Monday, November 9, 2009

Us, them and future us

As I've written before, in politics it makes a big difference whether a proposed government tax or expenditure is perceived as being for "us" or "them." Voters tend to resist a tax on "us" that isn't going to be spent on "us." They support initiating or continuing subsidies for "us," and oppose subsidies for "them." One reason I'm interested in privately run transit is precisely because it's not as dependent on this kind of identification.

One of the reasons I live in New York is that as the least car-dependent city in the US, it gives me the best chance of living among people who share and support my chosen lifestyle. But even though we're majority car-free, and an overwhelming majority commute without cars, we still get politicians taking positions that favor driving and ignore transit. Part of this is because of the disconnect between the political class and the rest of the city, which can be blamed on the corruption and patronage that undermine democracy here.

Corruption is only part of the problem, though. All over the city you get people without drivers' licenses nodding their heads when John Liu says that bridge tolls were a way of "inhibiting people from Queens and Brooklyn from transportation into Manhattan." People who don't own cars cheerfully voted for people like Bill Thompson, who seemed to always find a way to be on the pro-car side of any transportation issue. People who never take their cars out of the garage complain about the perceived shortage of parking. You also get the craven "elitist" label thrown at anyone who favors bicycles, despite the fact that they cost a lot less than cars.

All these people - the non-drivers, the non-car-owners, the infrequent drivers - benefit from pro-transit and pro-walking policies. Why would they support politicians who attack these policies? Why would they vote for people who support pro-car policies that wind up coming back to hurt them?

I think the answer is that all these people think of themselves as drivers, or as potential drivers. Even if they never take the car out of the garage, they still might do it some day. Even if they don't own a car, they might be able to afford one some day. Even if they don't have a license, they might get one some day. That possibility is important to them.

I don't need to tell you that to most people around the world, cars represent mobility and freedom. More than that, they represent affluence and status. They are even associated with hard work and maturity, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In terms of status, symbols are not only confused with reality, they are often more important than reality. A car that makes it look like you earn a hundred thousand dollars a year is better for making connections (and getting laid) than actually earning a hundred grand, because most people don't actually go around flashing their W-2 forms. Those connections, in turn, can do more to get you to the point of earning 150 grand than you would get from earning a hundred grand.

I think this is why so many people get touchy whenever they hear about policies that could make it harder to drive in the city. Even if I don't own a Lexus, I might still be upset that I wouldn't be able to drive a Lexus down Broadway if I ever got one. They don't care that most people who can afford an Escalade can afford to pay $8 a day to drive it over the bridge, because they can imagine borrowing enough to get an Escalade but not enough to pay the tolls.

This is, of course, deeply irrational, and you can't argue with it. What we can do is to recognize that desire for status, and for the expression and acknowledgment of that status, and understand how anything that puts that expression in jeopardy is a threat. All we can do is offer alternatives.

We can't really make the bus or the subway glamorous (although you're welcome to try). What we can do is point to alternative status markers and reassure people that those markers will be just as valid as any car.

Isn't it enough to have the latest Armani suit, or gold watch, or luxury condo? To have dinner at the haute restaurant of the moment? Why do people feel that their package of status markers isn't complete without the SUV?


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

People don't vote for Bill Thompson because of his views on transportation - they vote for him as someone against Bloomgberg's assault on democracy. While I'd say that your analysis is true on some level, I'd say it's definitely incomplete as to why people vote for some politicians over others. While Bloomberg has done some things for transit, he has, regretfully, decreased the amount the city pays to the MTA each year.

arcady said...

You can make the subway or bus glamorous, but there's no incentive to try. The basic message for the marketing campaign would be a rich person saying "we have a word for people who drive cars: chauffeur". Make driving seem like the chore that it is, and get people to realize that the auto industry has fooled them into doing this for no pay, Tom Sawyer style.

Unknown said...

I think you are right on the money with this post. For people who grew up working class or lower middle class in the deep outer boroughs, cars can represent a sort of "escape pod" from dependence on a transit system that may or may not adequately serve their needs in their particular part of the city. They are an easy and natural constituency for anti-transit demagogues like Ruben Diaz, Sr., Bill Thompson, and the like.

Allan said...

this comes back to the vibe that comes from NYC -- the city is telling you "you could have more money". Its not this way everywhere, but the almighty dollar has a lot of power in New York.

Alon Levy said...

It's not a status marker. It's an idea of what it means to be middle class in America. The populism that surrounds car culture in New York isn't the sort of market populism promoted by Republicans; it's middle- and lower-middle-class populism promoted by Democrats.

The issues surrounding it aren't even about cars. They're about resentment of Bloomberg and of new urbanism, which is perceived to cater predominantly to yuppies and gentrifiers. Even pro-congestion pricing groups like DMI have blasted Plan NYC for ignoring housing affordability and general equity issues.

The part about the political class is different. I'm not sure about John Liu, but Weiner represents a car-dependent district with unusually conservative leanings by city standards, voting Obama by only a 55-45 margin. When it doesn't screw his constituents, Weiner can be pro-urban: he proposed a commuter tax version of bridge tolling for an MTA bailout.

Cap'n Transit said...

With regard to the political class, I was thinking of people like Hakeem Jeffries and Ruben Diaz.

If having a car isn't a status marker, why do New Yorkers with cars look down on their neighbors who don't?

Alon Levy said...

Jeffries and Diaz seem like New York's answer to Clay Davis on The Wire. Their political beliefs have nothing to do with what anyone else thinks, unless he can give them money.

jazumah said...

I do not fully agree.

The problem is that the bridge money is going into the general fund. Our idea is that transportation money should go into transportation to reduce the impact of rising costs. The politicians are actively trying to cash out of mass transit by asking the MTA to run services it cannot afford to run without compensating them as well as to us every new source of funds to replace their subsidy dollar for dollar.

People HATE government cash grabs. As it stands now, there is a possibility of a 2010 fare hike because Albany can't stop burning money to stay warm. This is after a 10% fare hike this year and a 5% hike the year before.

Yes, I do drive in the city when needed. When I am in a hurry, I look for a toll bridge. So I don't have a problem with tolls per se.