Monday, July 6, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 10:43 AM
Harvard economist Edward Glaeser offered one of the more asinine metropolitan policy editorials I’ve ever read in Friday’s Boston Globe. Glaeser argues that federal transportation funding should be focused on places that “need it”—namely, dense localities with congestion problems. The Obama administration’s plans to construct regional transportation systems in the South don’t fit Glaeser’s criteria for necessary transit, since, I guess, they aren’t in the densely populated Northeast.
But the goal of public transit isn’t simply about alleviating congestion—or, at least it shouldn’t be. This is a terribly passive strategy of urban planning, simply following residential patterns and retroactively rigging the structure of transportation to maximize efficient mobility. It denies the reality that some people need better access to transportation because they have no other means to get around. If you don’t live in a densely populated or resource-rich neighborhood, there’s a high probability that you don’t have great access to public transportation. And there’s an equally high probability that your socioeconomic status and social/geographic isolation necessitates sound public transportation options in order to find employment or other social services.
Public transit exists to transport the public, and should therefore reflect the transportation needs of the populace. So, if residents in under-populated urban neighborhoods are without adequate access to public transportation, these are the exact areas where light rail lines need to be built. This really isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. Public transportation should be expanded to areas where the public needs transportation. Glaeser’s analysis, ignorant to this basic definition of mass transit, represents utility maximization gone horribly awry. Something is very clearly—and very noticeably—missing in his writing.
Let me put this bluntly: The economic solutions that Glaser proposes are ethically and morally vacant. They deny actual people humanity beyond the realm of statistical variables. With Glaeser, social realities are made into vague abstractions. Discussions of “housing” somehow lose sight of the fact that, well, “housing” boils down to “people that live in houses.” Similarly, his discussion of “mass transit” in the Globe is without an acknowledgement of who exactly the “masses” that require “mass transit” are.
Glaeser opens with the line “Mass transit needs mass to work,” implying that mass transit construction follows the masses and should simply reflect where the most people are. With the initial growth of suburbia in the 1950s, and the continued pioneerism into exurbia today, we know this to be unequivocally false. Federally subsidized highway construction created a structure that filtered housing and commercial development into certain (racially exclusive) regions. Mass transit didn’t respond to some nascent need for suburban sprawl. No, transit construction manufactured popular demand. Historically, transit has rarely been a response to popular need, and has instead laid the groundwork for residential patterns and determined the geography of opportunity.
As Richard Layman details in his blog Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, metropolitan transportation policy shouldn’t be considered a zero-sum game. We need mass transit to alleviate congestion, sure, but we also need it to connect socially isolated folks to middle class institutions and areas of employment. Glaeser’s proposal would further marginalize communities with already low baselines of collective efficacy and political power. It’s places like Detroit—a city with severe social isolation and a profound disconnect from its neighboring suburbs—that desperately need public transit options and energy efficient light rail systems. But, of course, Glaeser would never support mass transit in Detroit. He doesn’t even understand why anyone still lives there.
If we take Glaeser’s suggestions at face value—following the masses and easing their mobility—we will undoubtedly reinforce the current ecological structure of stratification and inequality. In other words, such a policy would keep poor, isolated populations poor and isolated.
At the end of his editorial, Glaser succinctly argues, “A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion [emphasis added]." Maybe so. But that certainly isn’t the most equitable policy decision we could make.