Conservative Case for Public Transit

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

William Lind presents the conservative case for public transit:

The fundamental reason conservatives should support public transportation is because traditionally we’ve been strong on national security. The country’s single greatest national security vulnerability is our dependence on imported oil. For at least half of the American population, that dependence is complete; that is to say only half of the population has any public transit available at all. The first conservative virtue, as Russell Kirk argued, is prudence. It strikes us as wildly imprudent to make our mobility hostage to events in unstable parts of the world.

The second [reason] is that there is a myth that has grown out of the libertarian camp — libertarians and conservatives are often confused, but in fact they’re very different — that somehow public transportation is subsidized and highways are not. Well, that’s nonsense. The latest Federal Highway Administration statistics show that user fees, including the gas tax, only cover 58 percent of the direct costs of highways. That’s not even looking at the vast indirect costs. And many rail — not bus, but rail — public transit systems are able to cover 50 percent and more of their expenses out of the fare box. Of course they’re all built with government money, mostly federal, more federal in the highways than transit. Highways get 80 percent federal; normally transit only gets 50 percent. So the picture that many conservatives have that it’s a matter of free enterprise versus subsidy couldn’t be more wrong.
Finally, conservatives have seen in city after city — Portland, Ore., is only one of many examples — how light rail and streetcars boost property values. In fact, the closer you are to a rail station, the higher your property value. The closer you are to a highway interchange, the lower your property value. We’ve seen relatively small investments — less than $100 million in the case of Portland’s initial streetcar line — bring a couple billion dollars in development.

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing found herself saying “Preach it!” — until Lind took this “detour into Crazytown”:

If it’s possible to give the kids a transit pass instead of a car, that household is going to save a great deal of money. So the middle class also has interest in having transit. Again, what they’re not going to do is get on a regular city bus. The population on board will be largely minority; conservatives usually are white or Asian. They’re not going to be comfortable surrounded by blacks and Hispanics. They’re not going to do that.
The fact of the matter is, according to federal government statistics, the black rate of violent crime is 12 times the white rate. Not double, not triple, not quadruple! Quadruple times triple. People avoid, particularly, young black males. And a lot of public transit now particularly at school hours is carrying a lot of young people home from school. This is very real problem of disorder on public transit from those inner city kids. The perception among not just whites but Asians and pretty much everybody, that they don’t want to be around young black males, is based on facts, there’s nothing to do with “-isms.” So the fact of the matter is that where public transit is heavily used by minorities, everybody else is going to avoid it. They’re doing so not because they’re dirty, nasty racists, they’re doing so out of self-preservation.
If public transit is told it cannot take that reality into account, then its utility is going to be marginal for riders from choice. Because a major reason why people want the private automobile is because it’s private, even when it’s very inconvenient to be stuck in traffic, they say I don’t have to worry about who might sit next to me.

Only a madman would believe that middle-class whites would pay a premium to avoid sitting next to inner-city black youths on the bus.

I’m surprised this common-sense solution was in fact implemented in the old Soviet Union:

A lot of Soviet bus and trolley bus lines had separate first and second class buses. The Paris Metro until recently, and they were really stupid to get rid of it, had separate first class cars for the train. As soon as you have a slight extra fare, anybody who’s worried about who they might have to ride with — and in much of the world this is what women do to protect themselves — will pay the relatively small extra fare, because they’ll know they’ll be riding with a class of people where it’s going to be safer. In parts of the world now, you have special cars that are women only, for the same reason. This is simply transit accommodating reality.


  1. Kai Jones says:

    Portland is not a great example. All that “billion-dollar development” is sitting empty and worth much less now that the real estate bubble has popped and small retail and other businesses are failing.

    Buses make more sense because routes can change when the locations people need to get to (jobs and retail) move, and as neighborhoods change (working class areas become gentrified so people who work move further out or to less desirable areas).

  2. Isegoria says:

    I agree that buses are more flexible than trains, but middle-class folks don’t like buses, and they do like trains, he argues, so if you want middle-class folks to use public transportation, you need to cater to their tastes.

    But I’m not sure middle-class folks like trains more than buses so much as they like the kind of people who sit next to them on the train more than the people who sit next to them on the bus, which presumably has more to do with where the train (versus the bus) goes and how much it costs, not whether it’s on tracks or asphalt.

  3. David Foster says:

    1) “Public transit systems are able to cover 50 percent and more of their expenses out of the fare box.” I’m wondering if this includes capital expenses for the track construction or just operating expenses.

    2) I’ve actually seen it argued that the fixed nature of rail compared to the flexible nature of buses is actually an advantage for rail — because businesses along the route can invest with reasonable certainty that it won’t move.

  4. Borepatch says:

    The problem is that mass transit is almost never more energy efficient. Maybe only New York City — everywhere else, it takes more energy to move a passenger mile by public transport than by car.

    For example, Boston’s T is roughly as energy efficient as single passenger SUVs. The problem is that the load factor is never more than 50% (full trains at rush hour going one way, empty returning trains the other way).

    The Antiplanner writes extensively on this.

    And as to Portland’s new 60% over planned cost system, it seems that only 600 people are using it a day. The amortized capital costs would pay for a new Prius for each of those riders, each year, for 30 years.

    It’s SWPL, nothing more.

  5. Kai Jones says:

    I think a better approach to easing white middle-class people’s fears about buses would be to enforce fares and have a lot of security randomly ride transit. By the way, in Portland it’s the light rail that is scary, because gangs can get on at a stop without paying, rob somebody or sell some drugs, and get off at the next stop without ever encountering a transit employee. Portland doesn’t have any fare enforcement to board or exit light rail, so homeless people and mentally ill people can ride all night and day in a warm dry rail car.

  6. Isegoria says:

    Agreed, mass transit in the US is far from green, but we’ve largely mandated that our cities not be like New York — or Tokyo — where subways can and do operate efficiently. With roads and highways paid for out of general tax revenue — not just gas taxes and tolls — and sprawling parking lots mandated by law, mass transit — with its own high fixed costs — doesn’t have much of a place.

  7. Isegoria says:

    I can see why a city would want want to drop transit fares entirely — buses and trains have low variable costs, and the hassle of collecting tolls isn’t small — but combining that with a guilty-liberal sense that everyone has a right to use the buses and trains creates the worst kind of anarchy, where no one can enforce good behavior. In “less developed” parts of the world — and in our own recent history — the bus-driver or train conductor would have a duty to keep out obvious trouble-makers — and every grown man on the bus or train would be expected to beat down a criminal caught in the act.

  8. Jehu says:

    Isegoria, for that condition to persist, you need a lot higher trust society than we have, particularly in urban areas, specifically this is what you’d need:

    1. The man contemplating intervention has to have the reasonable belief that the law will back him up (or at least not actively work against him).
    2. The man has to have the reasonable belief that the others present would do the same if it was his loved ones in danger.
    3. The man has to believe that enough others have his back to ensure tactical dominance in the encounter.

    When any of these aren’t true, you can’t reasonably expect anyone to stick their neck out for you unless they’re a friend or family, and often not even then. Presently in the US, particularly in big cities, these things are rarely true.

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