Sunday, July 18, 2010

Consensus through democracy

Last week I talked about consensus, with some good comments by Bruce and Alon. Consensus is how getting people out of their cars translates into stable government support for transit.

In order to build a consensus in favor of transit, you have to understand what people want, and convince the majority that transit can help them get it. You also have to convince a sizable minority that transit at least won't stand in the way of what they want. Those are hard things to do.

One way to get ideas out to people and work towards consensus is democracy. Some people confuse consensus and democracy, but they're not the same. We don't really have to imagine democracy without consensus; I would bet that most of us have had to put up with some half-baked government initiative that somehow got voted into law, like free Sunday parking.

We can also imagine consensus without democracy, for example with an enlightened monarch who manages to listen to everyone. It's not very likely, though; as Churchill observed, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Autocrats are generally pretty bad at listening to other people, and so are oligarchs. My main point is that democracy doesn't guarantee you consensus; it's just a helpful way to get there.

Okay, so consensus is the best way to get stable support for transit, and we don't have consensus yet. Does that mean that we should focus on nothing but building consensus, and reject any transit initiative that is not built on consensus? Emphatically no.

The road-builders are still building. In some cases they pretty much have a consensus (has anyone heard a peep against adding general-purpose lanes to the Kosciuszko?), and in some cases (like the Tappan Zee Bridge) they are forging ahead without a consensus. Every square foot of "free" road and bridge, every new parking space, makes it easier to drive and harder to build a consensus around transit.

We can certainly work hard to bring drivers into the pro-transit consensus, but it's much easier to get people to support transit if they actually use it, if they think of transit users as "us," and not "them." Every mile of rail, every vehicle-mile of bus service, brings us closer to a pro-transit consensus.

Now here's the key, and I hope you're still reading: these short-term actions that improve the transit network and/or make driving harder or more expensive, and thus help to build a long-term pro-transit consensus do not themselves have to be done through consensus. Sure, it would be better if they were, but let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

1 comment:

Alon Levy said...

Autocrats can sometimes create consensus, by making all other possibilities seem infeasible. A good example is roads in the US, which were a consensus form of spending starting after World War Two and ending only in the last few years. The prewar impetus for roads was a combination of grassroots populist activism and industry-funded astroturf, but the people who built roads were almost always dictators. Robert Moses is just the best-known example; he was far from the only autocrat. Often, the transit-to-roads shift came about with obscure rules, for example the requirement in Denver that streetcars pay 25-50% of road maintenance costs.

The ongoing unraveling of the road consensus also provides us with an example of how consensus can break down when people see alternatives and like them. Of course, in parts of urban America there was never a pro-road consensus. Now rural and suburban America has in part decided to go with building rail - not out of consensus, yet, as much as out of belief that LRT and HSR are the new federal fads as well as annoyance with traffic jams. This should be an example suggesting ways not only to build consensus but also to maintain it.

Finally, in Switzerland, there is one major political force that does not accept the consensus, namely the Swiss People's Party. While the party's main ideology is nativism, it is also ruralist and pro-highway. This partly mirrors the urban challenge to road dominance in the US: in both cases, the challenge comes from constituencies that feel disenfranchised under the old consensus. In Switzerland, it's rural dwellers who feel threatened by the urban acceptance of minorities; in the US, it's minorities and some white urbanites who feel the suburban consensus is whitewashing America's diversity (it's unmistakable in Paul Krugman).