A Conservative Case for Mass Transit

No reason that conservatives can’t learn to love transit, too…

by James A. Bacon

A new paper published by the conservative Free Congress Foundation makes the connection between mass transit and the economic vitality of American regions. Author Michael S. Bronzini, with George Mason University, argues that mass transit is needed to support a population shift back to walkable urban communities, which is being driven by the economics of the knowledge economy and the spread of popular urban design concepts such as planned communities and New Urbanism.

For the first time since World War II, Bronzini notes, Americans are driving less. The shift reflects the rising cost of automobile ownership and long-term demographic trends and preferences. “Metropolitan transportation investment is needed to support urban revitalization,” he writes in, “Transportation and the Economic Health and Attractiveness of Metropolitan Regions.”

Shifting urban housing and travel choice patterns, the increasing difficulty of building new major urban highways, and increasing urban population density mean that  much new transportation investment will be in public transportation systems.

Investments in public transportation will have a broad array of social and economic benefit, including direct cost savings by riders, congestion cost savings for those driving on urban roadways, and improved business productivity and growth. Transit also helps to sustain and increase property values, and there is some evidence to suggest that cities with good public transportation fare better during economic downturns.

Bronzini does a fine job of summarizing a wide range of thinking and literature on the connection between transportation and regional vitality, and for the most part I found his reasoning impeccable. My quibble with his paper is that not the topics he addresses but those that he leaves out.

I agree entirely that mass transit is desirable infrastructure for U.S. regions of a certain size and density (roughly speaking, the 50 largest regions in the country), and that the benefits Bronzini describes are real. I even agree with his broad conclusion that greater investment in mass transit is a necessity. What Bronzini does not tell us in this paper is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which mass transit projects should we invest in? And how do we pay for them?

Without further elaboration, Bronzini’s point of view differs little from that of liberals, progressives and pragmatists who are happy to lavish money indiscriminately upon transit on the grounds that transit, generically speaking, is socially and economically beneficial. The problem is that mass transit, as currently structured in the United States, is not financially self-supporting and represents an ongoing drain on the public treasury. The same can be said of roads and highways, of course. But fiscal malpractice in one does not justify fiscal malpractice in the other.

Any cry for more spending on mass transit must be accompanied by an insistence that all transportation projects — roads, rail, transit — compete on a level playing field, which means implementing a user/beneficiary-pays financing system for both that that covers capital construction, operations and maintenance. In effect, we would build only projects for which there is a demonstrated market demand. Conservative embrace of mass transit also should acknowledge that the current mass-transit model is broken and its successful implementation requires reform of land use policies, urban design, labor featherbedding practices, political interference on route structures, counterproductive federal regulation and other ills.

Hopefully, those are themes that Mr. Bronzini and/or the Free Congress Foundation intend to develop in future studies.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


20 responses to “A Conservative Case for Mass Transit”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    OK, fine, so mass transit in a more densely populated urban area can help GDP growth. In some cases. Not others. I know of plenty of neighborhoods in Brooklyn where I lived for four years that went in the other direction. There was ample and cheap public (rail) transport but it made no difference if the core businesses in the areas served go bad. Try taking the F train. Or, go to Chicago where I lived for two years. Ditto the elevated had great service but there were also plenty of areas served that went to hell int he 1950s and stayed there.
    Also, I don’t know why the author has to spend so much time trying to cast good planning with “conservative” values, whatever those are. He then says that of course “liberals” share the same public transit support, except that they are somehow more free spending (no examples, though).
    Why do you have to put a “conservative” mantle on this?.

  2. The reason I put a “conservative” mantle on mass transit is that most conservatives are hostile to mass transit. Liberals don’t need to be converted. Conservatives do.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    How about “intelligent” versus “non-intelligent.”

  4. accurate Avatar

    Can’t STAND mass transit – yes, it’s useful when the distance is too far to walk and when weather or traffic conditions rule out biking, but that’s about it. Mass transit takes too long, messes with one’s schedule, typically doesn’t run to where you want/need it to run to. And the people that you have to deal with who are sharing the ride with you, all too often leave MUCH to be desired (body odor, listening to and or singing music that you’d rather not listen to, holding discussions which you’d rather not be a part of, etc). Okay, got that off my chest – my lord, they are a mess.

