Saturday, May 2, 2015

The long game in transit advocacy

While I generally appreciate other transit activists, I’ve criticized plenty of them in the past. Recently I’ve figured out what it is that bothers me most: a lot of them are playing a very short game.

They’re playing up routing improvements and park-and-rides as long as they don't inconvenience drivers, supporting billions of dollars for new roads in exchange for supporting millions of dollars for new buses, promoting a car bridge with the hope of getting a bus lane on it, ignoring existing plans for new subway lines and demanding inadequate bus route plans, complaining about wasteful transit projects with only the barest mention of bloated highway budgets, and declaiming Our Nation's Rotting Infrastructure without setting any priorities for what gets repaired or rebuilt.

All of these strategies reveal an impoverished vision of the world. In this vision, if there is economic equality it means everyone driving to the health food store in their own personal Subaru Wagon – or everyone commuting to work in a packed Transmilenio bus. Wasteful comfort or cheap discomfort.

Usually, the vision is not even that complete. The short game players simply assume that the world will always be dominated by drivers who monopolize the money and the space. Their vision is not compatible with a future where the vast majority gets around by transit. They have no way of dealing with their own success.

What would real success look like? It's not a reworked bus network. It's not an abundant supply of the latest buses. It's not one lane for buses and eight lanes for cars and trucks. It’s not a train tunnel and a highway bridge being built simultaneously with the latest efficient methods. It’s a world where personal motor vehicle use is minimal, and public transit is abundant, safe, comfortable and reliable.

We have to be prepared to put that vision into practice, and that means taking the long view. It means doing some things that may seem inefficient now, but that will pay off in decades. It means taking advantage of the transportation cycle. It means pushing cost-cutters to cut roads, even if that upsets some potential short-term allies. It means pushing big spenders to spend big on transit, even if they waste billions in the process.


arcady said...

Ultimately it's about recognizing the network effects at play here and trying to get those working in transit's favor.

threestationsquare said...

Do you have any success stories about "pushing cost-cutters to cut roads"? Politicians who claim to support "cost-cutting" often turn out to be disingenuous and only really support cutting spending on people they don't like (as you have written about before). I guess Republican opposition was involved in finally killing the Columbia River Crossing, but getting Republicans in New York to oppose something like the Tappan Zee Bridge widening seems hopeless.

Cap'n Transit said...

That's a fair question, Three! I agree that often there's a dishonesty in cost-cutting, but liberals seem to be pathologically incapable of demanding consistency from them.

And often rural right-wingers are happy to cut roads in urban areas if the urbanites are divided over them, as happened with the Major Deegan exit ramp widening in 2009.

threestationsquare said...

Were rural right-wingers involved in that Deegan decision? The coverage you link makes it sound like the state DOT bureaucrats gave in to pressure from Jose Serrano and other Bronx Democrats opposing the project "from the left".

What good is liberals "demanding consistency" from the likes of Christie supposed to do? He wasn't going to get liberal votes anyway, and his voters are quite happy if he comes up with a way to widen the turnpike without raising gas taxes, whatever the excuse. He openly admits that the only reason he favours fare hikes and opposes gas tax hikes is the difference in who pays.

capt subway said...

I would suggest that costs cannot be ignored. The Teabaggers will look at costs - obviously not for highways, but certainly for transit. So we've really got to put our own house in order. If SAS, ESA, etc are costing four times what similar metro projects around the world are costing - including in Western Europe - and taking four times as long to build - then we've got a truly serious problem that really need to be seriously addressed. We're not living in France or Germany or Switzerland. We're spending trillions on BS foreign wars, not to mention the trillions on the war on drugs. Since none of that is going to change any time soon I guess we've got to make transit spending defensible as best we can.

threestationsquare said...

@capt subway: Of course solving the construction cost problem is desirable (though nobody has much idea how to do so). That doesn't necessarily mean opposing overpriced projects; it's not like cancelling ARC helped the problem, and after a few lost years Gateway is now projected to be even more ridiculously expensive.

Do you think lowering transit construction costs would actually make projects that much more defensible politically? Vancouver's TransLink is perhaps the most efficient transit agency in North America and is still about to lose a funding referendum to opponents who apparently think any funding is too much. And on the other hand, some political support for transit projects is based on using them as a source of patronage and jobs, which works best if they're crazily overpriced. In some situations transit gets a fixed share of the budget and cost savings mean more transit gets built, but in other situations savings just mean more money for roads; it's very important to know which is applicable.

neroden@gmail said...

Cap'n Transit: one of the odd dynamics going on in New York now is that the rural right-wingers have basically no power whatsoever.

The state Republican Party's been taken over by the *suburban* right-wingers. Without exception, they are all "big spender" types, and with very few exceptions they're corrupt ("big spend on me, all me"). Perhaps the only way to get their support is to promise that they'll get some of the graft.