Politics & Policy

The King’s Road

Our transportation system isn’t racist; it’s royalist.

Corinne Ramey, a freelance writer working in collaboration with the Nation Institute, has published a long and deeply reported account of the deficiencies in the U.S. transportation system, with an emphasis on the poor quality of service and low environmental standards on offer to poor and largely nonwhite communities relative to well-off and largely white communities. The report was published in Slate under the unsubtle homepage headline “America’s Transportation System Is Racist,” though the article itself suggests very strongly that this is a case of a reporter’s being more intelligent than the people writing her headlines. The piece is very much worth reading.

Ramey’s catalog of woe will not surprise those who are familiar with American transit issues: freeways that act as socioeconomic Berlin walls, bus and rail routes that both reflect and sustain the racial boundaries in large and small communities, the colocation of low-income residential areas with heavy-transit corridors and the air pollution that accompanies them, the desire of some residents in more affluent areas to have just enough bus service to get their housekeepers to work but not so much as to encourage visits from perceived undesirables, the entrapment of carless households in automobile-scale communities.

These are real problems, the costs of which are difficult to calculate: A first job very often is a life-changing experience for a young person, an avenue of personal advancement that could be easily blocked by lack of transportation. (Never mind being able to afford a car; many of us have our first work experience before we are old enough to legally drive.) Reasonably healthy elderly people very often are able to manage their lives much more effectively and retain a significantly greater measure of independence when they have access to good transportation options. Good transit systems provide both economic and quality-of-life advantages: Think of how much less desirable Manhattan would be as a place to live if residents had to drive, and how much more desirable Houston might be if they didn’t.

Ramey does not really much argue that the animating principle here is racism in the sense of malicious intent toward nonwhites — she does troll some newspaper comments sections for racially charged vituperation about “thugs” and the like, but the results are unpersuasive — instead leaning on a “disparate impact” criterion, i.e. the argument that the people who run our transportation system do not necessarily hate blacks and Hispanics, but end up mistreating them anyway. To that end, she considers at some length Supreme Court jurisprudence and the possibility of using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a lever for cleansing the transportation system of its worst racial biases.

The obvious parallel here is the government schools. Like the transit bureaucracies, they are run by the sort of people who work in government bureaucracies, but more so. (The teachers’ unions are famously the most important financial patron of Democratic politicians.) The defects that Ramey identifies in the transportation system are much more dramatically visible in the schools, and the distribution of those defects across racial lines is even more severe.

Are the government schools racist? In a sense, yes: in precisely the same way that the transportation system is racist by Ramey’s reckoning.

Some of our transit troubles are simply artifacts of passing time. Cities such as Las Vegas, the largest U.S. city to have been founded in the 20th century, are built at automotive scale rather than pedestrian scale, as are most of the cities that had their major growth periods during the automotive age. In 1940, the city of Houston was about as populous as modern-day Wichita. By 1960, it had nearly 1 million people, and today the Houston metropolitan area has some 6.3 million people, spread out over so many square miles — the sprawling urban conglomeration is roughly the size of Lebanon — that it has about 1/42 the population density of New York City. This is partly a result of public policy — all those interstates and freeways we built in the 20th century were a subsidy for sprawl — and partly a driver of public policy — it is difficult to retrofit an effective commuter-rail network to a city with 1 million more people than Denmark and the population density of an abandoned amusement park.

Dwight Eisenhower’s beloved interstate network has its admirers — many at National Review, though I am not among them — because we find it difficult to imagine what life would be like without all that blacktop. This is an excellent example to apply Frédéric Bastiat’s principle of the seen and the unseen. In the case of our transportation network — which is every bit as politically dominated as our schools — we err in comparing what we have today with what we had in the 1940s, as though innovation and progress would have come to a halt without the federal spur, as though the project of moving people around would stay still while practically every other economic good and service, from corn to mobile phones, advanced at such a pace that the commonplaces of life in the early 21st century would be indistinguishable from magic by an observer visiting from the early 20th. Whether the subject is the schools or the roads, the correct comparison is not between what we have today and what we had during the Roosevelt administration, but between what is and what might have been. That is in the end an impossible calculation to make, because technological innovation and social change are not predictable.

