Who are the Opponents of Transportation Alternatives?

Streetsblog has traditionally lashed at multiple factions that oppose bicycle and transit infrastructure, but reserved the harshest criticism for entrenched community groups and NIMBYs, and their representatives including most of the high-profile Democratic mayoral candidates in New York. Early community board opposition to some of Janette Sadik-Khan’s bike lanes and pedestrian plazas turned into full-fledged attacks by the livable streets community on NIMBYs, of which some were justified but some were cases without any evidence of community opposition.

But now the Wall Street Journal has run an editorial video calling New York’s new bikeshare totalitarian, adding to a Front Page article from a month ago saying that bikeshare was a failure in Paris and Montreal and that Sadik-Khan’s grandfather was a Nazi. Paul Krugman chimed in with an explanation relating the opposition to upper-class politics, New York Magazine tried to explain how bikeshare goes against conservative ideology more broadly, and suddenly there’s supposed to be a partisan realignment on the matter. When I reminded Robert Cruickshank on Twitter that Charles Schumer and Anthony Weiner were against bike infrastructure, he responded, “no, that’s not driven by values or ideology but by a search for votes.”

There’s a real danger in reducing the world to a struggle between Us and Them, in which the bad aspects on the Us side show that people on the Us side need to be nudged in the right direction while the bad aspects on the Them side show that people on that side need to be defeated. People who spend too much time in national or even state-level partisan politics think in those terms even in places where they are completely inappropriate, such as local blue-city transportation matters. Streetsblog has occasionally engaged in this as well, with the factions being pro- and anti-Bloomberg: it has let the city’s DOT off the hook for the truncation of the 125th Street dedicated bus lanes, though in past years it did attack the city for not extending 1st and 2nd Avenue’s bike lanes into Harlem despite community support.

What both of those sides – Krugman and the Streetsblog crowd – miss is that there’s considerably diversity of opinion in both the Us camp and the Them camp. Although there is something like an Us camp comprising supporters of rail, urban density, and livable streets, there are still sharp internal disagreements that shouldn’t be papered over. On the Them side there isn’t even a recognizable camp: what do Michele Bachmann, Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo, Charles Schumer, and Anthony Weiner have in common except their opposition to bikes or transit? Instead of a binary Manichean view it’s important to understand that politics, especially urban politics, has multiple factions, of which none can obtain a persistent majority, requiring some measures of negotiation and consensus.

First, the Them sides. The easiest segment to explain is right-wing populism: as a movement, it tends to be anti-urban and pro-road, even in Switzerland, whose Swiss People’s Party opposes rail investment and supports roads. The support base of right-wing populism is rarely urban, because as a movement it tends to be against what it views as cultural deviance of (mainly urban) immigrants; since transit ridership tends to be concentrated in the cities, populists have less reason to support it.

Non-populist conservatives sometimes borrow from right-wing populism and sometimes do not. Christie canceled ARC and transferred the state money for it toward roads, but he is quite influenced by populism in style even if his actual politics is mainline conservative. But the British Tories support high-speed rail, as did the Sarkozy administration. Contrary to popular belief, Thatcher never said that bus riders over the age of 30 are failures in life; the quote comes from a writer who, far from being a Thatcherist, worked for The New Statesman. However, with exceptions such as Sarkozy’s support for Arc Express, conservatives and right-wing liberals tend to be less supportive of urban transit and of taxing cars on environmental grounds. For examples, the Skyscraper Page posters believe the BC Liberal election victory is likely to make it harder to find money for SkyTrain extensions, Boris Johnson canceled proposals to extend London’s congestion charge to other parts of the city, and the Swedish right-wing parties originally opposed Stockholm’s congestion charge and eventually implemented it but with a caveat that the proceeds go to roads only.

