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Conservatives and Mass Transit: All Aboard?

4 years ago
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Effete liberals love mass transit and red-blooded American conservatives disdain it, right?
That's the stereotype, all right. Libs love their commuter trains, while we conservatives dig our pickup trucks. There's surely something to those images, but a new book titled, "Moving Minds; Conservatives and Public Transportation," seeks to lead some 21st century conservatives to rethink their view of riding the subway.
This debate comes at a time when conservatives stand accused of failing to embrace new ideas (in fact, the authors would argue this is really the renewing of an old idea, but you get the point.) Clearly, a conservative arguing in favor of mass transit dispels the notion that conservatives aren't receptive to exploring new solutions to the nation's ongoing problems. Both sides are guilty of taking stances on issues -- and sticking with them -- regardless of the emergence of new facts or changing priorities. It's all too uncommon to find an adherent of one political philosophy championing an issue generally identified as "belonging" to the other team. For this reason, if nothing else, the authors of this book deserve attention, even praise.
This is not some new fad to them, either. While "Moving Minds" was recently published, it is actually the collection of eight separate transportation studies conducted and published by conservatives Paul Weyrich and William S. Lind between 1997 and 2009. Weyrich, who passed away in late 2008, was co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, and one of the most significant conservative activists and commentators of modern times. Interestingly, his first foray into politics came as a teenager when he attempted to save the famous North Shore Line through his hometown of Racine, Wisc.
Like Weyrich, Lind is a cultural conservative. A Dartmouth graduate, he holds a master's degree from Princeton. Lind has written extensively on military strategy and tactics and serves as director of the Center for Public Transportation, a project of The Free Congress Foundation -- an organization Weyrich founded.
For starters, their book seeks to shape conservatives' views on mass transit by pointing out that our current system is anything but the product of free market forces.
Since the invention of the Model T, the U.S. government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the highway system, while mass transit (which historically had been privately owned) received vastly smaller infrastructure benefits -- while being taxed heavily to boot. What's more, the government simultaneously prohibited these mass transit companies from raising fares.
Privately owned mass transit companies simply could not compete when they had to build and maintain infrastructure while their competition was funded by tax dollars. In addition, the authors note that post-World War II building codes in many areas created sprawl – a situation where homeowners cannot walk to work or to shop, and thus, must rely on an automobile. The authors present numerous and convincing arguments in favor of mass transit – especially street cars and electric-powered light rail trolleys – that are applicable to conservative thinking: Unlike automobiles, rail fosters a sense of community; increased use of electric rail would help accomplish national security goals by lessening our dependence on foreign oil; and mass transit policy is also pro-growth – something most conservatives favor.
As someone who frequently rides the reasonably clean and safe (and usually on time) Washington, D.C., Metro, I may be more attuned to this last argument than many of my fellow conservatives. Clearly, businesses and organizations intentionally locate near Metro stops. You would be hard-pressed to find a community near a Metro stop in Northern Virginia that is not thriving.
It is important to note that rail promotes urban growth and development in a way that buses, for example, cannot. Once the infrastructure is created for electric rail, businesses can count on it being there. Conversely, a business could locate near a bus stop, only to see the route change. Buses, as such, do not spur development.
Generally, the authors favor electric rail over buses; in fact, they hope for a "second trolley era." For one thing, they argue that people generally, for whatever reason, do not like buses and find them "uncivilized." Trains are obviously faster. Moreover, they argue that buses do not reduce traffic because most bus riders do not own cars. Conversely, many car owners choose to use rail to commute to work, reducing congestion.
The authors concede mass transit is not appropriate for every journey, but is ideal for commuting to work – especially for those with regular hours – and for certain entertainment destinations, such as baseball games.
The book also challenges many of the popular anti-mass transit arguments -- often made by Libertarians -- such as the notion that trains often have empty seats. Most cars on the road during rush hours have three empty seats. Additionally, Weyrich and Lind argue that statistics seeking to undermine the popularity of rail are skewed, and that building more roads serves to increase traffic.
Conservatives believe in tradition and preserving the best of the past, and the authors certainly see the street car as a romantic symbol for the kinds of tight-knit communities we used to have in many urban areas. While few of us will ever be confused with a Greenpeace volunteer, conservatism cannot be inherently hostile to the concept of preserving -- of conserving -- our national heritage and our natural resources. Moreover, even in this polarized political world, some issues rise above partisanship – or at least they should. Conservatives sit in traffic just the same as liberals. There are no special commuter lanes reserved for Republicans or others for Democrats.
Ultimately, the book's central argument to conservatives is that America's current transportation system -- and the destruction of mass transit -- was by no means the product of free market forces. Instead, our current transportation status was the result of heavy governmental intervention in favor of the automobile. So the next time you're stuck in traffic, keep in mind that an "invisible hand" was not responsible for driving you off this cliff (or into rush hour traffic). This was the doing of a very visible hand – the hand of government.

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