Last month, Josh Barro at the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner wrote a critique of transit advocates’ lamentations that road subsidies are often overlooked, arguing that land use, not auto investment, should be the target of disdain. Barro’s underlying point is absolutely correct, even if his slant isn’t very favorable to our cause. The second sentence in this quote, in particular, is a point that we’ve beat to death on this blog.
That’s because the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage.
I won’t even deny Barro’s argument that if you eliminated all transportation subsidies tomorrow, cars would probably win out. However, I think this is all moot if you don’t consider the context of transportation and land use subsidies, which have historically favored automobiles by a large margin. There was a significant amount of post-war growth attributable to government mandates– highways, sprawl, single-use zoning, to name a few.
The important thing to remember is that because of this massive infusion of subsidies, we built our cities around the car, sprouting land uses that effectively put transit at a cruel disadvantage. This inequity persists today– clear evidence that the pace of land use changes are monumentally slower than the speed at which we implement transportation investments. As a result, it would be difficult for transit to catch up, even if we matched the real value of historical subsidies for automobiles.
I think there’s something to be said about demand here. Tract developers and highway advocates say people want single-family low-density living environments, as if there’s pure market demand for it. However, much of this demand is latent, having no basis for existence had the government not meddled in suburbanization and land use affairs as a matter of public policy.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to find anything that hasn’t been subsidized in one way or another. But for transit to be a winning battle, I think our focus should be less about how much money taxpayers fork over, and more about the benefits–enhanced mobility, transportation choice, economic development, etc.– the things that people really care about.