Greetings, STB readers! It’s an honor to be contributing to one of my favorite blogs in the Pacific NW, writing for a smart, attractive, diverse audience such as yourselves. You may have read a few of my ramblings at Orphan Road over the years. Thanks to the STB folks for letting me crash the place.
That quick bit of throat-clearing aside, let me say I enjoyed Roger’s cri de coeur in favor of denser urban development. It sparked a couple of thoughts in response, which I’ve adapted below from a previous post I wrote on Orphan Road.
At the 30,000-foot level, Roger’s question is about power and influence: how do urbanists win? How does one agenda defeat another? Well, basically you either out-organize them or out-fundraise them. Politics is a battle of interests, not ideas (apologies to Keynes). If you want your interests to beat out the other guys’ interests, you either need more money, better organization, or both. Having good ideas is a second-order problem. Ideas help you raise money and organize. But you still have to raise money and organize.
So, how do we get there?
Organizing in favor of change is always harder than organizing against it. People are more likely to come out of the woodwork to oppose something, be it the Iraq War or changes to the Route 2, than to support something new. But people do come out to celebrate the new, if they sense possibility and excitement around it. Witness the crazy crowds that surrounded the opening days of the Seattle Streetcar and Link. Positive, change-oriented agendas can have their own power, but they have to be specific, tangible, and actionable. Think Obama 2008: “Want change? Vote for this dude.” Nice and simple.
For density advocates, raising money is in some ways the easier task. There are plenty of organizations – from developers to construction firms to trade unions – that benefit directly from urban development. But that money comes with strings attached. Many of these folks are often just as happy to build sprawl. More happy, in fact, since sprawl often requires less onerous soil remediation and environmental permitting. Pro-density folks make a mistake when they assume that all developers are their friends. In truth, it’s often a marriage of convenience.
There are no magic solutions. But I do think the broad outlines of the Schleicher paper that begat this conversation are right: a coalition needs to form — call it a political party or not — that has the power to change policy and can back it up with money and votes. It needs to be difficult for a politician to defy this coalition. From time to time, the coalition will do things that individual members disagree with, and these members need to find a way to support the coalition and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is often a very difficult task for some, who may immediately defect if the percentage of funding for their favorite transportation mode isn’t exactly what they wanted.
Finally, the only way for such a coalition to survive this inevitable infighting is to have a common creed, a similar worldview. This is where the ideas come in. This worldview needs to be broad enough to be inclusive, but specific enough to actually mean something. Part of it is about the economic benefits of urbanization. Part of it is about limiting sprawl. Part of it is about climate change, but I’m pretty sure if we converted our entire auto fleet to zero emissions overnight, many of us would still be urbanists. And part of it is purely romantic. It’s probably not about mode choice or fantasy maps (much as I love fantasy maps!).
Max Weber said, “politics is a long and slow boring of hard boards.” 20 years ago, Seattle Transit Blog, Transportation Choices and Sightline didn’t exist. 20 years ago it was possible to make a film about Seattle in which the main character was an environmentalist who refused to take public transit. Today we have a decent light rail system underway, more bike and HOV lanes than ever, and a pretty great new multifamily code. This shift can be hard to see when you’re neck-deep in the weeds of yet another neighborhood zoning battle, but it’s real.
The next 20 years will be even harder. Whereas the last era was mostly additive (more transit options for everyone!) the next era may involve starker choices: where to allocate scare dollars, when to stop subsidizing free parking, how to cope with rising gas prices, etc. Against this backdrop, creating a political coalition for transit-oriented living and backing it up with a positive, inclusive ideology will be even more important. I hope to contribute to this effort in whatever small way I can.