Among centrist liberals, opinions are more split. Bloomberg is unabashedly neo-liberal; he’s also spent $2 billion of city money on a subway extension and championed congestion pricing and bike lanes. Andrew Cuomo is less explicitly neo-liberal but ran on such a platform; he’s championed the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, opposed including transit on the new bridge, and spent money that was supposed to go to the MTA on other things. The opposition to transit and livable streets that exists in this group is less a matter of hating what cities stand for and more a matter of fiscal conservatism that views roads as normal service used by the upper middle class and transit as wasteful and serving the poor. Charles Schumer’s opposition to bike lanes in his neighborhood should be placed in the same category, as should Richard Brodsky’s claim that congestion pricing is unfair while he represented a rich Westchester district. It’s here that the faction Krugman describes belongs, but it includes board swaths of the upper middle class rather than the top 0.5% of the population that Krugman argues is pro-road because they’re chauffeured around Manhattan.

The community boards who oppose transit and livable streets, for examples in Washington Heights and Sheepshead Bay, are a more mixed bunch. I believe Weiner falls in this category too: instead of congestion pricing he proposed a commuter tax, which would not fall on his outer-urban district, a proposal that more recently the other mayoral hopefuls supported. In the forums I spent time in, mainly The Straphangers forums, the opposition seemed to be from the left and not just from the right. It’s probably best understood as a general populism as well as personal dislike for Bloomberg; while this populism may not be leftist, it is not really right-wing either, and often comes from minorities, which right-wing populists almost universally spurn. I believe it’s Cap’n Transit who noted the disconnect between the elite even in poor neighborhoods and the average residents, who rarely own cars, leading to a kind of populism in leftist areas that is not by itself really leftist.

Now, the Us side. There is, in fact, a coherent movement that calls for more investment in rail for intercity transportation, proposes local transit and bike and pedestrian projects, and supports taxes on driving when they are politically feasible. The arguments between various factions, such as more left-wing versus more right-wing transit supporters or supporters of restoration of pre-WW2 streetcars and interurbans versus supporters of more modern technologies like light rail and high-speed rail, really are internal to a movement.

However, there really are problems, coming from the cores of the movement in supporting more spending and in having leaders who are quite neo-liberal and indifferent to issues of racism and disinvestment. New York really did take its time to extend bike lanes into East Harlem despite community support; the same neighborhood is now not getting a 125th Street dedicated bus lane. While the first five bus routes to receive Select Bus Service upgrades were chosen as one per borough for trial, the newer lines so chosen, first on 34th Street and now the M60 to LaGuardia, are not very high-ridership; the M60 in particular is at least in perception the highest-income and whitest among the buses that use 125th Street while its ridership rank is third out of four routes on the corridor.

Likewise, the transit investment decisions made not only in New York but also in cities ranging from Boston and Providence to San Francisco are development-oriented and tend to serve residents of rich suburbs and inner-urban gentrification projects at the expense of high-productivity transit routes in low-income neighborhoods in between. Bloomberg spent $2 billion of city money on a subway extension, but it was the wrong one, a development-oriented project to Hudson Yards rather than an extension of Second Avenue Subway or a new subway line following Utica, which is currently in a near-tie with First and Second Avenues for highest bus ridership in the city.

While neo-liberalism as an ideology also supports efficient government and reducing red tape, the built-in bias for prestige projects makes it hard to support vanilla improvements in efficiency. This combines with a particular leftist opposition to anything that sounds like reduced spending; the fact that it’s Christie who began the wave of cancellations adds a partisan dimension. As a result, the people who are most sensitive to costs tend to be far outside political power: Stephen Smith is not a major libertarian pundit, Aaron Renn occasionally talks to city leaders but has no real power, I am a mathematician who writes about transit and urban issues. The (neo-)liberal centrists who’d be best placed to implement a program that would reduce transit construction costs are the ones with the least political incentive to do so.

That said, despite the above essentially multi-partisan and multi-factional picture, it could be that the Wall Street Journal’s video and Krugman’s response will lead to partisan realignment. High-speed rail used not to be a partisan issue either: in 2009, Newt Gingrich said he envisioned medium-speed rail together with maglev. But after Christie canceled ARC, canceling rail projects became a test of right-wing bona fides, and conversely, defending infrastructure spending became a test of left-wing bona fides even when infrastructure was a small component of the stimulus. It is possible that the American political world will soon become bipolar on matters of local transit and livable streets issues. It’s just not there now.


