As conservative as it gets (wikimedia)
As conservative as it gets (wikimedia)

One reason I try to steer this blog into a fairly narrow focus on transit and land-use is that there’s no fundamental reason that pro-transit views have to go along with progressive ones, and I’d like to keep the pro-transit tent as big as possible.  Although I’m pretty sure the whole staff is left of center to varying degrees and we all voted for Obama, there’s no reason to start going off on pro-lifers or whatever and alienating people that might just be interested in a decent alternative to congestion.

Additionally, I find it fairly perverse and frustrating that land use, parking, and zoning is one area where the conservative/libertarian ideology seems not to follow through.  Given that these issues tend to tear apart progressives, allies on the right would be useful in bringing about positive local change.

This is all a roundabout way of introducing a not-especially-new Infrastructurist interview with pro-transit conservative William Lind.  In the interview, Lind brings hundreds of words with serious intellectual firepower, and doesn’t once mention global warming or other environmental issues that dominate the discourse in the Seattle echo-chamber.  It’s a useful reminder that there’s a whole arsenal of arguments out there that doesn’t require one to evaluate dueling climate models, ones that might win votes in the future.

Lind also has a book out on the subject with the late Paul Weyrich.

38 Replies to “Conservatives and Transit”

  1. I want to truly thank you for this! I’m a staunchly pro-transit voter, habitual bus rider and ardent light rail supporter, who just so happens to be a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative, too. It’s nice to see that there are truly some people who can keep their issues separate, especially in Seattle.

    Love the blog, too. Keep up the good work!

    1. I almost never see eye-to-eye with “dyed-in-the-wool political conservatives”, but that’s not to say that there is no room for reasoned discourse and mutual respect. :)

  2. Thank you so much for bringing this article to my attention!

    I too am a pro-transit conservative. I loved the article because it didn’t have all those “wishy-whashy” liberal arguments that normally leave me frustrated and distract me from the real reason I read this blog – rail transit in Puget Sound and the Northwest. It’s also a nice reminder that I’m not alone in my pro-transit conservatism.

    Now I think I have a book to go buy…

  3. Thanks too I’m a slightly left leaning transit nut. But my parents are conservative transit nuts that live downtown. They get a little tired of being labeled as sub driving racist homophobic farmers with 12 kids. So it’s good to see this post

    1. Well, I might as well link-dump several similar articles I’ve run across:
      Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit
      The Conservative Case for Urbanism
      A conservative case for urbanism

      Also reminds me of what’s going on in the UK, where the Labour government (which supported the Iraq war) is in trouble and the Conservative Party is proposing high-speed rail to Manchester (and maybe Scotland).

      1. Probably most of the people who visit STB are liberals, because of the S and because of the T. People like Sarastro should start spreading these links at sites like Newsbusters and Free Republic and the other conservative (and libertarian too) sites, especially when the conversation turns to transit and land use issues.

  4. Yes, Paul Weyrich was great in our field. Totally out of it in every other part of the political realm, but he really understood urban transportation and transit. Too bad so few conservatives gave him the time of day on that topic, however.

    1. Weyrich and Lind are two of the few pro-transit and pro-rail conservatives I know of. I do wish there were more of them. It isn’t terribly hard to find pro-road and auto conservatives though. I think Lind may be on to something when he points out this may be more of a cultural factor than anything else.

  5. This is excellent. I’m a right-leaning libertarian conservative when it comes to federal public policy, but a fairly staunch progressive when it comes to transit, density, land use, and other domestic issues. It’s a bit of a gray area for people who tend to vote Republican because there are those associational risks involved when you’re supporting both sides at varying levels. At least it proves you’re not a dummy talking head for one party. I’ve seen pro-transit progressives call rail opponents “gun-toting, Obama-hating, anti-choice, GWB-kissing, right-wing nutters.” On the other hand, it truly irks me to the bone when anti-transit people call rail transit a socialist sham. I read Lind’s interview, it’s fantastic. He sorts out how transit isn’t exclusively a partisan issue and points out that yes, everyone, even Democrats and Republicans, hate congestion. It doesn’t take a fool to deduce that everyone is a long-term beneficiary to efficient transit.

