The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
. . . still studying and learning how to live

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Politics ... Public Policy ...

There’s a great debate going on in American politics today, but it’s all very cryptic. Neither the liberal Democrats nor the conservative Republicans (including the T-Partiers) want to say what they really mean, so the argument goes on in code. This argument is all about where and how we should live. But no one will just come out and say that.

The Dems hint that they favor the new-urbanist vision of the “green, efficient and sustainable city”. These are the kind of places that progressive and educated people seem to favor (at least in theory – where they actually live can be another matter). Not surprisingly, people who support the urban vision usually vote Democratic. For better or worse, however, the Dem liberals can’t just come out and say that city living is better (in theory, at least).

Why not? Because most Americans live in the suburbs. Most of the votes come from the ‘burbs. The Dems don’t want to alienate families that favor well-separated one-level households, situated along low-traffic cul-de-sacs with plenty of grass, shrubs and small trees. However, they would like to offer such families the option of higher-density living in a high-quality, culturally chic setting. Like Portland, Oregon, perhaps (or even Portland, Maine). And perhaps even encourage widespread acceptance of the new urban landscape via tax incentives and such (including increased taxes on fuel-hog residences and personal vehicles).

There are plenty of old cities out there (like my beloved Newark, NJ, just a few miles from my humble suburban abode) that don’t offer Portland-like neighborhoods; they don’t have lots of Starbucks and clean, safe transit lines and funky art venues within walking distance (nor within bicycling range – ah yes, bicycles, part of the clean, green new urban vision).

But they are trying. Early on, the Obama administration tried to promote an infrastructure program that could help the older cities become more economically vital, allowing them to transform themselves by offering neighborhood settings attractive to the enlightened suburbanite. That program is called “high speed rail”. The ideas is to develop a network of high speed train lines between cities spaced 100 to 500 miles apart, as to promote urban corridors where businesses and families would want to settle. With higher density comes less need for one of the biggest pollution and greenhouse gas generators in our nation, the family automobile. America would slowly but steadily become more Europe-like (given Europe’s well-respected network of fast trains). We would slowly give up our airports with their huge parking lots and frustrating delays, and bunch ourselves in proximity to the zippy new train lines.

And so, Obama and his Congressional supporters quietly promoted funding for the development of new high-speed rail networks to supplement the one semi-high speed line that we do have, i.e. Amtrak’s Washington to Boston “Northeast Corridor” with its Acela service. Federal stimulus money found its way to local agencies involved in bullet train development programs in California, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas. The “new urbanists” were quite happy about this. Unfortunately, the Tea Party movement soon came along as a backlash to another Obama federal vision, universal healthcare. The bullet train planners were found to be easy targets for a smear campaign.

It’s all another big-government boondogle, meant to benefit a small minority of pointy-headed elitists, the “partiers” said. High speed rail has to go! Suburbanites unite, you have nothing to lose but the high taxes that the elitists make you bear . . as they try to engineer your future. (Slight pun there; train engineer, social engineering . . . well, as I said, SLIGHT pun).

The rhetoric continues: The liberals will take away your grassy backyards and your SUV and van, and your mega shopping malls and the office building at the highway intersection that you drive 25 miles to reach each work day. That’s the way that you want to live, so too bad if it requires a lot of fossil fuel and carbon emissions. There’s plenty of oil in the USA, but the pointy-heads won’t let Exxon drill for it, mostly because they want everyone to live with them in 30 story buildings crowded along dark, smelly subway lines.

And so, some of the newly elected Republicans out in the heartlands have been killing off the nascent high-speed train projects, e.g. programs recently canceled by the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin and Florida, and on the ropes in California.

Unfortunately, neither the bullet train haters nor the more liberal-minded defenders want to admit where this argument really goes. All of the anti-rail articles that I’ve read focus on the budget deficit factor, and never really ‘fess up to an anti-urban, pro-suburban agenda. Why not? Well, at some point, criticizing the cities is to criticize minority populations, who often live in older urban zones. The conservatives are too smart to get into a racial war of words, to be painted as anti-black or anti-Hispanic. That’s a hard political battle to win, even with slick resources like Fox News.

Another thing is that low-density suburban living (“sprawl”, as the urbanists call it) does use up a lot of oil and gas. And that brings up the arguments about global warming and dependence upon hostile foreign nations to supply all that oil. The conservatives say that global warming is just a hoax and that America has plenty of oil, if only it would drill for it. However, the “great middle” of American opinion isn’t convinced on those counts; the jury is still out.

By the same token, the pro-density, pro-bullet train people won’t come clean either. They know that most middle-Americans still like backyards with fences, SUV’s that can get to the shopping malls in snowstorms, and unobstructed landscapes free of dark corners that could harbor panhandlers, drug dealers or worse.

They don’t mind too much when one of their kids moves into a downtown loft as to be where things are always happening, close to artists and performers and thinkers and other colorful characters – so long as they know how to protect themselves, maybe carry a stun gun. Once those kids make it in the world, they usually return to the ‘burbs (unless they make it really big and can afford a million-dollar condo in an exclusive city neighborhood like Manhattan’s Upper East Side or DC’s Georgetown or Chicago’s Lakefront). The post-WW2 American Dream vision has not gone away.

