Monday, May 2, 2011

Swinging with the pendulum

If you're an economist (possibly The Economist), or an infrastructurist (possibly The Infrastructurist), or if you care about the Transport Politic, you might be upset about the lack of funding for transit. And there are good reasons to be. From a Keynesian perspective, less government spending on anything means continued high unemployment. And new transit construction is just cool. Yonah Freemark also argues that new transit must be built to keep up with population increases.

For those reasons, "transportation advocates" like Ryan Avent, Yonah Freemark, Jarrett Walker and Aaron Renn have continued to press for more spending, more spending, more spending, and to get upset when Congress and state governments cut budgets. I'm sympathetic, but I think the despair is completely unwarranted, and I'm getting pretty sick of the obsession with building more more MOAR! as though that's the only thing that matters. This approach is not working. We need to take a very different approach - one that you may have seen a bit in my past posts.

If you support transit because you care about global warming, or asthma, or carnage, or the social effects of sprawl, or conserving energy. Even if you care about equal access to jobs, services, housing and shopping, more transit is not always better. I've talked about this before, and people haven't really picked up on it. Maybe because I'm not being clear enough, or maybe because they think I'm being a nut. Still, let me try to be as clear as I can.

For pollution, efficiency, carnage, obesity and social issues, what matters is the mode share. Mode share is dependent on relative capital investment, not absolute spending. The government can build all the transit we want and it won't boost mode share, if it builds more roads than transit.

It follows, then that it doesn't matter how much transit funding is cut, as long as road funding is cut more. If they build the ARC tunnel and replace the Tappan Zee, the Kosciuszko, the Goethals and the Pulaski Skyway, then overall that's a net increase in car capacity. If they don't build the ARC tunnel or the replacement Tappan Zee, Kosciuszko, Goethals and Pulaski, then overall it's a net decrease in car capacity.

Transit advocates always have to fight people who want more money for roads. When the government is spending money, transit advocates have allies in the people who want to spend money. A winning strategy is to get the government to spend more on building transit than on building roads.

There are some people who honestly want to cut the budgets, right or wrong. The current political mood favors them. Let's take advantage of that. They want to cut the budget, fine! Cut the road building budget more than you cut the transit building budget, and I'm happy. Cutting the road budget will help the poor too, because it will force employers to move closer to population centers and become more transit-oriented.

It's absolutely true that the Republicans in power are mostly complete fucking hypocrites. For all their budget-cutting posturing, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels are spending boatloads of cash on new roads and wider roads. Transit advocates should take advantage of that, as Ben Kabak is doing. At best, you get more cuts in the road-building budget. At worst, you tarnish their budget-cutting reputations and get to call them out as hypocrites in the next election.

If you really care about pollution, efficiency, carnage, obesity, society and equality, you need to stop wasting your energy fighting the forces of austerity. The pendulum will swing back eventually. We need to swing with it, to use its energy to bring down the Tappan Zee, the Kosciuszko, the Goethals and the Pulaski. Then when it swings back, we'll have that many more transit riders ready to support train tunnels.


George K said...

Maybe with gas prices approaching $5 per gallon, I'm sure there are going to be fewer people driving, so those increases in capacity might be deemed unnecessary, and might end up being cut/postponed anyway.

Either that, or at least if those bridges are rebuilt, they'll be rebuilt at the current or lesser levels of capacity, rather than have an expansion of capacity.

Yokota Fritz said...

In California, most highway spending bond initiatives are couched in terms of "transportation." In other words, the real purpose is to raise $X billion for a new highway, but a few million will be thrown in for transit and other enhancement programs as well. The effect is almost always to maintain or increase the share of spending on highways while claiming to support non-highway transportation.

George K said...

The thing that I at least give the planners for is setting aside additional space for transit (the Tappan Zee and Goethals Bridges have plans for bus/rail lanes). Of course, I think they're going overboard with the number of car lanes.

mike said...

These projects are also about truck traffic. If the bridges continue to deteriorate, at some point there will be a truck ban and everyone will suffer.

John said...

This argument only makes sense in an environment where there is enough spare transit capacity to accommodate the higher mode share. This may be true in smaller and mid-sized cities, but in large cities like NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco, it seems that peak hour services are already very crowded. You can't cut the budget and still provide enough service for everyone who wants to ride transit.

Cap'n Transit said...

Oh! You guys got me. You're right, Mike, how could I not think of the fact that drivers always threaten us with the loss of freight capacity? I'm such a muddle-headed transit advocate!

John, your argument only makes sense if you've got a priority that's higher than reducing pollution and carnage, improving health, society and efficiency, and promoting fairness. What priority might that be?

Douglas A. Willinger said...

"... bring down the Tappan Zee, the Kosciuszko, the Goethals and the Pulaski"

Ahhh. Guilt out the impressionable young college studnest to believe that technology is static, that the are no alternatives to petro, and increase conjestion, and pollution by taking out valuable river crossings -- including a non contigious BQE?

It's a great way to dumb down the public to accept the obscene Pentagon- an entity that does not care a rats's ass about roads, evacuation routes nor civil defense.

Take out the Tappan Zee- and leave NO road links accross the Hudson River between the GW Bridge and Bear Mountain with its attrocious Westchester approach roads.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yeah, that's about what it boils down to, Doug. Except that I do believe we should replace that lost road capacity with rail capacity.

In your worldview there is no induced demand. Who's dumbing down the public?

By the way, Doug, are you here to have an actual discussion where you listen to what other people say, or will I have to delete your comments?

Douglas A. Willinger said...

How are you serving rail by eliminating the Tappan Zee Bridge crossing, rather then including rail in the replacement spans?

That would be more anti-highway than pro transit: a conclusion I likewise have, in a mirror image version, with - alas -- Reason and CATO

They spend their efforts decrying rail. But they DON'T promote the needed highway links (such as I-287 to 135 Long Island Sound Crossing and Cross Brooklyn-Bay Tunnel), nor Washington, D.C.'s incompleted I-395 at NY Ave. [Though to their credit they at least give some lip service for ending some aspects of the cigarette mercantilism].

IMHO it's no accident that the lamestream jesuitical 'intelligensia'that gets many people to support ideals to serve fewer people, serving existing technologies.

Cap'n Transit said...

You're not getting it, Doug. I'm not serving rail. Either rail is serving my goals or it's not.