    I stated that, because first, I believe it. Second, because I’m reading the tripe about “walkable” neighborhoods. It occurred to me, the other day as I was WALKING my dog, in an entirely walkable neighborhood (complete with tons of cul-de-sacs) that I really don’t know/understand what Jim keeps referring to when he talks about a walkable neighborhood. Like I said, my neighborhood is totally walkable, with sidewalks (and even some trails) everywhere. What can’t I do – well, I could EVEN walk to the store if I were so inclined, they built a Walmart about a mile from my house, again the streets and sidewalks are there. However, I don’t like going to the store every day or even every other day. If I actually had to carry home (via walking or a bus) the items that I bought, it would severely limit what I could buy and how much. No, I’d MUCH rather go to the store once a week or so and stock up. Get a bunch of produce, meats, bread and whatever else I need, DRIVE to my home, park in the garage and tote my week plus of goods into my house. Let’s see, I guess walkable is suppose to also refer to other shops (coffee shops, art shops, etc) but in that mode, I’m consuming and spending. I spend with a purpose and a plan, I really can’t afford to just go out and drop in here and get a bite to eat or get a coffee when the mood hits, sorry, my budget doesn’t allow for that. Oh, and we’re all suppose to be able to WALK to work – um, some folks don’t work in areas or industries that lend themselves to that. My work is at the airport, typically the area around the airport isn’t very resident friendly (nor is it suppose to be) and even if it was, I’d rather not live with plane engines making noise over my house (I have more than enough of that at work).

    So what am I missing? Or what are you getting at that someplace has to be walkable Jim? And don’t get me started on living in your 300 square foot apartment, my 2500 square foot house is MUCH more comfortable. Walkable, I just don’t get it.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      There is a lot of truth to what Accurate says.

      And for sure that sentiment is held by many people today, and in growing numbers. And I am speaking as one who lives within easy walking distance of a subway Metro stop, indeed, as one who moved out the suburbs and into the city in order to be within walking distance of a subway stop.

      In addition, I am beginning to question whether our society on the level it currently functions is capable of responsibly designing, building and maintaining large scale mass transit projects.

      When I combine these two concerns I wonder about the viability of Mass Transit realistically, absent our finding ways to fix these twin problems.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Maybe the better term would be more walkable. When I worked in Tyson’s I had to take my car to eat lunch. In Reston everybody walked to lunch. When I lived in Vienna (va), my kids and I would walk to restaurants to eat.

      In all those locations I had a car. Used it almost everyday. But, I drove less than I drive now.

      More walkable is better than less walkable.

      Where Jim goes off the rails is when he implies you wouldn’t need to own a car. I’ve lived that way in Manhattan and Chicago. Couldn’t imagine living that way anywhere in Virginia.

    3. Accurate, I can understand why you like your big house and your auto-centric lifestyle. That’s fine for you. I don’t advocate anything that would take that away from you. I have never suggested that more compact, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods were for everyone. What I am saying is that there is considerable demand for walkable, transit-friendly communities that is not being met by the marketplace. And the reason the marketplace is not meeting that demand is that land use is so bound up with zoning codes, regulations and subsidies.

      I am making a conservative-libertarian argument for allowing developers more latitude to build the kinds of communities people want. If they had that latitude, I think they would build more compact, walkable, transit-friendly places than is being built today. If I’m wrong — if that’s not what people want — then I’m OK with that, too. I believe in letting the market decide, not antiquated planning practices.

      What I sense from you is that you’re so hostile to walkable, transit-friendly communities on a personal level (which is OK) that you would deny other people the ability to live in those communities (which is not OK). Your hostility to walkable, transit-friendly communities sounds like social-engineering in reverse. You’re saying that other people must live like you do.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Don the Ripper,
    Brings me back to Brooklyn where I lived for a few years with a couple of infants. Worked inMidtown Manhattan and commuted by subway.
    No car for two years. Any idea what diapers cost in crowded Brooklyn where the only stores are Key Foods run by Dominican thugs or the ridiculously overpriced but clean bodegas run by Koreans? Don’t even bother.
    The only place to get discount diapers was Toys R Us way way down on the Belt Parkway accessible only by car. My dear parents in North Carolina took pity and gave us a used car.
    And then our real problems started….But that’s a story for another blog posting.

    1. Peter brings up a good point that’s habitually neglected by the smart growth enthusiasts — mass transit can save you money in transportation expenses thanks to dumping the car, but then you’re captive to the small retail establishments nearby — and they are really expensive. Financially, is it worth the trade-off? I don’t know. But I’d prefer living in a city where automobility is a practical option. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d function without at least one car in the family.

      To address Don’s earlier point, I don’t expect many households to live totally car free. But a city with good mass transit would make it possible to live with only one car — to use in running the kind of errands Peter was talking about.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        “But a city with good mass transit would make it possible to live with only one car … “.