What is worth noting is that today’s central planners, offering us a more rational and moral transportation system — high-speed trains that run on good wishes and are kind to poor people — are the intellectual heirs of the same people who brought us the current asphalt-dominated mess that they complain about.

Racism is ancillary to the problem. There are two ways of allocating capital: through politics, or through markets. Our progressive friends generally prefer to use politics when there is a choice, because they distrust markets, thinking them disorderly, irrational, vulgar, and prone to being dominated by the top-hat-wearing and bemonocled Mr. Monopoly cartoons that haunt their nightmares. Using politics is, in their view, more democratic. Most of the evidence is contrary to that proposition. In politics, it is quite easy for a small number of powerful people — wealth is only one form of power — to get their way. In politics, one rich guy can make a difference. The theory of progressive planning is that government intervention allows the aggregation of the interests of the non-wealthy and the non-powerful, but in reality central planning accomplishes the opposite: Ramey and others are correct in their intuition that highways and rail lines were built with the interests of the connected in mind. If, for example, you wanted to build an interstate highway through Austin in the middle of the last century, you’d find that influential parties — the University of Texas, downtown merchants, the wealthy people in the better neighborhoods surrounding the university and the capitol — would want to be close to the highway, but not too close. The easiest way to accomplish that is to run the road through a poor area adjacent to the downtown core leaving a narrow commercial strip to act as a buffer on their side, which is more or less what happened. If that happened to wall off poor and nonwhite people in east Austin, Texas Democrats did not care very much about it.

Repeat that across scores of cities large and small and you have a big piece of the unhappy situation that Ramey describes. She writes hopefully about “increased community involvement and awareness of civil rights issues in transportation planning,” but the problems in our transportation system, like the problems in our schools, are not the result of bad politics, of politics dominated by special interests, of racist politics, of classist politics, or politics carried out by insufficiently well-meaning and intelligent people — they are the result of politics per se. Political institutions are incapable of rational economic planning, because they operate outside of the market environment and thus are cut off from the critical economic intelligence communicated by prices, and they are vulnerable to all of the temptations described by public-choice economics, because human beings do not cease to be self-interested once they win an election or are appointed to a highway commission or school board.

At a large scale, this creates problems that cannot be undone. If you think that Title VI is going to help undo all the mischief done by interstate routes shaped by long-forgotten parochial interests or an Amtrak rail network shaped almost entirely by the demands of congressional barons who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil, then you have failed to understand the nature of the problem. Los Angeles is already shaped like Los Angeles, and it is not going to be undone.

Most people understand and appreciate the difference between market performance and political performance in many areas, if only because they cannot help but notice that the Apple Store and the DMV are such radically different experiences. Poor, nonwhite people are as eager to send their children to private schools as are members of the country-club set in Greenwich, but political domination of the education system deprives them of the means to do so — and, cynically enough, purports to do so in their interests. We understand that our cars and our computers get better because of investment, innovation, and competition, but for some reason — some ancient reason — we believe that transportation is a special commodity that requires government oversight, as though the king’s road were the only road. Our actual historical experience suggests precisely the opposite — many of the mass-transit systems remembered with nostalgia were built not by well-meaning legislators but by ruthless real-estate speculators and developers looking to give downtown workers an easier path toward buying a house in the suburbs. New York City’s subways were, in their earliest incarnations, private enterprises. The oldest intercity paved road in this country was privately built and operated by the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road Company, which broke ground on it in 1792. But somewhere around the time the federal government began acting like a subsidiary of the railroad companies — the great Progressive Era! — we began to think of roads and railways as projects that could not be completed or maintained without political management. Later, the federal government changed its allegiance to the automotive industry, and in the age of the nuclear weapon began constructing what is in reality a commercial highway system in the name of national defense, preparing for another campaign against Pancho Villa in the shadow of the H-bomb, a laughable rationalization for a gigantic exercise in central planning. Those who promise that it will be different this time — that if only we commit the resources to the right sort of people, we’ll get it right — may be well-intentioned, but they are still wrong.

Many in 1776 thought the idea self-evidently insane, but we have since proved that we don’t need a king. We don’t need the king’s road, either.


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