Sunday, June 6, 2010

Glamour + politics = subsidies

Recently in the blogosphere there's been some debate about the importance of glamour in promoting transit, cycling and walking. As I wrote yesterday, the doubters do have a point: when it comes to Habits, value beats glamour. A bus that shows up frequently and reliably and gets you there cheaper and faster than driving will have lots of riders. However, when it comes to Investments, glamour will often win out. Because glamour is at its core an escape fantasy, it prompts people to buy impractical cars and houses, take inconvenient jobs and put their kids in awkwardly located schools.

There's an even bigger way that glamour has an outsize impact on mode choice: taxation and subsidies. Many bloggers and authors have pointed out that if transportation were not subsidized at all, transit would have an advantage, or at least the playing field would be a lot more level. It's quite likely that the construction of the "free" Interstates 78, 80 and 280 in New Jersey contributed to the bankruptcy of Transport of New Jersey, not to mention the Erie Lackawanna and Lehigh Valley railroads.

When it comes to subsidies, I've suggested that if transit is more Efficient than driving, if people's Demand for a mode is based on the access it provides, and if the subsidies are based on demand, we would expect a continuous shift to transit. But people's Demand for a mode is based on a lot more than access, or Value, and a lot of that is Glamour.

Social psychologist Harold Mendelsohn seems to be the first to have observed that people "vote their aspirations more than their dispositions." The usually insipid David Brooks popularized the idea in 2003. And what are aspirations if not glamour?

Just as working-class people voted against high taxes for the rich because they hoped that they might some day be rich, many working-class Brooklynites didn't support charging people to drive a car into Manhattan because they hoped that someday they (or their children) would drive cars into Manhattan. They support highway expansion and sprawl-inducing lending practices because they hope that one day they will be driving to the McMansions.

So no, glamour does not directly affect people's Habits. It does, however, affect a single Trip, and more importantly their Investments, and their support for Subsidies. This has important implications for the way that transit, cycling and walking are marketed, and I'll get into those in later posts.


Phil said...

It,s not about glamor, it's about placement. Just like Coke , Pepsi, Proctor & Gamble pay a small fortune to get placement in movies and super markets, (not to mention tobacco companies), sustainable transportation needs to work on placement. Make it part of the lifestyle and they will follow.

Phil H.

Cap'n Transit said...

Uh... sure, placement can be a valuable tool to build awareness and create positive feelings, but that doesn't negate the role of glamour in motivating mode choices.

George K said...

The thing about the Brooklynites who voted against tolling the bridges is that they didn't consider that, in the future, they might be driving across the bridges, but currently, they are taking mass transit. They considered the long term needs of one day having to drive over the short term need of needing more public transportation options or needing whatever services that could be expanded or saved as a result of tolling the bridges.

BruceMcF said...

Of course, this suggests that a clever transit planner would push for glamorous projects that also help less glamorous projects.

One example is using the need of Higher Speed Intercity Rail for downtown stations as part of its mix to invest in rail infrastructure that can be used by faster local rail.

A second example is building a dedicated streetcar corridor so that it can also be used as an express busway.