    1. The true socialist (Marxist?) sham began with the signing of the Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956.

      (Actually, Karl would be embarrassed at how much redistribution went on with that one, given how Wyoming made out over New Jersery in lane miles per resident!)

      1. If your conservative friend is complaining about socialism and how its evil, point out that our highways that give us Our Freedom(TM) are a product of socialism. It drives them mad!

      2. Of course Wyoming got more lane miles per resident. New Jersey is ranked 47th in the US in area and Wyoming ranks 10th. New Jersey ranks 10th in population and Wyoming is 50th. The interstate crosses Wyoming to benefit the populations on both coasts. This is exactly the type of twisted logic argument that riles conservatives. By extension it would have one believe allotting highway funds by lane miles per resident would be good idea.

      3. But I’ve trapped you, since the limited access highways in Wyoming are all “free” and the users of such roads in New Jersey pay for access, as there are no “free” highways/freeways in New Jersey, only toll roads.

      4. Eisenhower originally want the entire freeway system to be paid for through tolls, but his advisors told him that tolls would never cover the cost of construction because of the vast stretches of rural freeway. He also wanted to avoid building freeways through urban areas because he understood the ramifications. Alas, he was defeated on both counts.

  6. Wow, that’s some of the best transit arguments I’ve heard in years. Its not happy, fruity, liberal like pro-transit arguments tend to be. Its down to earth and uses lots of valid points I’ve never though of as a liberal. Explain it in terms of dollars and cents.

    I love that it doesn’t mention global warming either. Arguing that point to most conservatives tends to turn them off (I don’t blame them, it gets old) and they believe you to be a loon.

  7. I think part of the reason that so few conservatives are pro-transit is cultural, but in a different way than this article suggests.

    In my experience, conservatism often goes hand-in-hand with individualism, or alternatively, with “freedom” in the American frontiersman sense. How can rail compare with driving a convertible (or a motorcycle) at 90mph on the open road, with no one else in sight? Or taking an SUV into the wilderness or onto the top of a mountain? (It’s no coincidence that this is the same imagery car advertisements use.)

    To these people, rail means that you can’t go anywhere that isn’t on the line. Rail means that you might have to wait, even if you need to be at your destination now. Rail means stops and starts, which means that the train is going somewhere that you don’t need to go, and that’s wasting time.

    Note that several of the comments on the original article point out NYC’s jitneys (i.e. private buses) as proof that, without rail, private operators can run mass transit. The real question is, how many of those commenters would actually ride those jitneys? How many of those commenters would take a carpool, if it meant that they could ride in the HOV lane? I’m guessing the number is pretty close to zero.

    If you want to convince a conservative to support transit, you can’t change the facts, but you can reframe the question. We don’t want trains to replace cars; we want trains to replace congestion. When you have a ton of people going to essentially the same place (which is basically what highways are), cars are just inefficient, which is a long word for slow.

    As far as budgets go… just show them how much the government spends on highways already. If that doesn’t convince them, I don’t know what will.

    1. Aleks – I agree with your point that cultural attitudes tied to the perceived freedom of unrestrained movement affect perceptions of transit, but I don’t think the “constraints” of transit are much different than Lind’s assertion that unfamiliarity with transit is the root cause.

      To re-frame my point, I like to use personal example of unfettered movement and enjoyment permitted by a good transit network to prove its merits and win over doubters. I can for example choose my path in situ; that is, a transit system allows me to readily alter my path. But, unlike travel with a car, I can move more fluidly and linearly, as opposed to constantly doubling back to the car. And while I am out, I can indulge without worry. Have a beer? Don’t mind if I do. Another? Certainly, and so on. Or perhaps its simply spending more time in a place than anticipated and not worrying about the parking meter running out. Or maybe its the freedom brought about by not dealing with congestion and finding parking; did you read that article… oh wait, you were looking for a spot. Anyway, despite the less than fully serious tone of the above, I have used these same types of examples to convince people to not go by car, to not rent a car, etc.

