Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

Mass transit in the suburbs is hard to accomplish but one of the biggest advantages of establishing mass transit now is that it can help shape future suburbia. Yet, a number of commentators mass transit efforts are folly even as they ignore how the suburban decentralized landscape came about. Example #1:

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners’ fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public’s behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best…

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an “if we build it, they will come” model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Example #2:

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

The suburban landscape based on driving and single-family homes did not come about organically or naturally; it was the result of government support (presidential statements, highway construction, socialized mortgages) and American ideologies. And it developed in nearly a century and a half from railroad suburbs to streetcar suburbs to mass-produced suburbs accessible by car.

Thus, I find the arguments against mass transit spending a bit strange. The suburbs occurred at least in part through direct intervention (what could be called social engineering) and over a long period of time. If planners and others wanted to change suburbia for the future, the elements of time and intervention would also be necessary. Mass transit construction in suburbs today may be much less about current results and instead about setting up an infrastructure that enables more suburban density and mass transit possibilities in the future.

All of this does not necessarily mean that planners and others want to destroy everything about suburbs. Higher densities in suburbs do seem attractive to a number of communities and residents as it allows for more housing options, more street life, and using less land. Suburban mass transit will likely not replace driving but it could enable some households to go from two to one car or provide new options and possibilities.

Trying to predict future suburban patterns is always difficult. My own research suggests planners, officials, and residents in the postwar decades had a difficult time envisioning significant growth. But, if we are looking toward the suburbs of fifty or one hundred years from now, is it so unreasonable to think some suburban areas will be denser and certain mass transit decisions made today helped guide some of those patterns? Wouldn’t we want to try to act with the future in mind rather than simply saying Americans prefer driving and sprawl now so that is the way it will always be?

5 thoughts on “Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

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