instead of a binary Manichean view it’s important to understand that politics, especially urban politics, has multiple factions, of which none can obtain a persistent majority, requiring some measures of negotiation and consensus.

First, the Them sides. The easiest segment to explain is right-wing populism: as a movement, it tends to be anti-urban and pro-road, even in Switzerland, whose Swiss People’s Party opposes rail investment and supports roads. The support base of right-wing populism is rarely urban, because as a movement it tends to be against what it views as cultural deviance of (mainly urban) immigrants; since transit ridership tends to be concentrated in the cities, populists have less reason to support it.

Non-populist conservatives sometimes borrow from right-wing populism and sometimes do not. Christie canceled ARC and transferred the state money for it toward roads, but he is quite influenced by populism in style even if his actual politics is mainline conservative. But the British Tories support high-speed rail, as did the Sarkozy administration. Contrary to popular belief, Thatcher never said that bus riders over the age of 30 are failures in life; the quote comes from a writer who, far from being a Thatcherist, worked for The New Statesman. However, with exceptions such as Sarkozy’s support for Arc Express, conservatives and right-wing liberals tend to be less supportive of urban transit and of taxing cars on environmental grounds. For examples, the Skyscraper Page posters believe the BC Liberal election victory is likely to make it harder to find money for SkyTrain extensions, Boris Johnson canceled proposals to extend London’s congestion charge to other parts of the city, and the Swedish right-wing parties originally opposed Stockholm’s congestion charge and eventually implemented it but with a caveat that the proceeds go to roads only.

Among centrist liberals, opinions are more split. Bloomberg is unabashedly neo-liberal; he’s also spent $2 billion of city money on a subway extension and championed congestion pricing and bike lanes. Andrew Cuomo is less explicitly neo-liberal but ran on such a platform; he’s championed the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, opposed including transit on the new bridge, and spent money that was supposed to go to the MTA on other things. The opposition to transit and livable streets that exists in this group is less a matter of hating what cities stand for and more a matter of fiscal conservatism that views roads as normal service used by the upper middle class and transit as wasteful and serving the poor. Charles Schumer’s opposition to bike lanes in his neighborhood should be placed in the same category, as should Richard Brodsky’s claim that congestion pricing is unfair while he represented a rich Westchester district. It’s here that the faction Krugman describes belongs, but it includes board swaths of the upper middle class rather than the top 0.5% of the population that Krugman argues is pro-road because they’re chauffeured around Manhattan.

The community boards who oppose transit and livable streets, for examples in Washington Heights and Sheepshead Bay, are a more mixed bunch. I believe Weiner falls in this category too: instead of congestion pricing he proposed a commuter tax, which would not fall on his outer-urban district, a proposal that more recently the other mayoral hopefuls supported. In the forums I spent time in, mainly The Straphangers forums, the opposition seemed to be from the left and not just from the right. It’s probably best understood as a general populism as well as personal dislike for Bloomberg; while this populism may not be leftist, it is not really right-wing either, and often comes from minorities, which right-wing populists almost universally spurn. I believe it’s Cap’n Transit who noted the disconnect between the elite even in poor neighborhoods and the average residents, who rarely own cars, leading to a kind of populism in leftist areas that is not by itself really leftist.

Now, the Us side. There is, in fact, a coherent movement that calls for more investment in rail for intercity transportation, proposes local transit and bike and pedestrian projects, and supports taxes on driving when they are politically feasible. The arguments between various factions, such as more left-wing versus more right-wing transit supporters or supporters of restoration of pre-WW2 streetcars and interurbans versus supporters of more modern technologies like light rail and high-speed rail, really are internal to a movement.

However, there really are problems, coming from the cores of the movement in supporting more spending and in having leaders who are quite neo-liberal and indifferent to issues of racism and disinvestment. New York really did take its time to extend bike lanes into East Harlem despite community support; the same neighborhood is now not getting a 125th Street dedicated bus lane. While the first five bus routes to receive Select Bus Service upgrades were chosen as one per borough for trial, the newer lines so chosen, first on 34th Street and now the M60 to LaGuardia, are not very high-ridership; the M60 in particular is at least in perception the highest-income and whitest among the buses that use 125th Street while its ridership rank is third out of four routes on the corridor.

Likewise, the transit investment decisions made not only in New York but also in cities ranging from Boston and Providence to San Francisco are development-oriented and tend to serve residents of rich suburbs and inner-urban gentrification projects at the expense of high-productivity transit routes in low-income neighborhoods in between. Bloomberg spent $2 billion of city money on a subway extension, but it was the wrong one, a development-oriented project to Hudson Yards rather than an extension of Second Avenue Subway or a new subway line following Utica, which is currently in a near-tie with First and Second Avenues for highest bus ridership in the city.

While neo-liberalism as an ideology also supports efficient government and reducing red tape, the built-in bias for prestige projects makes it hard to support vanilla improvements in efficiency. This combines with a particular leftist opposition to anything that sounds like reduced spending; the fact that it’s Christie who began the wave of cancellations adds a partisan dimension. As a result, the people who are most sensitive to costs tend to be far outside political power: Stephen Smith is not a major libertarian pundit, Aaron Renn occasionally talks to city leaders but has no real power, I am a mathematician who writes about transit and urban issues. The (neo-)liberal centrists who’d be best placed to implement a program that would reduce transit construction costs are the ones with the least political incentive to do so.

That said, despite the above essentially multi-partisan and multi-factional picture, it could be that the Wall Street Journal’s video and Krugman’s response will lead to partisan realignment. High-speed rail used not to be a partisan issue either: in 2009, Newt Gingrich said he envisioned medium-speed rail together with maglev. But after Christie canceled ARC, canceling rail projects became a test of right-wing bona fides, and conversely, defending infrastructure spending became a test of left-wing bona fides even when infrastructure was a small component of the stimulus. It is possible that the American political world will soon become bipolar on matters of local transit and livable streets issues. It’s just not there now.