      Regarding the issue of familiarity or lack thereof, I would like to share an anecdote involving my parents, both died-in-the-wool conservatives, who, as products of the Detroit suburbs, view cars as absolutely essential to life and have (or had) some very entrenched feelings and perceptions about transit–mainly related to race and income. Anyway, I moved to Boston after college without a car, and saw no need to get one once there. When they first came to visit, I told them I would meet them at the airport and help them back via the subway. My father was incensed and wanted to cab it instead. I finally convinced them to try it, after which I couldn’t get my parents off the T. They finally went home after having ridden out to the ends of half the lines and with my dad sporting a system map t-shirt. Since then, they’ve never again questioned using the transit systems in the various cities I lived, and in fact have expected it. My father even stated his disappointment and disbelief when he learned that Seattle didn’t have a subway.

      So my point is simply that the fears and prejudices associated with the unknown and unfamiliar can be pretty easily dispensed through experience. Its not just an argument against congestion. Its also very much about redefining the expectations and experience of moving–how you move, what you can experience en route, et al–the quality of life afforded by transit. My parents are still very tied to their cars at home, yet whenever they visit they are now empowered by transit and encouraged to explore on their own. And that’s beginning to permeate other realms as well–on their last visit, they opted to “shunport” it and ride the Empire Builder.

  8. Land use is certainly an important component of transit policy. But, TOD as it’s be promoted is not. If you want conservative backing (not talking about the conservatives making millions on development deals) then focus on the transit. Improve transit where there is already demand. This is where people want more density and fare recovery is already highest (and will only improve). Quit running buses out to the back of beyond! Not only is it expensive and sucking service from where it’s needed it’s promoting sprawl as much or more than building new roads. Besides, the gun loving conservatives that invested in property in the back of beyond don’t want density.

    Follow the yellow brick road:
    We built freeways and suburbs. OK, maybe not the best thing but that’s not important to where we focus transit dollars. It’s done, people live there, they drive cars. Shorten the vehicle miles traveled by making it faster to P&R!

    It’s the urban core that holds the key to making transit effective. Keep cars out. Make it really really expensive to park. Abandon any projects that seek to deliver more cars downtown. Provide attractive alternatives (e.g. high cost rail) for the folks that work there but charge accordingly.

      1. Actually, Matt, I find it amusing that most of what Bernie is complaining about are policies put in place and supported by local Republicans and their supporters…

  9. I’m also conservative and pro-transit. There are alot of us that tire of global warming baloney and other liberal arguments. We just want efficient transportation and the better cities that good transit can provide. Having cities clogged with cars and people isolated in individual cars serves no one. It would be best to stop preaching to the choir and focus on envangelizing the unbelieving conversatives with how good transit will beneit him/her. The conservative is focused on the individual good. Show them how they and their family will be better off and they will sign on and vote for it, just look at the result of ST2 election and the burgoning acceptance of light rail in Seattle. I tell people all the time about taking Metro and how cool the Link is and I didn’t even vote for Obama.

  10. I tend to think he’s right about high speed rail, actually. I’d rather see the federal government focus on improving speed and frequency on existing lines. Leave HSR to states like California who can experiment with it, work out the bugs and we can go national with it long term.

    But practically, I’m going to favor HSR over no rail spending at all, because that’s what the current options seem to be.

    1. Most of the proposed HSR lines are improved versions of existing corridors. The Cascades line bewteen Vancouver and Portland could easily be “high speed” without building an all new line. The Northeast Acela was created pretty much by electrifying the old corridor and ploping some fancy trainsets down.

      True it’s not European levels of high speed, but even that would just take a bit of grade seperation. Most of France’s high speed network was created through gradual upgrading.

      1. Excellent points, Barman.
        Incremental HSR, as is proposed by most of the states, and pioneered by our own state Rail Office at WSDOT, should warm the hearts of even the most conservative voter.
        Improvements along the Cascade Corridor greatly improve speed and reliability of BOTH passenger AND freight traffic. Rail is allready a hands down winner for efficient use of fuel and environmental effects.
        Good business decisions generally look to the bottom line first. When I ran a steel mill in the midwest some years ago, we allways compared bringing in raw materials by both rail and truck. Rail won out nearly all the time, unless you needed something really quick.
        My point is this — common sense is neither a conservative or liberal issue. Good transit (rail, bus, brt, car-share, HOV, HOT, etc) should be based on common sense and efficient use of resources, not on party platform. Voters, both conservative and liberal look to their own bottom line in equal numbers, when dediding how to spend our tax dollars.

