Transit, Mom and Apple Pie

by Matttew Yglesias

The March 8 issue of National Review, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement, featured an important cover story co-bylined by the magazine's editor, Rich Lowry, and Ramesh Ponnuru, generally acknowledged as its brightest mind. The subject was an alleged "assault on American identity"being perpetrated by the Obama administration, a formulation that conveniently helps to elevate conservative politics into nothing less than the defense of the nation. Much could be said about the piece, but perhaps the most telling element was an aside that complained about "admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades."

One doesn't normally use the term, but mass transit really is a socialistic program-- the state collects tax revenue and spends it to build and operate transit systems. That said, viewed in this light the interstate highway system, the sidewalk, the streets in every American city, and a healthy share of the country's parking lots are also a socialistic program.

And yet nobody stands in the I-95 median complaining that the country is going red. Simply put, there's no other way to provide the basic transportation infrastructure a country needs than to do it "socialistically."

More egregiously, while the existence of a bus line hardly seems like the harbinger of tyranny, the whole piece has nothing to say about the infringements of liberty that promote sprawl and the hollowing out of cities. There's nothing about the minimum parking requirements, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, prohibitions on accessory dwellings, etc., that are mainstays of America's centrally planned suburbs and that would render most of the country's classic walkable urban neighborhoods illegal to build nowadays even on the very sites where they now stand.

All of which simply highlights the fact that what they're interested in is not socialism or liberty, but Americanness--the idea that transit violates some vital elements of national identity. This is, however, an awfully cramped and narrow view of what America is all about. The technology for connecting a trolley, train, or bus to an overhead source of electricity was originally developed in the United States of America. Not coincidentally, the world's first electrically-driven railway was built in the USA--as part of what's now Chicago's "L"system. And the L joins New York's subway and the PATH network connecting the city to New Jersey as the only heavy rail systems in the world that operate 24 hours a day. Even Los Angeles, in most ways an all-too-typically car-oriented city, features over 1.3 million transit boardings every weekday.

What's more, transit is not only present in, but obviously integral to the very nature of, New York City, which whether conservatives like it or not just so happens to be at the heart of what is by far the largest and most important metropolitan area in the country. The city is home to more Americans than any other, the cite of crucial historical moments, the center of several important industries, and the location of our country's most iconic buildings and structures. And since its inception in its modern form, New York has always been a transit-oriented city. Not as an homage to some foreign capital, but as an expression of American technical savvy and industrial might. It's true that New York is hardly a typical American city, but no great metropolis is "typical"of any place. Nevertheless, nobody asks us to imagine that Paris isn't really French or London inauthentically English. But unfortunately, the political right in the United States is currently in the grips of an anti-transit mania that's leading them to read some of our greatest achievements right out of the country.