Two “New Yorkers” Debated in Brooklyn and Transit Barely Got a Mention

Image: CNN
Image: CNN

Remember that time two Democratic presidential candidates had a nationally-televised debate in New York City and barely said anything about transit?

This week Bernie Sanders was endorsed by the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Hillary Clinton, speaking in Manhattan, called transportation — referring to transit specifically — a “civil rights issue.” So you’d think the time had finally come for transit policy, and the millions of Americans who rely on buses and trains, to get some attention on the national stage.

But last night, transit policy got but a fleeting mention. When the topic of climate change came up, Sanders said the U.S. could create jobs by “rebuilding our rail system … our mass transit system.” That was it.

Nationally, the Democratic base is heavily concentrated in urban areas, and right now the candidates are vying for votes in the state with far and away the most transit riders. And yet there was no acknowledgment on stage of how transit can strengthen cities or reduce economic inequality, the dominant theme of the campaign.

Then again, when one candidate can’t swipe a MetroCard and the other apparently doesn’t know what a MetroCard is, it’s little wonder two “New Yorkers” would fail to say anything of substance about transit.

  • Boris

    The candidates answered questions they were asked (more or less). Yes, they both lack an urban agenda, but I think the blame lies with the moderators for not bringing them to task on it. And, with our news media being a part of the driving class, this is not surprising.

  • Brad Aaron

    From what I saw Clinton brought up climate change, in response to Sanders’ accusation that she is in the pocket of Big Oil, but yeah, you’d think Errol Louis might have segued to the MTA or transit in general.

  • The mods sure didn’t help, but it’s not like the candidates are hemmed in by the questions. Pivoting from a question about economic justice to a discussion of urban transit issues would just never occur to them.

    Even though this is the most relevance NY has had in presidential politics in ages, they probably still see themselves, right or wrongly, as performing for a national audience for whom transit is a niche issue.

  • bolwerk

    Not sure I would expect either to know much about transit. Hillary never represented New York at the state/local level, where transit issues mostly play out on the planning stage. And Bernie has been living in and representing a rural state for decades.

    It’d be nice to know they at least generally want to expand transit, but I have trouble believing either would know details.

  • HamTech87

    fwiw, Burlington and some of VT have a bus system.

  • dporpentine

    It’s a symptom of how much the national political scene is determined by an elite whose idea of mass appeal is “what do suburban white people care about?”

  • Bernard Finucane

    The fact is that the skew towards cars only transportation is one of the major causes of poverty in the US. Neither of these progressives can even see it.

  • I’m not sure how terrible it is for these two not to have discussed the subway. It’s not like the President can do anything to solve the MTA’s budget questions or to address its construction delays. We should note that the current President has appointed a Transportation Secretary who is staunchly pro-public-transit; yet this has not had any discernable effect on the New York City subway.

    Presidential candidates discussing the New York subway is about as useful as New York mayoral candidates discussing the death penalty, a question which is outside the mayor’s bailiwick. And anyone who can remember 1977 will recall that the pointless inclusion of that issue in the mayoral race served only as an opportunity for naked demagoguery (which is another way of saying “an advantage for Koch”).

    The less of that sort of thing the better. The only thing we missed on account of the presidential candidates’ lack of mention of the subway was empty posturing.

  • Joe R.

    Lack of federal funding for the subway will continue to exist so long as we have a Congress which gives sparsely populated flyover states disproportionate representation. This wasn’t a huge problem until the Republican party was taken over by the cut taxes and government crowd in the 1980s. It’s been getting worse ever since. Now federal transit funding is a trickle of what it was 40 years ago. The President can’t directly change that situation.

    Short of a change in the constitution which increases representation for heavily populated coastal states I’m not seeing any fix. Either that or break up the US into three countries—the two coasts, and the middle. When states like NY no longer have to fund massive highway expansion in flyover states they’ll have a lot more money for transit. Of course, the end result of my proposal is middle America will likely end up a religious theocracy full of poverty and ignorance. Frankly, not my problem since they’re the ones picking leaders who will bring them to that.

  • Let’s take a step back here. The candidates and the moderators have been discussing issues that wouldn’t be at the forefront without people having forced the issues, largely through civil disobedience. For instance: $15 minimum wage, racist police brutality, even fracking. We as advocates should be asking ourselves why urban transportation policy isn’t discussed on a national scale. Just about every progressive change in history has come through movements, struggle, protest, and disobedience (including transport in the Netherlands).

