As the automobile became the preferred method of travel in the United States during the 20th century, car oriented development became the dominant pattern of city design. Today it is extremely difficult or simply impossible to go about ones daily life without some reliance upon an automobile. Furthermore, in most areas of the country, the lack of one makes a person a second class citizen. For a variety of reasons, there has been a resurgence in the interest for mass-transit oriented developments (TODs). Proponents of this alternative method of city organization argue for its superiority over car oriented developments in efficiency, aesthetics, and livability (to name a few).1 Although there is something to be said for all of these reasons, here I will concentrate on an argument for TODs from the perspective of social justice. Typically arguments from social justice have been among the more controversial because they often involved some sort of redistribution of resources; in American politics it is often unclear how much the rich should be forced to give up in order to help the poor. I hope to bypass this issue by looking at a current public policy that seems to have wide-spread public approval, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and derive from it an argument for government sanctioned support of TODs. In section 1, I describe a number of public policies, including zoning, highway, and accessibility standards for the disabled and from these derive the moral basis for the government support of TODs. In section 2, I explain my argument in detail and address a number of initial concerns. Finally, in section 3, I address the most plausible objection to widespread TOD development – that gentrification could cause the poor to lose their homes. Continue reading Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments
Some people feel buses are the answer to all our mass transit needs. They will, of course, admit that big expensive commuter rail systems are more pleasant than a fleet of buses (anyone who has ridden on both can attest to this), but they will simply point to the price tag as the major issue at hand. How can we afford such large transit systems?
In fact, if you look at the issue from a certain perspective rail systems seem simply fascist. Whereas bus networks can be easily adapted to meet the ever changing demands of the customers (we must keep them happy!) , rail systems dictate what the customer behavior should be. It is very easy to change a bus route to accommodate a new population distribution (for example, the construction of a new subdivision); it is extremely difficult to change a rail system.
A rail system has the remarkable effect of change the area around it. Transit stops usually become hubs of development; property values go up around them and people try to move as close by as possible. In the Washington DC area, for example, real estate prices are largely a function of distance to a metro stop; people want to use the metro and thus want to be near a stop. But it is not clear how we should feel about this trend. On the one hand, a rail system can have an incredible stabilizing effect on a community. It supports clear neighborhood centers and a maximization of space (i.e. higher density) around the stops of the metro. This in turn greatly decreases the dependence of residents on cars and thus decreases energy consumption; if you live near a metro station/neighborhood center, you have all your basic needs met within walking distance and you can take the train to anywhere else you need to go.
However, the flip side of stability is restrictiveness. The rail will stay where it is for a great while and therefore people are forced to live where that system exists if they want the high quality mass transit that their tax dollars helped build. People must, in effect, react to what the government has provided and are not as free when choosing where to live. The government can, in effect, coerce people to live in a specified pattern. The ethical implications of all this are rather interesting, and when I have time I’ll post about my take on it. However, for now this is an issue about which I am still starting to form a view.
One common complaint raised about car-oriented transit is that it is fixated on ‘flow’. Conventional road projects are generally designed to move vehicles, with less concern for the local social dynamics affected by that flow. This means that a large (wide) road is deemed successful if it is able to keep traffic flowing at desirable speeds; when flow is king, the people outside the cars simply do not matter. There are many obvious reasons why this is bad for the community around such a road, but if flow is not the desired outcome of a transportation project then what is?
The question of what we want out of our transit systems gets far too little attention from those concerned about the politics of transit. Many people already ascribe to a view; they may think that flow is desirable (they don’t like to wait in traffic) or instead they might shake their fists at all the passing cars and think how all this flow is ruining their surroundings. But this typically degenerates into a battle between car owners and pedestrians, and these sort of battles rarely end in satisfactorily. It seems that when two large portions of our society are at odds about how to proceed, the only fair path is to rethink the premises that got us to such an impasse. The question I think we should be asking is why we want to build the transit system in the first place?
