It’s essential to stay abreast of what opponents to a reasoned development strategy have to say about Smart Growth. And there’s no more unreasonable voice on these issues than the social theorists at the libertarian Reason Magazine. This week Sam Staley and Ted Balaker published their newest assessment of the value of public transit, why Americans won’t ride new trains and buses, and how to relieve congestion. They come to this conclusion: “The planning gurus who are supposed to solve our transportation problems are in the grip of transitphilia and autophobia; their beliefs about how cities and transportation work are grounded more in nostalgia than in a realistic view of the world we live in now. The public policies they design and try to enforce make it harder for us to get to work, pick up our kids from school, or go shopping. They are deliberately fostering congestion.”
The weakness of this thesis falls into four categories:
- The vehicle population is increasing faster than population growth. It’s impossible for America to build its way out of congestion.
- At well over $30 million a mile for a new urban highway, and sometimes three times that cost to rebuild old ones, neither state nor local governments have nearly the money to do both.
- American patterns of development, fostered by fast-rising energy, vehicle, and housing costs, is starting to change in many metropolitan regions, which are gradually growing more dense. That is making it much more difficult to build or widen new roads, and much easier to link neighborhoods with new transit lines.
- Americans are falling back in love with rapid transit. The American Public Transit Association just reported record increases in transit ridership. In dozens of communities — Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, Charlotte to name a few — taxpayers are digging into their own pockets to pay for new lines because the federal government won’t.
Reason Magazine has long viewed building pavement as a more appropriate activity for Big Government than constructing mass transit. The distinction fits their view that Big Government means less personal liberty, but if you’ve got to choose, cars provide more freedom than trains.
That frame, however, is obsolete. It’s been replaced by the powerful civic consciousness about quality of life and security, and that a life spent in personal vehicles to do everything diminishes freedom in the most substantive way. The civic movement to build more rapid transit reflects an important Mode Shift in how people want to design their communities to enhance their choices, and provide them a right to the good life.
From Knoxville to Las Vegas, Los Angeles to Portland, Maine, there are few communities left in the United States that view more roads, more outer suburban growth, more parking lots, and more cars as an improvement. And all over the United States, wherever rapid transit has been built, people flock to the new lines, seek to build their homes and businesses close to station stops, and view the new way to get around as a decided step forward in economic development, achieving prosperity, and responding to the new market signals of the 21st century. Building rapid transit is a choice people make to improve their lives.