  11. Great post and decent tone to the comments. I agree with the folks that seek reframing of arguments for and against transit. I have always believed that many issues (not just infrastructure ones) discussed in our popular politics have been overly shaded as “for or against” and unnecessarily tossed into “liberal” or “conservative” bins, mainly by a media that benefits from simplism in the debate/discussion. After all, it’s always easier or more entertaining to present an issue by producing a panel of two pundits and a “moderator” and letting them put eachother’s views down.

    But I bristle at the way the idea of freedom has been co-opted and turned into Freedom by folks who identify themselves as conservatives. It’s always “dont tread on my Freedom.” The fact that one might think of hitting the road on their Harley as freedom is fine with me. Have at it. But in the world should that idea of freedom preclude the choice of transit alternative for me? Especially when my choice to take transit takes my 2.5 ton tank of an SUV off the road that Harley is plying.

    I took LINK with my son to the Mariner’s game last night. We met my wife who’d taken LINK to her office downtown earlier in the day. We left the game when we chose to (as the M’s ‘pen imploded), walked three long blocks to Stadium station, waited six minutes for the southbound, and were home in 25 minutes. Our Landcruiser and Subie Outback parked in the driveway. No ‘two separate cars downtown.’ No worry about parking. No post-game congestion. No unnecessary emissions added to the atmosphere. That’s Freedom.

    Furthermore, I agree that separating out the various individual and regional benefits of transit from global climate change, could be helpful in growing this really nice start on a system. But lightly referring to global climate change as “liberal baloney” is bullshit. Those days are over. Deniers might hate the fallout of responding to climate change as it relates to your perceptions of freedom, but there no question it’s occuring and it’s no longer a political issue. Dealing with it is a policy issue and therefore involves politics. But there no going back on the rest of it. Assigning sides (liberal versus conservative) and denigrating the one you disagree with (‘baloney’) undermines the value of the rest of your comment.

  12. Great discussion here.

    The problem I have with today’s bomb-tossing conservatives is just how ardently knee-jerk and reactionary they can be. Cold War conservatives could play up the legitimate fear of Soviet communism – today’s right wingers seem to have the need for manufacturing fear.

    Fear which catalyzed the property rights movement, the gun rights movement, and the anti-gay / anti-abortion / anti-birth control / anti-sex movement.

    Those same conservatives have an insane hatred of public transit, mostly because they are based in the exurbs, suburbs and rural areas. Why their urban bretheren largely adopted the ‘one man per car = freedom’ mantra is beyond me, because you don’t find a lot of freedom sitting in a massive traffic jam.

    Today’s Dori Monson / John Carlson libertarian conservatives also have this strange habit of totally making stuff up to buttress their claims. Such as “my car pays for itself” and “more freeway lanes will automatically solve congestion.” One wonders whether Dori, Kirby, Medved, Carlson, etc would be less knee-jerk if they didn’t base their views on mythology hand-fed to them by self-centered ego maniacs like Kemper Freeman. Kemper may be good at keeping the family business going…but he’s an airhead when it comes to transportation.

    I’m looking forward to the return of common sense conservatism. It better happen soon, because without competition, the left wing has a tendency to go pretty loony, pretty fast.

    Again, good post and interesting comments.

    1. Today’s Dori Monson / John Carlson libertarian conservatives also have this strange habit of totally making stuff up to buttress their claims. Such as “my car pays for itself” and “more freeway lanes will automatically solve congestion.” One wonders whether Dori, Kirby, Medved, Carlson, etc would be less knee-jerk if they didn’t base their views on mythology hand-fed to them by self-centered ego maniacs like Kemper Freeman. Kemper may be good at keeping the family business going…but he’s an airhead when it comes to transportation.