        Maybe. But the only way to get good mass transit without a lot of government subsidies is to have a population density that doesn’t exist anywhere in Virginia.

        Anyway, we are debating on the extreme fringes. I’ll leave that to the RPV. Away from the fringes:

        1. The communities where we live (whether NoVa, Richmond or Tidewater) could almost all be better designed.

        2. People want to live in more walkable / more bikable communities.

        3. Trading car time for walk time or bike time is beneficial in many ways, including citizen happiness.

        4. Capabilities like Zip car may make the need to own multiple cars less and less important within more walkable communities.

        5. The big issue seems to be apathy toward the question of human settlement patterns at all levels of government.

        6, In NoVa, the free market is starting to address this need by focusing on building the mixed use communities (aka more walkable communities) that their customers are demanding. I don’t know the situation in Richmond or Tidewater.

        1. I’m dumfounded — I agree with all six of your propositions!

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            The Don’s walking his road to Damascus, it appears.

  6. In Virginia, transportation has very little to do with the effective, efficient and safe movement of persons and things, and everything to do with enriching land speculators. Dulles Rail was initially about bringing Metrorail to Dulles Airport. The median in the Dulles Access Road was left wide and unused to accommodate a rail line. The original plan did not contemplate going through Tysons. Putting rail through Tysons increased the costs substantially and will enable certain landowners to make hundreds of millions in profits by developing their land to urban levels, with most of the rail costs borne by DTR users.

    Even then, the original plan for Rail thru Tysons called for three stations. Then Fairfax County BoS Chairman Gerry Connolly, who was also a vice president of SAIC, added a fourth station right in front of SAIC’s Tysons building. And who is paying most of the added costs for the fourth station? DTR drivers.

    The N-S Corridor provides no traffic relief, does not make an air transport business, but does have the potential of opening more land to development. Who will pay? The land speculator? Of course not. Taxpayers will pay.

    Feel free to add stanzas to this epic poem of taxpayer rip-off.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Well stated, and right on target.

  7. A small point in the original article.

    American VMT declined during both the 1970s oil embargoes and kicked off this time in 2008-9 when gasoline prices spiked. To reverse the growth in VMT, most other democracies on the planet tax gasoline/diesel heavily to “push” drivers toward using mass transit or bike/ped as a first option and are producing other programs designed to push drivers out of cars. In Europe, taxes are 200 t0 400 percent the cost of importing the oil to refine into gasoline while in America the federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents, unchanged since 1993.

    Here, our governor just tried to eliminate the gasoline tax and did get it changed from a per gallon to a percentage of wholesale while charging high mileage vehicles, like hybrids, an extra charge.

    The smartest thing that either/and federal or state governments could do would be to implement a rational gasoline taxing program. The Victoria Transportation Policy Institute a couple yeas ago analyzed the externalities (or unrecovered costs) and calculated that American society is paying 56 cents for every mile we individuals drive and in 2006 the National Defense Council’s Milton Couplus calculated primarily the defense and lost economics of our low gasoline prices and suggested that Americans should be charged an additional $10.06 in gasoline taxes at the federal level.

    We Americans complain bitterly about the high cost of gasoline BUT we have the second lowest average auto fuel prices (including taxes) in the entire OECD. Only massive oil exporter Mexico has lower overall prices. In addition, at $3.10 per gallon, against average incomes we’re paying almost exactly what our great, great grandparents paid for gasoline in the 1920s when there was no tax.

    Meanwhile, many of us complain bitterly about the subsidies for mass transit, forgetting that according to the National Surface Transportation and Revenue Study, American governments (state, fed and local) subsidize roads and driving to the tune of $145 billion annually against $39.5 billion for transit. We forget that during the first round of the Obama stimulus, he — a so-called “green” president — gave $28 billion for road versus $8 billion for transit (most squandered on high-speed rail planning) with bike-ped getting less than $400 million.

    We forget that federal dollars can NOT be used in transit operating budgets and must buy capital equipment with the locals matching Uncle Sam dollar for dollar. Roads? Uncle Sam puts up three dollars for every local dollar so of course local planners/policy makers lean towards more roadways.

    This issue is so bad that many transit firms used some of the $8 billion stimulus to buy buses which they then had to warehouse because in 2009, according the Amalgamated Transit Union, over 5,000 drivers were laid off nationwide.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      How much would a mile cost if driven in an electric car powered by electricity generated from american made natural gas?

      A lot of these high cost / mile estimates allocate a large part of the US Defense Dept budget to driving under the theory that the US military exists, in large part, to protect the free flow of oil.

