Mass Transit And A Failure Of Governance

I’ve written many times about how the failure of mass transit in the U.S. represents a failure of governance. Jacob Abinder makes that very clear (boldface mine):

These criticisms are not wrong, per se, but they overlook a more fundamental issue. Even if we knew how to improve urban mobility in America (and, in truth, it isn’t rocket science), would our politics provide a way to translate those needs into action?

This is the crux of the urban mobility crisis: not broken infrastructure, but a broken political economy—one that includes transit but extends to issues far beyond it. Many thousands of voters do care about having fast, reliable trains and buses, and good advocacy organizations work to support their cause. But the number of politicians who believe the quality of the transit their constituents use will affect their chance of re-election seems to dwindle by the year. Such has long been the case, of course, in the many cities that run public transportation in the grand tradition of American social safety-net programs—so minimally as to prod people to stop using them the moment they can afford to do so. Alarmingly, however, the last few years have shown that even in the large coastal cities facing major issues with their buses and trains, we lack mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable for systemic problems within the large bureaucracies that run public transportation. The implications of this problem suggest that progressives in urban America must not content themselves to effect change within the institutions of local government as they currently exist. Rather, they must articulate a vision for the future of their cities that begins with a wholesale reexamination of the structure of urban government itself.

One key issue is the complete failure of oversight, both from the legislative and executive branches of local government:

It does not accommodate the notion that a major transit agency might itself be a political actor, with goals and interests that could conflict with those of the public. In other words, politicians in our major transit-reliant cities have been able to avoid responsibility for poor transit service because current progressive ideology does not explain why a government institution might inherently lack the ability to improve its provision of a public service.

Affirming the basic value of government institutions might be a fine rhetorical strategy against Republicans at the national level (though even there its electoral record is shaky). In urban politics, however, actively questioning the competence of large bureaucracies is not conservatism in disguise; it is the essence of progressivism itself. Previous generations of progressives, in particular those who labeled their movement with a capital “P,” would not be surprised by the cupidity and incompetence that afflict not only our major transit agencies, but also housing authorities, economic development corporations, and police departments—all of which disproportionately affect the working poor and people of color. They would be dismayed, however, by the tendency on today’s left to search for tweaks, and the hesitance to acknowledge that such institutional rot can inhere within the structure of urban government itself if left unchecked.

…the transit crisis presents an opportunity for a new urban progressivism, one that would meld the basic skepticism of metropolitan governance that formed the heart of the movement a century ago with the emphasis on broad-based participatory politics that has animated progressives more recently. In practice, such an ideology would assert that the path toward more effective urban transit lies in embracing rather than denying its inherently political nature. It would demand that politicians like de Blasio and Boston mayor Marty Walsh call for the restoration of transit service to municipal, metropolitan control, in turn linking transit to electoral outcomes far more directly than is currently the case.

Or as we say around here, people have to like this crap.

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