Urbanism: Not Just for Lefties

The American Prospect reports on a bi-partisan panel at the University of Minnesota last week where some dyed-in-the-wool Republicans declared their affinity for urbanism and opposition to sprawl:

Policies in favor of dense development shouldn’t be viewed on a left-right spectrum and certainly needn’t be filtered through culture-war rhetoric, the panelists said. In fact, one doesn’t have to be concerned about climate change at all in order to support such policies; values of fiscal conservatism and localism, both key to Republican ideology, can be better realized through population-dense development than through sprawl.

Tom Darden, a developer of urban and close-in suburban properties, said Wednesday, "I’m a Republican and have been my whole life. I consider myself a very conservative person. But it never made sense to me why we would tax ordinary people in order to subsidize this form of development, sprawl." Darden told the story of a road-paving project approved by North Carolina when he served on the state’s transportation board. A dirt road that handled just five trips per day was paved at taxpayer expense, with money that could have gone toward mass transit benefiting millions of people.

"Those were driveways, in my view, not roads," Darden said.

Now that U.S. taxpayers will probably have to bail out the Highway Trust Fund to the tune of $8 billion, how much longer can the free-spending road-building industry masquerade as an enabler of personal freedom?

Personal sidenote: Stories like this remind me of my high school calculus teacher, Mr. Hall, who was conservative through and through, and didn’t shy away from sharing his views in class. When he was a kid, his family’s farm ceased to be viable when it got split down the middle to make way for I-91. Much of his distaste for government seemed to spring from this fact. Not that eminent domain doesn’t have its uses, but here was a guy whose conservatism was rooted in opposition to highway building.

  • Eminent domain may someday be needed to build light and heavy rail. Will we have the collective will to bulldoze dying sprawl to make way for high-speed rail?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Real conservatives, who object to using government power to redistribute well being up to the better off as well as down to the less well off, probably account for about 1/5 or less of those who call themselves Republicans.

    One of the few, at least to an extent, is the guy they put up from President, but if elected he’d have a hell of a time getting his own kind off the tit. The United States of America, however, may be bankrupt by inaugeration day, so anything is possible.

    Bicycles — little public capital cost, no public operating cost.

  • Omri

    Mark, how many HSR train lines could we need that we could not set up by repurposing an interstate?

  • Shemp

    Taxpayers “bailing out” the highway trust fund? It’s a fund of public money for public purposes that is suffering from the absence of timely tax increases over the past 15 years.

  • Transit Guy

    Omri- the answer is probably none. The engineering requirements for turns made by vehicles that are over 100 yards in length are very different than those acceptable to cars and tractor trailers on interstates.

  • Transit Guy

    To clarify, it’s nearly impossible to repurpose an interstate for HSR. If it’s possible, it’s probably far more costly than the next alternative.

  • Dave H.

    Interesting post.

    One quibble: Not sure if “bail out” is the right word. Taxpayers can bail out failed private enterprises (Bear Stearns, etc.) or quasi-private enterprises with private sources of funding (Fannie Mae etc.) but they can’t really bail out the Highway Trust Fund since they were paying for it all along.

  • Thanks for your responses, Omri and Transit Guy.

    Of course, you’re talking about heavy rail and high-speed rail. There’s another angle that I touched on in my original post: light rail. Here the idea of using existing roads and streets may get some traction. But the roadbeds may need to be firmed up to accept the weight of trams.

  • Max Rockatansky

    Republicans have little to do with traditional conservative values, they’re more into fundamentalist religion, war, and tax breaks for the idle rich.

  • Omri

    Transit Guy: true enough, but if you run a train track through a 6 lane freeway, you can run it a lot straighter than the freeway itself. Yes, it means sacrificing the whole freeway. No big deal, though, since blacktop roadways deteriorate fast enough to make it a fait accompli before you notice.

    There is also the issue that freeways go up steeper grades than train tracks. It would be well worth to make a survey which interstates could be treated this way.