      Tomorrow, Tesla Motors will put a demo of their battery swapping approach on their web site.

      Recharging is perhaps the last impediment to a systematic take-up of all electric vehicles. Recharging technology is improving very rapidly. You can get 3 hours of drive time with a 30 minute charge now. While that still is much worse than filling up with gasoline it is much better than it was just a few years ago. With battery swapping the advent of lots of all-electric cars may be accelerated.

      There is nothing wrong with driving. Nothing. If the issue is pollution than electric cars powered by electricity made at natural gas burning electric plants is a very big step forward in that direction. If the costs of roads are the issue than charge people by the mile driven (using the actual costs of the roads on which the driving is done). But also reduce other taxes that are now used to pay for transportation.

      I believe that most anti-driving people are actually anti-sprawl advocates. Unfortunately, anti-sprawl starts to get very loose with people’s property rights.

  8. larryg Avatar

    re: “carless” in a trans/ped settlement pattern.

    I’m not sure why we keep acting like we are striving to achieve something like this as if it’s new and never before been tried.

    Places like New York City, no doubt have the highest percent of “carless” folks but even New York City (and others similar) with their massive and mature transit systems has lots of housing with on-street or driveway parking and my bet is that we’re never going to see a higher percentage of “carless” than those places already at their nadir with respect to transit and ped options.

    The other aspect not really addressed in the “carless”/transit condundrum is cabs. NYC is filthy with cabs as the other very necessary part of a ped/transit place. Without those cabs, what would NYC be ? Well, I think it would be like Cairo or some other 3rd world city – not some Smart Growth “mecca”.

    My view is this – within our advocacies – we need to be pragmatic about the realities. There are reasons why all the locals around places like NYC are as auto-centric as NoVa …

    The other thing is that places like NYC are expensive, in part, because of the cost of operating transit INCLUDING the cost of private-sector cabs.

    When we talk of Smart Growth/TOD – how do we have that vision in a reasonable context with places like NYC, Chicago, etc that are far, far down that road (pun intended) compared to Tysons or even Arlington?

    Jim says “Conservative” but Bronzini specifically uses that loony left surrogate phrase for taxes – “investments” so I’d kinda like to hear Jim
    explain HIS view of the DIFFERENCE between taxes for transit and “investments” in transit.

    By the way, FYI – three things about the Fed gas tax:

    1. – it’s STILL tax per gallon
    2. – there is discussion in Congress about the fact that the Feds currently
    spend twice as much on transportation as the Fed gas tax brings in.

    3. when you talk “transit” in most places, it heavily depends on Fed money including the part they take from the general fund to subsidize the shortfall in the Fed gas tax revenues.

    Now if Congress does the same thing to the Fed gas tax that they did to the Flood Insurance Program – my guess is that it will then become up to the cities and regions to decide how much of the transit costs that the Fed will drop – that they will pick up.

    that’s what a real honest “conservative” approach to transit is – and that’s why I’d like to hear from a Conservative here what the difference is between a tax-funded transit and a govt investment transit. 😉

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    One hopes that the serious people in Smart Growth movement would pause, take a deep breath, and open their minds to the mix of comments set forth in the above commentary on the essential and intelligent place of the automobile in the mix of ingredients for Smart Growth’s success.

    Without such an opening of the mind on the part of Smart Growth proponents, I’m confident that Smart Growth will fail to deliver the practical benefits in needs to succeed in meeting is promises.

    And, in addition, I am almost certain that Smart Growth will fail the garner the support it needs from the American people to have a real chance at success. Either of such failures would be unnecessary and tragic.

  10. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Corrections in caps to 2nd to last paragraph:
    “Without such an opening of the mind on the part of Smart Growth proponents, I’m confident that Smart Growth will fail to deliver the practical benefits IT needs to succeed in meeting IT’S promises.”

  11. larryg Avatar

    I still ask – is New York City a model for “smart growth” or not?

    I get the impression that “smart growth” is something new and different from the kind of growth we already see in places like New York, Chicago, etc.

    we need to better calibrate what Smart Growth is – and is not – relative to the existing urban growth models that we already have.

    Is Tysons supposed to end up looking like a New York City or a Chicago or an Arlington or something else?

    We talk about these things – not in specifics but conceptually and in vague whether than precise terms…. sometimes….

    there was no doubt in E.M. Risse’s mind though but it was anything but a “conservative” view. To his credit he saw it as a top-down centrally-directed process – not a “free-market” “conservative” process.

Leave a Reply