Friday, February 11, 2011

Bureaucrats as a special interest

If you're a transportation geek you're very familiar with AASHTO, which was originally the American Association of State Highway Officials, and only recently included "transportation" in their name. If you've been watching the news recently you may have also noticed the Governors Highway Safety Association (not to be confused with the other GHSA) and the New York State Association of Counties (not to be confused with the other NYSAC).

These organizations have a contradictory and misleading status. They are composed of appointed or elected officials, which may lead some to believe that they represent the public or are fighting for the public interest. In fact, they are private nonprofit organizations, and their agendas often differ from that of the public at large.

The biggest problem is the "Senate" problem: AASHTO and the GHSA give the same representation to Wyoming with its tiny population and tinier transit riding community as it does to Illinois, just like the United States Senate does. The 5,379 people in Hamilton County get the same representation in NYSAC as the 2,465,326 people in Kings County.

These organizations suffer from another "Senate" problem: who gets chosen to represent each state or county. What is the likelihood that Missouri will be represented in AASHTO or the GHSA by a pedestrian advocate from Saint Louis or Kansas City? State and county bureaucracies are often dominated by middle-class suburbanites, often wildly out of proportion to their populations.

When AASHTO argues against cycle tracks, or the GHSA blames the victim for walking, or NYSAC comes out against complete streets, it's important to point out that these are not representative government entities that follow the principle of one person, one vote. They are Senate-type nonprofits that are heavily skewed towards rural and suburban - and thus car-oriented - jurisdictions, and they represent middle-class suburban bureaucrats, not the population at large. They are special interest groups lobbying for money to be spent on their own agencies, and any recommendations they make should be taken with a grain of salt, considering the source.


Unknown said...

"State and county bureaucracies are often dominated by middle-class suburbanites, often wildly out of proportion to their populations."

Do you have any data to back this up, or any insight as to why this may be the case? I mean, in a sense, wouldn't this be a given as a majority of the built environment in a typical metro area in the US is suburban? I'd say that the majority of white collar professionals in any field - within almost any given metro area - are middle-class suburbanites. I'm discounting outliers like NYC and Chicago, mind you.

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, James, I'm specifically talking about New York, so you can't discount it.

Yes, the point is that bureaucrats are white-collar professionals, and they get paid wages that can support a car and a suburban house, because it's hard to argue in favor of the government paying its employees poverty wages.

Unfortunately, these white-collar professionals will often promote the agenda of their own class at the expense of the community at large. Sometimes they honestly don't know they're doing it, and simply assume that "everyone" in their state or county owns a house and a car. Whether they do it consciously or not, it's important to guard against it, which means discounting the statements made by associations of bureaucrats.

Lloyd Brown said...

Hey Cap'n, I can't tell if you have a beef with AASHTO or just the way the world is organized? But look deeper and you will realize that AASHTO supports bicycling and transit, as well as freight movement and economic development.

Just ask the folks from Adventure Cycling about our credentials, We aren't perfect, and there are biases. But we also are not the enemy.

Perhaps the perception that AASHTO is highway centric is accurate in that there are a lot of highway related issues, not the least of which is adequately funding the upkeep and maintenance of our current infrastructure - which, by the way, benefits transit and bicycling and pedestrian activities.

And, for the record, we changed our name to include "transportation, in 1973. That was not very recent at all. Kind of like thinking that AASHTO is only for highways, right?