  • Mike

    >>Not sure if “bail out” is the right word. Taxpayers can bail out failed private enterprises (Bear Stearns, etc.) or quasi-private enterprises with private sources of funding (Fannie Mae etc.) but they can’t really bail out the Highway Trust Fund since they were paying for it all along.

    Actually, it is correct to say that taxpayers are bailing out the Highway Trust Fund. One of the arguments of the libertarians against investments in mass transit is that highways “pay for themselves” with user fees, in the form of the gas tax – if you don’t drive, or don’t drive that much – you don’t pay, whereas if you drive a lot, you pay for it. Buses and subways are not paid for by user fees.

    If the gas tax is insufficient to pay for highways and money must come from other general funds, then highways cannot be said to pay for themselves. (Note that another argument is that although the gas tax has been sufficient to pay for highway construction in the past, that does not mean highways are self-sufficient as ongoing maintenance costs are proving to be far higher than gas tax revenue can compensate for at current levels). Either way, seems like subsidizing transportation is needed regardless of the mode of transport.

  • Jason

    Max, who is classified as rich and what tax breaks are they receiving? And since when did fundamentalist religion not include the christian bashing that is so popular? These are not helpful comments and do not help what should be a non-partisan effort to improve life for us all.

    This reminds me of how some hold up signs saying, ‘What are you doing for the people?’ when it would be better to concern yourself with _all_ people.

  • Anon.

    “Max, who is classified as rich and what tax breaks are they receiving?”

    Million dollars a year is definitely “rich”. Tax breaks include taxing investment income at a *maximum* of 15% and earned income at a *minimum* of 17.5% (payroll tax!). This is specifically a reward for the idle! There’s sales tax on ordinary transactions but not on investment transactions. Finally, there are fairly well-hidden tax structures called “phaseouts” which cause effective income tax rates to go *up* on the upper-middle-class but *down* on the truly rich. The payroll tax “cap” is another example of a tax break for the rich. Those are off the top of my head.

    Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. This is wrong. Buffett agrees.



Is “Sprawl Repair” Worth It?

Transforming the territory of strip malls and big boxes into walkable places is a hot topic, exemplified by the popular book “Retrofitting Suburbia.” But is it worth the time, money, and effort? Robert Steuteville of Better! Cities & Towns writes that architect Kevin Klinkenberg and development expert Lee Sobel raised the question at this year’s Congress for the […]

A Message from Copenhagen: Climate Plan Must Include Walkable Urbanism

The energy-saving benefits of transit aren’t limited to the transportation sector. Image: Jonathan Rose Companies via Richard Layman. At a panel discussion yesterday at the Copenhagen climate summit, American policymakers and transit experts delivered a clear message: Walkable urban development must be part of any effective plan to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to […]

New Evidence Links Sprawl to Parking Minimums

New evidence connecting minimum parking requirements and sprawl is bolstering the argument for an overhaul of government policies related to much space we devote to the storage of cars. A team of economists from the University of Munich recently released a study examining the effects of mandatory parking minimums on development in urban and suburban […]

“Building Cities Shouldn’t Be a Partisan Issue”

Over the weekend, we came across an article from the Isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin, reporting on a conservative scaremongering campaign against a commuter rail proposal. It quotes a leader in the Wisconsin Republican Party painting transit-oriented development as a red menace: "This has been done before," Dane County Republican Party spokesman Bill Richardson said on […]

It’s Smart to Be Dense

As the world’s population continues to urbanize, our cities have two options for growth: densify or sprawl. To accommodate a more populous and more prosperous world, the spread-out, car-dependent model of the 20th century must change. In this video, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Streetfilms team up to bring you the most important reasons for building […]

Reaching Across the Urban-Suburban Divide

As today’s post from Seattle Transit Blog acknowledges, criticizing the place where someone lives is one of the surest ways to create division and contention when discussing planning issues: Photo by yuan2003 via Flickr. If I criticize a portion of Bellevue’s cul-de-sac development, a commenter is just as likely to deride my urban elitism as […]