  1. Eric

    The support base of right-wing populism is rarely urban, because as a movement it tends to be against what it views as cultural deviance of (mainly urban) immigrants;

    Not just immigrants. (And not primarily immigrants, I would think.) Natives with more liberal social views tend to cluster in cities as well. In many cases, so do non-immigrant ethnic minorities (like blacks).

  2. betamagellan

    In the non-Illinois Midwest questions of transit spending have been near-bipolar at least since the 1990s. Some of it comes from populist antipathy for cities and their inhabitants (this was particularly nasty in suburban Milwaukee in the nineties, where “Blacks will take light rail out of the inner city to steal your car” became something of a meme), some of it from not wanting any tax money to go to improvements that would mainly benefit city dwellers (thus Minnesota didn’t cancel its projects, but prioritized an airport line and commuter rail over urban light rail; the extension of Cleveland’s light rail to sports complexes on the Waterfront—the sort of transit that theoretically appeals to non-transit-users—might also fit under this category). In my experience, a lot of transit opposition comes from racialized (either explicitly or implicitly) ground.

    At least in the Midwest, then, much of the Republican opposition to transit seems to be the result of their absorption of right-wing populists in the 1960s and 70s. Looking to the Mountain West, where there has been considerable Republican support for major transit projects, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that investment’s centered around the relatively homogeneous cities of Denver and SLC.

  3. Benjamin Kabak

    it has let the city’s DOT off the hook for the truncation of the 125th Street dedicated bus lanes

    Streetsblog has been aggressive on this issue unless you feel they are pointing fingers at Perkins rather than DOT.

    • Alon Levy

      I do feel they’re pointing fingers at Perkins more than is warranted and at DOT less than is warranted. We know that CB 11 was more supportive of livable streets/transit than NYCDOT recently, so the usual argument of “there’s community opposition in Upper Manhattan” doesn’t work.

  4. EngineerScotty

    In Portland, a proposed bike boulevard through a traditionally black neighborhood met with considerable opposition from the long-time residents there–who saw it as yet another perk for (mostly-white) yuppies that neglected the needs of the local community (which depended on cars and busses to get around, but had a much smaller biking subculture). Fortunately, planners reached out to the local neighbors, mended fences, and everyone went home happy with the project moving forward (and many local concerns addressed, and faces saved.

    There are many subcultures, still, that view bicycles as toys or sporting goods, not as proper transport. Many others associate it with poverty. The biggest opposition to bike projects in Portland doesn’t come from conservatives (who are marginalized within the city; though they complain like hell out in the ‘burbs), but older white liberals (some wealthy, some not) who–despite supporting leftist positions on many other matters, react negatively to bike culture. And again, many poor folks view biking as a “yuppie” pursuit–even though a bicycle is about the cheapest mode of transportation available, other than walking.

    • betamagellan

      I think a lot of the antipathy towards cyclists comes from personal experience with them. I’ve certainly almost-been-hit (while traveling by foot, bike or car) more times by cyclists than by motorists or buses. I’m actually surprised cyclists and transit advocates get along as well as they do—many cyclists I’ve met are very hostile towards buses or even transit and general, and in their attitude towards transportation remind me more of auto people than anyone else (both due to the our-mode-is-best-and-universally-applicable thinking and the macho-ness of a lot of bike culture).

      • Alon Levy

        Interesting you say that; I’ve never really encountered that. It could be that I never lived in an area with a lot of cyclists and little transit, though. On the Internet I’ve gotten fewer hate comments from cyclists on Streetsblog than from traditional railroad people on the transit blogs.