  • dporpentine

    Um, the federal government, which the executive branch has a wee part in, exercises a tremendous influence over mass transit funding.

    The post isn’t asking why the candidates weren’t asked about the subway–though it notes that for some reason both felt obligated to interact with it to show they, too, are plebes at heart–it’s asking about mass transit, something that affects every part of America, whether the people there are conscious of it or not.

  • Simon Phearson

    It’s almost like you never read any of this site’s many posts on the ways that federal policy making and funding shape state and local priorities when it comes to allocating funds for transit and highways.

    Would it have been useful for Bernie or Hillary to address the hyper-local dynamics of the MTA’s funding or its capital projects? No, but no one has suggested that they should have done so.

  • Kevin Love

    Or, if we are looking at major constitutional change, how about the USA becoming a parliamentary democracy like virtually every advanced country in the world. Heck, when the USA conquers a country and imposes a new government (Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Japan, etc.) it isn’t a US-style government but a parliamentary democracy that the USA imposes.

  • Dporpentine and Simon – You make a good point in saying that the candidates should have addressed transport priorities, due to this being key to the kinds of development that we have in the future all around the country. Perhaps I read the original post a bit too narrowly.

    P.S. – Dporpentine, is your screen name a Jeeves reference?

  • Komanoff

    Really? In the part that I saw, Clinton was challenged directly by Wolf Blitzer and a moment later by Sanders himself to state whether she does or doesn’t support taxing carbon emissions. Her answer was classic Clintonian evasion along with wrapping herself in small-bore policies and pretending they’re solutions. You can read transcript along with my spin, right here:

  • dporpentine

    No–a Hamlet reference (but thanks for asking):

    But that I am forbid
    To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
    I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
    Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
    Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
    Thy knotted and combined locks to part
    And each particular hair to stand on end,
    Like quills upon the fretful porpentine . . .

    What would the Jeeves reference be?

  • Ah! At several points during P.G. Wodehouse’s delightful Jeeves novels, Bertie Wooster recalls Jeeves having recited that very section. Bertie often double-checks with Jeeves to make sure that he (Jeeves) is remembering it correctly. In one particularly entertaining exchange, Bertie explicitly expresses his doubt about the existence of the word “porpentine”, whereupon Jeeves patiently assures his dubious employer that that archaic term is indeed found in that quote from Hamlet.

    I find it amusing that I associated “like quills upon the fretful porpentine” with Wodehouse’s use of it as part of the narratives of the Jeeves novels rather than with its original source. Thank you for setting me straight, in much the same way that Jeeves did for Bertie.

  • Bobberooni

    Actually… if the Democrats would just let the neocons cut the Federal Goverment to nothing, then the wealthy populated states would end up sending less money to the sparsely populated flyover states — leaving more money available for states to fund transportation projects.

    Or put another way… the lack of Federal Obamacare did not stop MA from implementing universal health care on the state level.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    perhaps: what do suburbanites want subsidzed ?

  • Joe R.

    The neocons of course will continue to spend lavishly on both the military and roads even if they cut out every other federal program entirely.

    Sometimes I think NYC becoming a city-state along the lines of Singapore would be the best answer. We may need to increase local taxes but we’ll be free from sending money to the state and federal governments. At least 100% of the taxes people pay would end up being spent in NYC.

  • Sanders didn’t pivot from economic justice but (as noted) included it in the discussion of climate change. Transit has benefits in both realms, of course, but I was glad to see it mentioned as part of the solution in this one.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    the code of the woosters- train reading yesterday

    must be a Streetsblog thjng 🙂

  • Joe R.

    I think we as a nation are still in denial of the fact we’re becoming increasingly urban. That’s especially true of our leadership who largely lives in suburbia and drives everywhere. To these people urban transportation policy just doesn’t matter because it doesn’t affect them personally. And to date no group has mounted an effective campaign to force the issue. I personally find this incredible given that urban transportation policy affects far more people than a lot of other issues which were forced to the forefront like gay marriage, the $15 minimum wage, reproductive rights, etc.

  • AMH

    The NY Times had an interesting piece about turning the U.S. into a country of five regions instead of 50 states. That could do wonders for regional planning and getting rid of stupid petty squabbles over who benefits more on each side of an arbitrary border. No advice about getting us there, though.


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