Politics is Failing Mass Transit

The transit crisis has made the limitations of a liberal ideology involving “minor, technical fixes” immediately, laughably clear.

By Jacob Anbinder

Tagged Metrospoliticspublic transportation

When Elon Musk asserted, at a recent tech conference, that public transport “sucks” and might invite encounters with serial killers, it prompted an uproar among urban planners and advocates.

The controversy focused on the absurdity of Musk’s latter claim, but the other part of the Tesla CEO’s critique was undeniably correct. Public transportation in the United States is, by the standards of any wealthy country, in a state of crisis. The evidence in support of this fact is so pervasive, so overwhelming, that it seems almost redundant to cite. Perhaps the strongest indicator is also the simplest: Nationwide, transit use is declining despite (or, perhaps, because of) strong economic conditions in most American cities. Ridership through the first nine months of 2017 was the lowest since 2006 for that span of the calendar year.

Yet the nature of our current transit crisis is as misunderstood as its existence is obvious. Pointing to the dismal physical infrastructure of major transit systems like the New York City Subway and the Washington Metro, many progressives and even some conservatives seem to believe the country is merely one stimulus bill away from fixing the problem. (Note President Trump’s tweet after the recent Amtrak crash in Washington state.) Such arguments inevitably cite the American Society of Civil Engineers “report card,” which, funnily enough, has never said that we are not in need of more civil engineering. Some better analyses have added more nuance, arguing that the problem is not only that our cities invest too little in transit but also choose their investments poorly. Since the recession, more than a few cities have opened expensive new rail lines while actually cutting transit service overall. For example, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, ran 1.3 million fewer hours of bus service in 2016 than in 2008, a 10 percent decline.

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.

Consider New York City, whose metropolitan region accounts for about 40 percent of the entire country’s transit ridership. The distinguishing characteristic of the three major transit agencies on which the region relies—the MTA, the Port Authority, and NJ Transit—is an exceptional lack of concern about whether they can get better at the thing they exist to do. In fact, several major pieces of reporting in the last few weeks have portrayed them as actively uninterested. In The New York Times, Brian Rosenthal uncovered the MTA’s corrupt management of the new Second Avenue Subway, which included featherbedding construction contracts with hundreds of unnecessary jobs, illegal gifts from contractors to curry favor within the agency, and needlessly expensive contracts resulting from oligopolistic bidding. Dana Rubinstein of Politico reported that MTA management misused a “disaster emergency” order to prevent its board from scrutinizing $102 million in agency contracts, while Dan Rivoli at the New York Daily News noted a recent $600 million order of subway cars has produced trains so unreliable that the manufacturer has been banned from bidding the next time around. The Port Authority is building a new train to get people from La Guardia Airport to Manhattan that will go in the wrong direction, while its former chairman is serving probation for having extorted United Airlines into offering a flight from Newark to his vacation home in South Carolina. NJ Transit’s former chief compliance officer told New Jersey lawmakers in August that he was not allowed to talk with rank-and-file employees at will while working for the agency and would not let his own child ride its trains.

Such issues are by no means limited to New York. The future of many Bostonians’ commutes is depending on the local transit agency getting lucky with the lowball bid it selected for desperately needed new railcars—one from an inexperienced company which promised to build a new factory in an economically depressed part of the state. Washington D.C.’s many transit incidents prompted one disgruntled rider to create a website called “Is Metro On Fire?”; more recently, The Washington Post reported that the transit agency installed keystroke monitors on the computers of its inspector general’s office (for which a “rogue” employee was fired).

These are material problems that one would expect to have political consequences—or, at least, political salience. Yet just the opposite seems to be true. The governors of New York and Massachusetts, who run the major transit agencies, both have approval ratings well above 50 percent even though majorities of New Yorkers and Bostonians also agree that their respective cities’ transit systems are substandard. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who could improve New York’s dismal bus reliability by redesigning streets and requiring police to better enforce traffic laws, instead cruised to re-election on a platform that included refusing to endorse an anti-congestion plan and building a useless streetcar.

It is possible that some voters are simply ignorant of the connection between their elected officials and the mass transit they complain about. But there is a more fundamental problem at work as well, one reflective of a deeper tension within progressive thinking. As Zach Goldhammer wrote in these pages a few months ago, liberals have embraced the notion that there is no societal problem that “minor technocratic tweaks” cannot solve as a way of rebutting conservative attempts to discredit government entirely. Implicit in this idea is the assumption that the bureaucracies that oversee the technocrats are necessarily competent, their interests basically aligned with the public’s, and are threatened only by conservative and centrist austerity. It is the same worldview that proposes we “invest more in infrastructure” and other bromides that assume the institutions doing the investing are fundamentally sound.

The transit crisis, however, has made the limitations of this ideology immediately, laughably clear. 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 irony, of course, is that the structures of major transit agencies—in particular the Port Authority—reflect the influence of progressives, many of whom believed that isolating bureaucracies from the political process (and, by extension, the tribalism of voters) would produce better outcomes. Rather than discrediting their approach entirely, however, 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. It is improbable that doing so would make Elon Musk more likely to ride the bus. But it would at least deny him the pleasure of having his criticisms ring true.

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Jacob Anbinder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University, where he studies the politics of American cities and suburbs in the twentieth century. He was the editorial intern for Democracy in the summer of 2011.

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