        • betamagellan

          It’s something I’ve encountered way more in person in Chicago than online, though I’ve read about similar opinions in Portland. Some animosity between bus and bike people is understandable—it’s not a comfortable situation when you’re competing for the same area of the street in mixed-traffic situations, and now with BRT likely on its way there’s competition for dedicated space as well. I recall disapproving comments about how implementing median-running BRT on Ashland likely rules out dedicated bike lanes; I’ve seen people site the CTA’s slightly-down bus traffic and increasing bike traffic in stuff that wasn’t specifically anti-transit, but still had an undercurrent of “why are we spending money on buses?”

          The most intense bike people tend to be single-mode thinkers, though—I’m connected to a bike advocate on linkedin whose statement could easily pass for a gadgetbahn manifesto if you replaced “bikes” with “pods.” People like him probably don’t even register the transit blogosphere’s existence.

  5. Wanderer

    There certainly is a lot of development-oriented transit being proposed. I don’t see this as a bad thing, presumably people who want more transit-oriented cities want new development to focus around transit. Certainly there can be a tension between improving service in low income neighborhoods and improving it in prime development areas (unless those low income neighborhoods become prime development areas, then you’ve got another kind of issue).

    San Francisco, one of the cities sited in this regard, is building a light rail subway from the downtown core to Chinatown. It will relieve one of the most overcrowded bus routes in the city, and serve an area whose residents are primarily immigrants and the elderly. I have trouble seeing this as development-oriented transit.

    • Alon Levy

      The Central Subway has practically every problem that could possibly exist in an urban transit line, except being development-oriented. The Bay Area’s development-oriented crap is BART to Livermore and San Jose. There’s a real problem with building these lines for the hopes of new development that doesn’t materialize while neglecting core urban neighborhoods, in the Bay Area’s case the Geary corridor and the Richmond District. Vancouver has the same debate now, in which suburban interests in Surrey keep trying to find justifications for prioritizing their lower-performing and higher-cost-per-projected-rider SkyTrain extension over the UBC/Broadway extension; but Vancouver has actually aggressively redeveloped around SkyTrain in ways American cities don’t. Vancouver also has fast population growth, which isn’t the case in some of the rustier towns building streetcars. Providence’s tallest building is empty, but the city still wants to build a streetcar to redevelop another neighborhood.

    • Ted K.

      It will relieve one of the most overcrowded bus routes in the city

      ROFL The stations north of Market Street (Union Square, Chinatown) are in the wrong places and don’t have enough entrances. To paraphrase Cornelius Ryan it’s going to be an example of “A Station Too Few“. Also, those transit users with some form of claustrophobia aren’t going to like the deep dive under Market St. nor the lengthy tunnel between the Union Square and Powell stations. So there will probably NOT be a large reduction in demand for surface transit.
      “Central Subway Project | SFMTA” (SFMTA.com page)

      SFMuni could have relieved the crowding in the Stockton St. corridor decades ago by turning Stockton St. into a transit mall from the tunnel to Market St. A BRT-like treatment of Kearny and Sutter would help on the northbound leg. Just keep in mind that the leading deities in San Francisco are Pluto ($’s etc.), Bacchus, and Janus. It’s no wonder that our pol’s can proclaim SF is a transit-oriented city and then belly up to the bar with members of the car lobby.

      I have trouble seeing this as development-oriented transit.

      Here’s a scale remover for your eyes, Wanderer. The T-Third serves a corridor with five brownfields : Mission Bay (UCSF), Dogpatch, Bayview / Evans, Bayview / Hunters Point, and Bayview / Sunnydale (Schlage Lock, Tunnel Ave.). The ostensible reason for building the T-Third was to improve the transit options for the Bayview (Evans, Hunters Point, Sunnydale). Instead, Slick Willie (aka Mayor Brown at the time) got a shiny toy to point at while people mourned the passing of the 15-Third (diesel) and suffered poor connections and extended trip times. I gave up on trips along Third Street and switched to the Mission Corridor (BART and SFMuni) with a connection to the 48-Quintara to get over to the Dogpatch sector from where I lived near Geneva and Mission.

      An FYI from a long-time SFMuni rider.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Train: Who the heck hates bicycles?

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