      I’ve had a number of local conservatives tell me that rather than “wasting” money on Link we should widen I-5 through Seattle. They don’t seem to have any concept of what this would cost or how it would be paid for. Of course there are a bunch of other new highways or highway widening projects most of them support such as an 8 lane 520 or I-605. Again with no idea of the actual project costs nor where the money would come from. If they do address the money issue most of them seem to think the transit share of the pot along with “waste, fraud, and abuse” is enough to cover their pavement dreams. In other words much the same story as the I-695 supporters gave us.

      I’m looking forward to the return of common sense conservatism. It better happen soon, because without competition, the left wing has a tendency to go pretty loony, pretty fast.

      1. Argh! I forgot the second half of my comment:

        I’m looking forward to the return of common sense conservatism. It better happen soon, because without competition, the left wing has a tendency to go pretty loony, pretty fast.

        Actually both the left and the right have loony tendencies. Not sure exactly how to combat that but keeping both sides reasonably politically competitive in most areas does seem to help. Naturally this also means the mainstream of both sides tends to be fairly moderate and common sense.

  13. Our local anti-mass transit activists follow the national trend; from John Niles’ Discovery Institute obsession with privatizing transportation (sidewalks, too, presumably) to the Kemper-funded Washington Policy Center, they all converged in Bellevue with their nation-wide freedom warriors a couple months ago. The American Dream Coalition has an interesting obsession with (empty) yards, long commutes, and full driveways. I am not kidding.

    If you want a first-hand look at how the Interstate Highways Act twisted common sense conservatism into self-centered libertarianism, look no further than

  14. For those interested in further readings, Paul Weyrich is one obvious and close-to-us source. He used to publish magazines and newsletters on the subject of rail and passenger rail.

    Going a little further back, we have David Morgan as editor of Trains. In the 50s, 60s, and into the 70s this is must-read stuff for anyone with a love of, or curiosity about, trains. And in these issues we find John Kneiling, who I thought was a kind of nut, but who knows, maybe experience has now shown he was a farseeing visionary.

    And yet further back we have Charles Francis Adams and his Railroads- Their Origin and Problems. Impeccable conservatism from a pioneer of railroad regulation. He was also President of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1884-1890.

    Of course, squaring the circle of conservatism and railroads is recommended as an intellectual exercise only. Like Rubik’s Cube or chess, it could be hazardous to your mental health if taken too seriously.

  15. I am conservative and pro-transit(I want more transit not less). One problem that conservatives have with transit is that people in cities like Seattle want more transit, fine. HGowever, they think that transit will work equally everywhere. It does not. There are places where more transit does not make sence. Just like there are places where more raods make no sense. What we need is leaders that know this fact. I am sorry to say that means most of King County Goverment is not in this catergory.

  16. I’m a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. For transit hat means least cost analysis needs to be applied to project to show that it is actually the best value for our money.

    That’s where LINK and I diverge. Note, I didn’t say “light rail”, I mean LINK as it is built here in Seattle. We could have done better, or worse, as S.F. BART points out. And that is the point of many of my complaints. Move more people for less costs.

    On Land use any transportation system which reduces the commute time from place far from the center of density, promotes sprawl. People have a maximum commute time that they are willing to live with, it’s about 1.5 hrs each way. And businesses look to reduce their costs, so if the density is too high and the land costs for offices/manufacturing etc, or the ease of moving labor from one place to another is short time, then without strict land use laws you’ll get sprawl.

  17. We could have done better, Gary?

    How so?

    I read your comment, but you include zero details.

    RennDawg: transit serves different purposes in different parts of the country and state. There is no one standard of measure. For instance, WA features several rural transit agencies which provide lifeline mobility – as opposed to peak hour congestion relief.

  18. I never said that rural needed no transit. I just said that some areas roads make more sense. The problem is we have too many transit extremists in our area that they cannot grasp the idea that more roads may be nrrded in areas where they do not live. To many Seattle elitists in our county goverment.

  19. Small point, but you could have identified your illustration as a Boston Elevated Railway type 3 semi-convertible street car.


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