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“Public” is not and should not be a dirty word

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The destructive delusions in the Right’s opposition to public transit

The modern day conservative opposition to public transit has always been a bit of a puzzle. For much of the 20th Century, large scale public works – like mass transit systems – were the kinds of public-private partnerships that won the support of many a billionaire business leader. Walt Disney, a ferocious right-winger who battled workers and championed corporate power, still had enough common sense and foresight to build monorails and “people movers” around his amusement parks in the 1950’s and 60’s and promote them as the transportation systems for cities of the future.

People like Disney didn’t back public transit so much because they loved the environment – though they certainly weren’t opposed to order, cleanliness or combating pollution. Instead, their top priority was commerce and that meant getting people to and from their jobs, places of business, schools, public spaces and, of course, recreation and entertainment venues.

And so it has been down through the decades with the subway systems of the world’s major metropolises. Notwithstanding all of the other benefits, the chief driving force behind them has been about helping businesses and businesspeople make money – not some kind of progressive desire for communal togetherness.

In New York City, lower Manhattan had come to a virtual standstill in the late 19th Century as a chaotic combination of above ground vehicles virtually paralyzed the overpopulated streets and prevented businesses from surviving – much less thriving. Civic and business leaders turned to the construction of a subway system out of necessity and, not coincidentally, as a way of helping developers coherently connect to and populate new neighborhoods on the city’s undeveloped fringes. The benefits have been incalculably large.

Undermining transit

Weirdly and frustratingly, however, as progressives have promoted public transit in recent decades as a common good institution that could help business and protect the environment by reducing automobile emissions and helping to control sprawl, many conservatives seem to have felt compelled to stake out an opposing stance.

Part of this is driven, no doubt, by the Koch Brothers and other carbon fuel plutocrats who pour millions into conservative propaganda shops and rightfully see transit as a threat to their hegemony. A goodly portion of it, however, seems to stem from a strange and almost pathological philosophical opposition to the very idea of cooperative public action for the common good.

For a classic example of this brand of delusional thinking, check out a recent post that appeared on the website of the Civitas Institute – a Raleigh-based group that bills itself as “North Carolina’s Conservative Voice.”

In “NC, Take Note: Mass Transit Can Be a Nightmare,” [2] a Civitas staffer attempted to argue against the idea of public transit based on his shocking discovery that there have been accidents and other problems on the New York and Washington subways! This is from the post:

In mass transit news, here in North Carolina, plans apparently are moving ahead for new projects: light-rail in Durham and Orange Counties, and commuter rail in Wake County. In Charlotte, works (sic) continues on extending a light-rail line.

Meanwhile, the latest news from New York’s subway line is a crash today that disrupted subway trains across the Big Apple. Delayed train service is nothing unusual, either. Earlier this month, the city’s transit agency released a report admitting three-fourths of the subway lines are usually late, and five lines are late more than half the time.

Also in the news, a long series of transit hassles in Washington, DC’s Metro subway continued today, leaving riders fuming. Of course, they were likely in a bad mood anyway, because on Sunday fares went up and service was cut….

A quick look at the news will show an array of other mass transit problems and disappointments across the nation, even as North Carolina cities are laboring to create their own mass transit systems. Meanwhile, rapid changes in technology are raising the possibility of new kinds of public transit. Is it too late for NC to hit the brakes on its mass transit plans?”

Destructive delusions

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at such puerile pontificating. Has this author never been to New York or Washington? Can he not imagine how much worse the intense automobile traffic that still plagues them would be were it not for the remarkable people-moving power of the subway systems?

What’s next – an op-ed demanding that all public fire and rescue services be eliminated because of some ambulance wrecks? A call to end public water purification systems because of the disaster in Flint, Michigan?

Earth to Civitas: The subway systems in New York and Washington are both far from perfect. As with all large scale human enterprises (public and private), they are prone to accidents, waste and cost overruns and often serve as magnets for corrupt actors. Welcome to the real world.

But both systems are also remarkable testaments to human ingenuity and technology that accomplish herculean feats. Though underfunded and subjected to terrific wear and tear, both move millions of people in a remarkable degree of comfort and safety at virtually all hours and in all conditions. They are, in short, utterly indispensable public treasures.

What’s more, the author’s complaints – accidents, delays, fuming travelers – are even easier to find on our increasingly fast and furious roadways. Indeed, there are more people killed and maimed on American highways in the average week than in the average year’s worth of transit accidents [3].

It’s for these and other similar reasons that, for a growing number of major urban centers – both existing and aspiring – public transit is an utterly absolute necessity. Especially in an era of destructive and species-endangering environmental change, the notion of simply mimicking Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles by adding an unending series of new highway loops and lanes is, for fast-growing modern metropolitan areas like Charlotte and the Triangle, something close to madness.

Sure, new technology is great and, with any luck, new ideas we have yet to imagine will soon emerge and be deployed. But, whatever those systems might look like, it is essential for Charlotte and the Triangle (and other fast-growing cities) to construct and expand the skeletons of public transit systems now – before sprawl makes it completely impossible.

That’s why the ongoing progress that Triangle officials and advocates are enjoying these days in pushing an ambitious transit plan [4] (even in the face of opposition from conservative state lawmakers) is so encouraging and even inspiring. Thanks to the vision and activism of forward-thinking public officials and advocates like the good people at Wake Up Wake County, there is a real prospect for a vastly improved transit scenario in the years to come. Charlotte, of course, is already even further along.

Deciphering the opposition

So what gives? How can one explain the passionate and irrational hard-right opposition to transit – especially when so much of the support has for so long emanated from businesspeople looking to thrive in a modern economy? Is it merely an obsession with taxes? A blatant bit of water carrying for the fossil fuel industry?

While both of those factors contribute to the problem, when one reads between the lines, it really seems to come down to the cramped and distorted vision of freedom and liberty that’s occupied the hearts and minds of so many modern conservatives. As with public education, public health and even government itself, too many of these folks simply can’t grasp or even imagine that more and better public services and societal cooperation can lead to more freedom for more people.

In a way this is understandable. It’s scary to have faith in others and make sacrifices that will pay off later for one’s children and neighbors. Better to grab what’s available now and wall oneself off into the biggest piece of property, most intimidating vehicle or most desirable school of “choice” that one can find today. Better to believe that we can all advance freedom by being as selfish as possible. At least, that’s the cramped reasoning at work.

Happily, such “logic” cannot carry the day in the long run. As in so many other areas of modern public policy, facts do matter in the transit debate and can only be resisted for so long. Let’s just hope the damage brought on by the Right’s futile resistance can be minimized as quickly as possible.