A Social-Conservative Case for Transit?

David Schoengoeld of the Witherspoon Institute has penned a much-linked piece on “Why Conservatives Should Care about Transit.”  Note that he’s talking to social conservatives rather than fiscal conservatives. Throughout my lifetime, the default position of American social-conservatism has been one of ignorance and disinterest regarding all aspects of urban life.  Schoengoeld counters:

Dense, walkable settlements are not just a pleasant lifestyle choice.
They are a precondition of the strong, inter-connected communities that
social conservatives desire. It is not difficult to envision how these
communities can make our lives comprehensively better. Americans are
not obliged by any law of nature or rule of the market to live in
mediocre, anti-social places. With changes in public policy, over time
we can begin again to create neighborhoods that promote real community.

I’ll be curious to see the reaction to this.  I’d expect enthusiasm among many principled intellectual conservatives (Andrew Sullivan, for example, is enthusiastic) and among those (such as the newly minted Democratic Senator Arlen Specter) who would like to be conservatives but feel they’ve been thrown out of the club.

But here’s the rub:  Dense, walkable settlements may be the precondition of strong, interconnected communities, as Schoengoeld writes, but they are also the precondition for daily confrontations with difference and diversity, and American social conservatism, at least in its practical and (for a time) effective form, has always been predicated on the notion that “we” are a bunch of good people under threat from “them.”  It is an ideology rooted in the outer-suburban and rural experience where life is lived in cars, and where diversity and difference manifest themselves mostly on television.  Adapting this ideology to an urban world will require throwing out much of what is most comforting about social conservativism today, notably the tribal sense of belonging that comes from associating mostly with people who are just like you.

Of course, as America urbanizes, social conservativism will have to be reborn in a more reflective form that reflects the daily engagement with difference and diversity that is the essence of urban life.  The results, I expect, will be unrecognisable to most social conservatives today.

5 Responses to A Social-Conservative Case for Transit?

  1. Mike Williams April 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm #

    Just this morning I was reading the chapter on sidewalk safety in Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. She talks of such dense, walkable streets as providing the necessary interface between private and public space, where you can safely test out public relationships without commitment before moving them into the private sphere. The public identity of a neighbourhood can be more quickly assessed than in a dead bedroom suburb.
    Furthermore, the greater the number of “eyes on the street” that arise from the combination of a continuous walked presence and the gaze of people-watchers drawn to them also generates involvement and safety for those who traverse those footpaths.

  2. Stephen May 23, 2009 at 11:32 pm #

    I’m not sure what to make of the distinction you’ve drawn between social and fiscal conservatives. I believe that there is a strong conservative case for transit – and not just for fiscal reasons – it just hasn’t been given space to develop. I can’t, however, make sense of where transit fits into a world view that has at its core a desire to keep people separated.
    Clearly I’m going to make statements that illustrate my ignorance of the political demographic that I identify with and maybe I just haven’t realized how far I’ve wandered from my conservative roots thanks to my liberal education. It is my opinion, however, the cause for conservatives love for the automobile is that it builds on the very conservative notion that I am my own captain. The conservative social value that endears the car to conservatives then is not as much the class separation effect as the macho, “I can go where I please, when I please” attitude or possibly the more refined, “I prefer to take maximum responsibility for myself” sentiment.
    I am aware of the irony within the idea that the automobile could possibly be a symbol of “maximum personal responsibility” and unfortunately it seems to me that it is a misunderstanding of this irony that has done so much to galvanize conservative opinion against transit. If there is anything within a social conservative’s value set stronger then a sense of “personal responsibility” it is the belief that with enough work and dedication, anything is possible. Unfortunately, cases for transit are far too often forwarded as the solution to urban mobility because acceptable mobility CANNOT be done with the automobile.
    In 1954 the Seattle transit made its case that public transit will only become more important in the future because the space in downtown Seattle won’t get any larger and cars will soon clog all roadways and no act by man can change that. Seattle, much like the rest of the country has been spending the last 50 or more years proving that with enough work and engineering man can absolutely create enough space downtown to accommodate the mobility offered by the automobile.
    This may sound trite but in my estimation the best way to sell transit to a conservative is to highlight the “James Bond” factor of transit. That is, the ultimate self-reliance mobility option that a well run transit system provides, you walk out the front door with only your transit pass and disappear into the city, no car, no parking, no trace – unless you use a smart card. The way to absolutely NOT sell transit to a conservative is to talk about the congestion relief or environmental impacts that transit may have. Those argument force conservatives into a line of thinking that challenges two important values. First, that the freedom and self-reliability the automobile provides is somehow subversive and second that there is no way to engineer a solution that will allow them to continue to enjoy the freedom and self-reliability they currently enjoy. The worst part about this kind of argument is that it is unnecessary. Transit could/should be billed simply as a sensible practice of management of public space.
    I apologize for the long post and I didn’t illuminate much of my thinking as to what the strong conservative case for transit is, but that will have to wait for another post.

  3. Stephen May 26, 2009 at 11:09 pm #

    I know you have nodded to the competing interests of transit and I recognize that transit is not simply a technical question but I find it unfortunate that transit should become so entangled with movements that are only secondary or tertiary to the primary mission of moving people. I wonder if it is not these entanglements, and not transit per se, that create the “rub” you have identified. In the past there have been and I believe you could find today examples of successful transit systems in societies that are more segregated than American social conservatives are today. Transit systems existed in the segregated American South. African Americans rode in the back or had separate train cars. Fascist Germany and Italy brought with them transit systems known for their punctuality. I don’t know but I suspect that transit systems in Muslim countries also operate without directly compromising a strict and uniform religious code.
    I do not mean to advocate that transit should be used to support repressive forms of government but I do mean that transit should be a tool that could be applied towards the end of moving people in an efficient manner and not be packaged as a means towards a particular social or political future.

  4. randplaty June 23, 2009 at 11:53 pm #

    Wow, what a pessimistic assessment of social conservatism. I would have to disagree that the ideology of social conservatism is centered around an us vs them attitude. That characterization seems inherently unfair.

  5. Wad June 25, 2009 at 11:39 pm #

    Ideally, we should just do away with the terms “liberal”, “conservative”, etc., since — if we are talking about American politics here — they lost all utility except as epithets.
    The terms originated in European Enlightenment-era political discourse. The American secessionists would all be liberals and had the advantage of a clean slate since there was no established monarchy or sovereign church. You can also apply it to much of Europe, as the Enlightenment ideals won for practical governance but left a monarchy and state church in place with varying efficacy.
    The words, at their origins, refer to either “liberation” or “conservation.” But of what? Aha! The same goes for the terms “left” and “right”, also meaningless.
    Moreover, it’s useless to use the term because it has no consistency across time or space. What are liberals trying to liberate and what are conservatives trying to conserve, and how true are they to the original terms? They aren’t.
    And there’s no global affinity among ideological groups. Many European “conservatives” would be to the “left” of many American Democrats. And leftist movements differ on government administration, class and group identity.
    American government is unique in its composition, which has rendered ideology less important than group pressure. We Yanks don’t have parliamentary elections. We have single-district representatives where the winner of a party must represent people who helped elect the legislator, but also for the people who did not elect the legislator. (If you are a Democrat living in a Republican district, you cannot go to another nearby Democrat for help.)
    The big downside for American politics is that parties instead work much like brokerage houses. It becomes profitable for parties to rig government policy in favor of major donors. Also, our courts have ruled political bribery is not only legal, but a constitutional right.