Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Conservative" transportation policy?

I was struck by one of the comments to an Orlando Sentinel article on transportation. The article featured my friend and former consultant Billy Hattaway, who advocates both "Road Diets" (reducing pavement width to make roads more civilized) and mass transit.

The first commenter comes out of the blocks on what he labels "liberal" transportation policy (transit), implying that our current system of roadways somehow embodies Conservative ideals. I've heard this argument before, that cars - and the roads that accommodate them - preserve the individual's god-given freedom while transit, by being tax-funded and government-run, is nothing more than the State exerting control over individuals' mobility and freedom.

What baffles me about this argument is that precisely the opposite (of the first-half, at least) is the actual case with an automobile-and-road-based system. Probably no sector of our society is more "socialized" than transportation. Yes, individuals own the cars, but they're useless without roads, bridges, traffic signals, parking lots, etc, and the government taxes, subsidizes and controls all of those things. And not just at the Federal level. States, regions, counties, cities and even special taxing districts - EVERY level of government we have - are heavily involved in the provision and regulation of automobile-serving infrastructure. Every form of taxation we have - income, property, sales, special taxes, fees and tolls - is employed, and the transportation bureaucracy is mind-boggling, not to mention fraught with all the bureaucratic inefficiencies.

What's more, when it comes to conferring freedom of mobility (which really is something different from the fundamental Freedoms protected by the Constitution, but that is a different conversation) a car- and road-based transportation system is considerably lacking. True, the driver of an automobile can - in theory - choose where, how, and what to drive. The problem is, only 50% of our population, at best, has the ability or wherewithal to drive. The young, the old, the disabled, and the poor find their mobility ("freedom," if you will) significantly curtailed by the virtual requirement to employ a car for any trip of any purpose.

To ensure "freedom" for one half of the population, while limiting it for the other half is hardly the sort of "American Virtue" envisioned by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.