Why Conservatives (and Everyone) Should Care About Transit

Big thanks this morning to Streetsblog Network member Trains for America, which links to a fascinating essay from the Witherspoon Institute on why social conservatives should support public transit and walkable communities. Here’s a taste of the Witherspoon piece:

3042652252_5174fbe9ed.jpgLooking for real family values? You’ll find them in walkable communities. Photo by renee @ FIMBY via Flickr.

Sadly, American conservatives have come to be associated with support for transportation decisions that promote dependence on automobiles, while American liberals are more likely to be associated with public transportation, city life, and pro-pedestrian policies. This association can be traced to the ’70s, when cities became associated with social dysfunction and suburbs remained bastions of ‘normalcy.’ This dynamic was fueled by headlines mocking ill-conceived transit projects that conservatives loved to point out as examples of wasteful government spending. Of course, just because there is a historic explanation for why Democrats are “pro-transit” and Republicans are “pro-car” does not mean that these associations make any sense. Support for government-subsidized highway projects and contempt for efficient mass transit does not follow from any of the core principles of social conservatism.

A common misperception is that the current American state of auto-dependency is a result of the free market doing its work. In fact, a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation “market” is skewed towards car-ownership.

As Trains for America’s Pat Lynch says, "Sensible transportation policies are good for families and communities. Who would have thunk it?"

More from the network: The Overhead Wire reports on how states are still lobbying for disproportionate spending on highways, Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard links to the work of UC Berkeley’s Robert Cervero on transit-oriented development; and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports on the governor of Delaware’s executive order creating a complete streets policy for that state.

  • “In fact, a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation ‘market’ is skewed towards car-ownership.”

    Same thing for home-ownership.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Same thing for home-ownership.”

    Same thing for certain types of health care, not including prevention and general good health, which has less political power.

    In any event, even ignoring that fact that today’s political groups are in favor of who pays them not what they are theoretically for, I would associate “conservatives” with a desire for freedom from non-voluntary entanglements with other people, NOT broader community.

    So what they really ought to be in favor of is bicycles. You can ride a bicycle by yourself, or with others you have chosen, and get around without being at the mercy of the unionized public employees that provide mass transit (which you must ride with others with whom have have not voluntarily chosen to associate) OR the foreigners and big corporations that provide oil/autos.

    Ironic then that many culture warrior conservatives have stopped knocking transit (perhaps seen as a place to herd up other people if not for themselves, kind of like housing projects) and started knocking and mocking bicycles. Because objectively the bicycle is something liberals and conservatives, as they pretend to be, ought to agree on.

  • As you might expect, I get a lot of pushback from the conservative side around these parts (Fort Worth/Dallas, Texas). I wrote an essay on the subject of why traditional urbanism meshes with conservatism not long ago myself:


  • I found this to be very interesting reading.

    It was interesting to read a conservative mention how sprawl wasn’t caused by the “free market” as much as government subdizing road and other development (see the movie “Chinatown”.)

    Fred Camino had a really great essay on Socialist Libertarians when it comes to “free market” roads and “socialist” public transit. (Please come back, Fred.)


    I know people who own a car, but feel forced into a suburban-within-urban, automobile-based lifestyle because they (feel they) do not yet have options in Los Angeles yet and cannot wait for the Purple Line extension. They want the choice that subsidizing roads did not give them.

    I suspect much of the hostility there is on the right to public transit has less to do about “freedom” and “independence” and a lot to do “those people” and having to sit next to a stranger of a different race, class or culture.

    Certainly in the 80’s there more than a few “liberals” who tried to thwart the subway and other rail because of their underlying fear of “those people” and liberal politicians such as Henry Waxman thwarted the Purple Line for 20 years on their behalf.

    Having lived in multi-cultural New York and London, I don’t fear people of other races and cultures as much as someone who never meets them or who simply drives past them.

    Big oil has tended to skew this debate by casting their lot with campaign contributions on the political right. However, big oil has no problem funding politicians on all sides of the spectrum.

    There is also the tendency to view someone elss’e government assistance (such building transit infrastructure) as an unfair subsidy, but the one you benefit from (expanding roads) as a wise and well-deserved entitlement.

    There is a danger of seeing this a left vs. right issue, especially as it is unnecessary. There are many conservatives who respond well to the ideas of more liveable communities, more liveable streets, and economic prosperity that increased mobility via transit brings. For example, increasing Metrolink commuter rail can be sold as a manner to help suburban conservatives spend more time with their family and less time isolated in traffic.

  • brian

    did anyone else see the PBS piece on transit (I think it was the NOW program?) They interviewed the mayor of charlotte, a big conservative republican who hates taxes, thinks abortion should be illegal, loves nascar and is all about transit (he helped build the CATS light rail) and liveable communities. I <3 that man

  • “In fact, a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation ‘market’ is skewed towards car-ownership.”

    —– Agreedddddddddddd

  • As a conservative myself (who is sick of Republicans who are against transit, bicycling, and walking), I can tell you that a lot of conservatives go that route because of tradition. They don’t want to vote for change, not even when it comes to saving money on their daily commute or staying healthier. The automobile is the tradition that they have grown up knowing, and they are resistant to changing that.

    I know many who still loved Bush and stood by everything he said even after his administration had made so many obviously poor choices and turned a fiscally conservative party into a liberal spending one. Why? Because he’s Republican and so are they. They overlooked the problems in the interest of maintaining the status quo and avoiding change.

    That’s what we’re up against for most people, Republican or Democrat. They’re stuck in a rut with their cars and are afraid to get out and walk.

  • Kevin Love

    Conservatives should be about freedom.

    In Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, girls are forbidden by law from being on the street without their parents or brother escorting them. Many parts of the USA are just like these Muslim countries – teenage girls have no way of getting around without their parents or older siblings driving them.

    I have a 12-year-old daugher and a 10-year-old son. If we lived in Tehran, Iran, they could go all over the city together. My son would be deemed by the Religious Police to be an adequate escort for his sister.

    In most of the USA, they cannot go out together, because no car means they are not going anywhere.

    My children would have more freedom if we lived in Tehran, Iran than in most of the USA.

    I believe that freedom should be a core conservative value. To see one example of what freedom looks like, take a look at this video of Dutch children going to school at:


    And at:

  • Joshua Dodd

    Hey, I’m an independent conservative, and I highly agree to the use of public transit, especially in a highly dense megalopolis like New York, a beautiful city. Public transit, especially my fav, light rail, is a great way to move rapidly through the city. However, you cannot tell people that they have to ride the transit, and I think that is where the problem comes in, because when you tell someone to do something, first off they are always going to do the opposite, second off, as an individual right they don’t have to. Its like a threat when you are told to do this. Instead, you can educate the population about the benifits of riding public transport and how it will help the congestion of the movement in the city. When you educate the people with no bias and propaganda, then the people will begin to comprehend the benifits more and it will look more attractive to them. Thats the way to do it, through education and not by force.


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