My point here is that both sides should be called out on this. Say what you really mean! Stop arguing in code. Let the two visions of the good life debate each other before the American public. Let the new urbanists argue that a middle aged couple with 3 kids can have a very good life in a condo in a place like downtown Portland, with a tiny electric-powered car down in an underground garage and a light-rail station and performing arts center up the street.

Let the exurbanites make their case for things being spread out, for having a patch of grass that you can call your own (along with the hedge fund owning your mortgage), for having plenty of trees separating you and your neighbor. But ask the exurbanites if they are a bit uncomfortable about living in close proximity to people of different skin colors and political views and cultural perspectives. Ask them if they like it when fuel prices skyrocket. Do they really believe that America could become even nearly self-sufficient in fossil fuels? Aren’t they worried that an attempt to ramp-up oil production could trash our environment? And aren’t they at least a little bit worried by those pics of melting glaciers and all the crazy, extreme weather that has been happening lately?

But also let the urbanites say how they are going to avoid the traditional unpleasantries of urban life, with overly-powerful politicians and public unions that call strikes and leave garbage uncollected in the street; with vulnerability to crime and reduction of privacy (especially in an era of video cameras placed every few feet in most urban areas). Ask them if citizens who live such mobile lives are ready to depend on the transport agency for a bus or subway to get them home after midnight; or without an hour’s wait on weekends. Ask them if they like the idea of making 3 transfers to get from one part of town to another, when driving the same distance in a typical suburban zone would take less than half the time. Ask them if they aren’t a bit worried about how quickly urban neighborhoods can change, such that a townhouse that was once a great investment loses 40% of its value as crime rates increase and city schools deteriorate.

Bottom line – this isn’t an easy question. But it is a debate that should be had, and in an honest fashion. Surely the future of America will include both suburbs (in varying grades, from near-urban densities like where I live, to sprawled-out exurbs) and cities (again, in varying grades, from huge metropolises like NY, Chicago and Atlanta to the smaller, newer cities like Raleigh and Jacksonville and Madison).

But what will be the norm, and which will become the side-show? In a very poor country, the cities are the exception. In a poor but developing nation (as America once was, and much of China, India and Latin America are becoming — even parts of Africa and the Middle East), the cities become the main show. The poor stream in from the hinterlands, looking for their chance at the good life. But after the country becomes rich, many leave the city; the cities again become the exception to the rule. Can a rich country become “enlightened” and go back to city-living as the preferred option?

The T-partiers say NO WAY – don’t even try it. The liberal Obama-ites say “it certainly would be nice” (especially given that urbanites usually are Democratic voters). But neither will say it in public. They want to either ban the bullet trains, or continue funding their development. I say, CUT TO THE CHASE. Let’s have this discussion on the design of America’s future.

Some articles for thought:


Scientific American, on the bright visions for a green urban tomorrow

The City of Tomorrow, Today

The New Urbanism

ANTI-BULLET TRAIN (crypto anti-city):

Bullet Train to Nowhere

High Speed Pork

High Speed Boondogle

(in Forbes Magazine, no less)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:59 pm      

  1. Jim, I can see your point that all the arguments against a super train of some kind are just a cover for something else. But I doubt that anybody will come out and actually make the arguments you make and it seems that others are making too.

    From another standpoint, I think of how far behind we are getting vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Europe has these new types of fast trains, Japan has had them for even longer (I think). Just read 3 books on modern day China written by a peace corps member and a person of Chinese descent who has returned to China to study the country (Peter Hessler and Leslie Chang).

    One of the things they both mentioned was that China too is building fast trains, even trains supposedly “going nowhere” in preparation for China’s envisioning a burgeoning middle class that already wants to “spread out” and at least have a “country home” as a second home.

    It seems to me that even much faster trains for simple commutes, say from the ‘burbs to Chicago in the Midwest would be a wonderful thing (or think of “fast” trains to take one from Newark to anywhere in NYC or any of the surrounding urban area that includes Philadelphia, etc.). Such trains would add hours to each working person’s life that could be used for something other than that which is work or work-related. When I was working I spent 3 hours a day commuting via car, bus, train; I hear the time is going up since I retired.

    The simple fact of the matter is that the U.S. is going to end up being one of the last nations with any kind of really good land transportation, “good” being defined as fast and safe.

    I find myself torn in what I think regarding the massive political opposition to Obama in Washington–which is a kind of side issue in this discussion. On the one hand back in the early 1960s “they” (as in Congress and the political establishment that maintains power in Washington, D.C.) opposed everything Kennedy wanted to do so that by the time he died there was not one single thing that could be called his “legacy.” It often seems to me that “they” are doing the same thing to Obama because he’s an upstart younster type who is president–just as Kennedy was. Both have/had a major flaw: Kennedy was Catholic; Obama is Black.

    Which leads me to my, “on the other hand”: I find myself wondering if all the opposition to any of Obama’s plans for almost anything (including an up-to-date railroad system for the country) might be, rather than an urban/suburban problem, more of a very subtle but real problem of plain out and out prejudice that will never be admitted to, ever, and attitude that says this young Black man simply is NOT going to turn out to have any good ideas, NOT going to be successful in any way. The opposition to a “fast train” system in this country is just one of ideas that they are insistent (of course, no one will admit to this) Obama will not be successful at implementing. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 8, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

  2. I have been reading out some of your posts and i must say pretty nice stuff. I will definitely bookmark your blog.

    [COMMENT: compliments allowed, but no cheesy links for search engine counts, please]

    Comment by Madalyn Sibeto — November 21, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

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