Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit


Public transit and walkable neighborhoods are necessary for the creation of a country where families and communities can flourish.

When President Obama nominated Congressman Ray LaHood as his Secretary of Transportation, most media outlets paid attention long enough to note only that LaHood was a Republican from Illinois and the single pro-life member of Obama’s cabinet. Social conservatives, for their part, would rather have had an ally in the Department of Justice or the National Institute for Health. No one mentioned that it might be particularly appropriate that the cabinet’s one committed social conservative leads the Department of Transportation.

It might seem as if nothing could be less important to social conservatives than transportation. The Department of Health and Human Services crafts policies that affect abortion, the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission play crucial roles in determining how prevalent obscenity is in our society, but the Department of Transportation just funds highways, airports, and railroads, or so the usual thinking goes. But decisions about these projects and how to fund them have dramatic and far-reaching consequences for how Americans go about their lives on a day-to-day basis. Transportation decisions have the power to shape how we form communities, families, religious congregations, and even how we start small businesses. Bad transportation decisions can destroy communities, and good transportation decisions can help create them.

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.’ This dynamic was fueled by headlines mocking ill-conceived transit projects that conservatives loved to point out as examples of wasteful government spending. Of course, just because there is a historic explanation for why Democrats are “pro-transit” and Republicans are “pro-car” does not mean that these associations make any sense. Support for government-subsidized highway projects and contempt for efficient mass transit does not follow from any of the core principles of social conservatism.

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. These policy biases are too numerous to list exhaustively, but a few merit special recognition:

-If a state is interested in building a new highway, the only major regulatory obstacle is completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). After this, the federal government will typically pay for a large portion of the project, and leave the details of its planning and construction to the state’s Department of Transportation. If a state or municipality is interested in a transit project like a subway, a streetcar, or a bus system, however, not only must it complete an EIS, it must also clear a barrage of regulatory hurdles, including a cost-effectiveness analysis, a land-use impact analysis, and a comparison with other transit systems. None of these requirements is necessarily bad in itself (though many of these regulations were designed only to make it harder to build transit systems), but highways aren’t subject to any of them. Naturally, states therefore find it easier to channel transportation dollars into highways.

-As a 2003 report by the Brookings Institution points out, “federal funding for highway projects is more secure and generous than for transit projects; making highway projects easier to finance.” The Department of Transportation will typically match 80% to 90% of state funds directed towards highway repair or construction. Those same funds directed towards transit usually receive less than a 60% federal match, and carry further burdensome requirements for local funding that highway projects do not need to meet.

-Zoning requirements in most municipalities mandate that shops and houses must be separated. It is widely illegal to build the old small-town main street with the mix of shops, houses, and apartments that many find charming (so charming that some of these towns have been turned into tourist attractions). Furthermore, in most states it is mandatory for new schools to be built next to hundreds of acres playing fields, and thus far away from residential neighborhoods (see this report and this paper for a fuller discussion of policies that affect travel to school). These and similar regulations ensure that there are no shops or schools—that is, major household destinations—within walking distance of the average American’s home, which in turn requires the average American to own and use a car, not merely to commute to work but to perform basic tasks like picking up a gallon of milk or sending the kids off to school in the morning.

We often hear complaints that transit systems do not earn profits. This is true (with a few exceptions), but this does not mean that transit systems are a waste of money. When was the last time you heard someone complain about how a local road never manages to turn a profit? If we held roads and transit projects to similar standards of profitability, we would build very few roads indeed. Transportation infrastructure is a public good, and few dispute that the government should play an active role in providing it. In spite of the problems with thinking about transit as if it were business, however, transit- and pedestrian-oriented transportation projects would actually benefit if transportation decisions were guided entirely by market forces, because the pro-automobile biases in current policies at the local, state, and federal levels, would be eliminated.

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. Once again, the ways in which automobile-oriented development prevents communities from forming are too numerous to list exhaustively. They range from the very obvious to the very subtle.

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. Moreover, since small shops cannot afford to spend large sums on advertising, they can’t buy the enormous signs and billboards that direct shoppers to large retail outlets, nor gin up hype for their products with coordinated television spots. Perhaps if their potential customers could walk by their storefronts they would have a chance to notice window-displays and similar kinds of small, careful advertising. At 60 miles an hour with the AC cranked up, the attention of their potential customers is focused elsewhere.

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.

Perhaps more importantly, the employees of big-box stores rarely conceive of their jobs as passions or callings. You’re much likely to find yourself in a conversation about the relative merits and demerits of non-volatile-organic paint at Morris Maple’s Hardware down the street than at Home Depot. The local shopkeeper with a comprehensive knowledge of and interest in her wares is flourishing in a way that the clerks at big box stores, merely putting in time for a paycheck, are not.

Small, local businesses can also reinforce the quotidian trust that is a precondition of community. When I find myself without proper change at a book-store near where I live, the owner tells me to give it to him next time. We do not know each other’s names, but we recognize each other and trust each other enough not to quibble about quarters here and there. Needless to say, the cashiers at Borders would be fired for similar behavior. This quotidian trust is also reinforced in small ways that the physical environment can promote or discourage. In neighborhoods where it is easy to walk, residents see their neighbors often, and are given ample opportunity for spontaneous or chance encounters. Community is built out of many weak inter-personal links, and seeing your neighbors informally, episodically, but frequently reinforces these links.

Car-dependency also requires the nuclear family to become a primary transportation resource. Parents must shuttle their children to school, soccer practice, and even their friends’ houses until the children can shuttle themselves (at peril to their lives) in late adolescence. Not only does this overburden families themselves, it prevents the participation of community members in sharing the burdens of child-rearing. Conservatives sometimes mock Hillary Clinton’s infamous aphorism that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but surely this is in fact what conservatives actually believe. Otherwise, why would conservatives care about a culture that promotes irresponsibility and license? Social conservatives, at least, recognize that children flourish best not merely as members of a household but as participants in a culture, and that families themselves have more purposes than logistical support.

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.

David Schaengold is a research associate at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ and assistant editor of Public Discourse. Previously, he researched transportation policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, IL.


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