Sunday, October 10, 2010

The failure of the left

Yesterday I discussed how conservatives in this country have failed to support transit, despite having excellent reasons why it fits with their own ideology. Today it's the left's turn.

There are lots of liberal, radical, socialist and communist people who support transit, for good reasons. Properly-funded transit can provide access for all, while private car use discriminates against anyone who can't afford a car, gasoline, repairs and insurance. It brings people of different ethnic and class backgrounds together. It pollutes less and uses less energy, and it encourages dense living which is more efficient and less polluting.

There are plenty of conservatives, like this idiot, who see transit as a commie plot. Certainly, if you ask leftists whether they support public transit, you'll almost always get a yes answer. Campaign mailings from Greens and liberal Democrats regularly tout "support for transit."

Unfortunately, that support for transit is often very thin, and when it comes time to go beyond rhetoric and make hard choices, the left often fails. Here are some reasons why your lefty friend totally supports transit, but this case is different, man:

- Distracted by other issues. If a bookstore has an "Environment" or "Green living" section, good luck finding any books about transit there. It's all How You Can Build a Mountaintop Commune out of Old Twist-Ties and Barter Your Organic Gooseberry Jam for Biodiesel at the Contra Dance. Green politicians tend to either be wide-eyed technophiles (if Lovins is wrong, they don't want to be right) or back-to-the-land Luddites, or both at once.

- Conflicting priorities. Subaru wagon liberals may pay lip service to transit, but they still see cars as a tool to liberate and uplift the poor. Thus, they are easily swayed by Richard Brodsky's nonsensical claim that congestion pricing is a regressive tax. When the transit unions demand a wage increase to cover their car payments and their houses in Nassau County despite zero inflation, these liberals support it. They support the Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union when it insists on spending all the transit money on upfront operations instead of capital investments that will bring operating costs down over the long term, because in the long term all these poor people will have cars, right?

- Unrealistic plans and sloppy execution. Rather than focus on the immediate problems and support existing reform efforts, they come up with simplistic ideas like the "People's MTA" and "OurMTA," and then when things turn out to be more difficult than they thought, they give up and go on to some other project.

In the governor's race, we have City Council member Charles Barron, who could have been a real asset to the congestion pricing campaign, but in his best Subaru-wagon fashion he chose to see it as a tax on poor New Yorkers. In fact, the easily distracted Barron rarely says anything about transit or roads, apparently feeling that they have nothing to do with poverty or racial inequality. In September, George Haikalis convinced him to put free transit in his campaign platform. When I pointed out that Barron had opposed congestion pricing, Andrea Bernstein asked him about it, and he quickly distanced himself from the cornerstone of Haikalis's plan, saying that free transit could be funded by "a stock transfer tax or a personal income tax surcharge." So there we have conflicting priorities, distraction and unrealistic plans all rolled into one.

The Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, is much better than Barron. He supports congestion pricing, as well as a number of other measures to restore full funding to transit. But would he follow through, if elected? He also mentions personal rapid transit and direct elections to the MTA board, which are both bad ideas. A campaign letter I got the other day spends five paragraphs talking about the military (at best a minor issue for state government), and only mentions his support for "public transit" twice, each time as one item in a list.

The Left should be transit's strongest support, but people on the left get so distracted by the myriad of green agenda items, try to put every poor person in a car with subsidized gas and roads, and come up with grandiose plans that they abandon almost immediately. Even if they manage to win an election, there's no guarantee that transit will be the better for it. As with the right, it largely depends on the individual candidate, but the various left-wing groups are a huge disappointment.


Alon Levy said...

Outside New York, one major source of leftist opposition to transit is that cars seem like all that there is. If you think of government spending as consisting of just roads, and you want more public works, then you'll want to support more roads. And if you think of the UAW as the cornerstone of the American middle class, you'll want government to help the Big Three, not build transportation that obsoletes them.

EngineerScotty said...

And while we're picking on labor, what about leftist politicians who see the provision of high-paying jobs (rather than the provision of transportation to the public) as one of transit's priorities? Sometimes this can be due to trade-unionist sympathies, sometimes it can be political patronage--but in either case, transit quality suffers.

When the highest paid guy on the bus is usually the driver, you've got a problem.

EngineerScotty said...

One more thing--so long as transit is viewed as of primary benefit to the poor, it will be a political football. For the right wing, this is obvious; but even the left is not immune to kicking the poor. Many Democratic politicians, unfortunately, find disagreements between their constituents (voters), their political donors, and their own beliefs--and when these conflicts occur, it's often the poor that get the shaft.

Poor folk tend not to vote, and seldom donate money (they're poor, after all).

J said...

I think Scotty's point about transit being seen as something for the poor is the main problem. People on the left emphasize this, as well as its environmental benefits, which makes transit an easier target for rightists opposed to "giveaways". Making mobility available to the poor and decreasing CO2 emissions are of course worthy goals, but they ignore some of the other vital purposes of transit, eg. being able to move larger volumes of people and therefore making density possible. They also dismiss anything resembling privatization, even though it is possible for transit systems abroad to make profits and still provide service affordable to the poor.

Bullied Pulpit said...

A while back I got annoyed with this dynamic and wrote a long rambling post about why some public services get shafted when liberals make other goals the priority and why that's a bad thing.

A big part of it focuses on Scotty's point: liberals need to make efficient public service a priority, not well compensated public employees.

(And the transit union post I reference is still not finished. I haven't done much/any writing lately.)