The simple answer to the above question just goes back to the idea of traffic flow; we want to build a transit system because we want to move people and things. But this doesn’t even seem like a step beyond the question for traffic flow; the fact that movement is important is assumed in the very idea of a transit system. The deeper question we want to ask is why we want to facilitate the movement of people and things; this challenges us to think about the sorts of things we value in life. Such a question also forces everyone to do a new calculation about the cost and benefits of various transit systems. At some point of efficiency, the transit system will destroy the very mode of living that we value; because it is not simply the movement that we value but something which that movement facilitates, it is possible for an increase in movement to lead to a decrease in quality of life. So, even though adding another lane to a road may increase flow (and thus be called an “improvement” in the eyes of the traffic engineers) it could actually harm everyone involved. At some point, being able to move across town a little faster is no longer worth it, especially if you have to destroy the town in the process.
The above is all very abstract, but it needs to be this way because I don’t know how much flow is worth in relation to quality of life. I suspect it isn’t worth much, but this should be an empirical question; we need to start thinking about how movement is necessary for a happy and fulfilling life.
I recently had to take a trip to Washington D.C from Madison, WI in order to look for a new apartment. My wife and I decided to try out the Amtrak route that runs from Chicago to Washington D.C; neither of us had been on a modern train the the US, so we thought it might be interesting. It was certainly a worth-wild experience.
Unfortunately, Madison lacks any passenger train service, only a crappy bus that runs from here t o Chicago. There is, however, a commuter train from Milwaukee (about a 1.5 hour drive from Madison) to Chicago so we decided to start our train journey there. Doing that (including the reduced parking fees for train users) made the price of the trip about the same as flying out of Milwaukee and a little less than flying out of Madison. But, the train trip was definitely not an economical choice.
A few things surprised me. For one, I expected very few people to be taking the train from Chicago all the way to DC. “Who would do this?” thought I . After all, it seems like most normal people would not choose the 17hour train ride over a flight of a couple hours. But the train was completely full on both our trip there and when we returned. Luckily we got our tickets ahead of time, so this was not a real problem. This also relates to the fact that the main train stations we stopped at (In Chicago and DC, both named ‘Union Station’) were extremely busy places. They had the feel of airports without all the crazy security; but they were a bit anxiety provoking regardless. And Chicago sucks; nothing is open on Sunday near Union Station and countless people will ask you for money.
Some other things left me yearning for Germany. American rails are pretty crappy. I sort of knew this before the trip, but actually traveling on them reminded me. European commuter railroads (at least the German ones I have experience with ) are quit smooth; this makes for a rather enjoyable traveling experience. However, for the most part, American passenger trains travel on standard freight rail lines that are not maintained at the sort of level required for fast speeds and smooth travel. Expect to be shaken around quite a bit; at some points the train felt as if it was experiencing a sort of minor turbulence. I was told that for a period between Cleavland and Pittsburgh the track was smooth as silk (I was asleep….perhaps because of this); it sure would have been nice if the entire trip had been like that. So, I know that rail travel is capable of being far smoother. The entire operation was also somewhat less organized than I would have liked. We were not given seats (even though we had ‘reserved’ seats) until entering the train; this made us wonder whether we would be able to sit together if we didn’t hurry to the train once the gate doors were opened. I’m not sure if our worries were justified, but it would have been nice to get actual seat numbers on the tickets (though you do actually get tickets mailed to you before the trip, so there is no need to check in and there is no risk of being ‘bumped’).
Otherwise, the trip was ok. And there is one bonus. If you ride the train, you get to see the rusting remnants of the rust belt (I got to see Cleavland…that was pretty exciting). You will pass by vast factory yards that have been long since deserted but for perhaps a few buildings. The highway doesn’t go near these sorts of places, so you usually forget that they exist, that our nation once produced things in such filthy environments; an Amtrak trip will remind you of these industrial wastelands. Sort of fun places to pass in the middle of the night.
Some might worry about the 17 hours it takes to complete the trip, but it isn’t actually all that bad. You get extremely large seats that are ok to sleep in and there are a number of cars between which you can divide your time (dining car, observation car, cafe car). And if you can get to sleep, the trip doesn’t actually feel that long (but don’t miss Pittsburgh!). Also, you ‘feel’ the distance far more than when you travel via airplane; I always feel a bit odd at the end of air-travel, like I haven’t traveled as far as I have. Though, maybe that is just me.
So, to conclude my observations. I would ride Amtrak again, but it certainly is substandard in comparison to European rail. I also wonder why it is not cheaper than travel by air. It might be that the greater staff hours required by Amtrak is the culprit, but I also wonder whether cheap petroleum makes air travel more affordable than it should be. But I don’t have those answers.