I was heartened to see an article about the need for mass transit in the pages of The Nation, though I was severely disappointed by the magazine’s own hypocrisy and historical blindness. The article is in all ways a standard left-liberal screed against the car and for mass transit, which is a topic close to my heart, though I’d prefer a more libertarian approach to returning America to its mass transit roots as opposed to the publicly-funded version that The Nation advocates.
The first bit of historical blindness comes at the end of the second paragraph, when The Nation argues for government investment in mass transit on the grounds that it will “strengthen labor, providing a larger base of unionized construction and maintenance jobs.” But don’t they realize that the demands of organized labor were one of the straws that broke the privately-owned mass transit camel’s back during the first half of the twentieth century? Joseph Ragen wrote an excellent essay about how unions in San Francisco demanded that mass transit companies employ two workers per streetcar instead of one, codifying their wishes through a series of legislative acts and even a referendum. Saddled with these additional costs, the streetcar companies could not make a profit, and eventually the lines were paved over to make way for the automobile. Mass transit companies, whether publicly- or privately-owned, cannot shoulder the burden of paying above-market wages and still hope to pose any serious threat to the automobile’s dominance.
The second, and perhaps more egregious error, comes a little later, when The Nation lays the blame on every group but itself for the deteriorating state of mass transit in America:
Nonetheless, smart growth and transportation activists still have high hopes that the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress will revitalize mass transit. But institutional stumbling blocks–including generations of federal policy favoring roads and cars; pressure from fiscal conservatives; and the power of auto, oil and highway construction lobbies–may cause them to miss this opportunity.
Smart growth, though not a libertarian movement, has a distinctly libertarian issue at its core: reversing the mandatory low density zoning and parking regulations that afflict almost every city, town, and village in America. But who started the movement for zoning and low-density planning in the first place? Progressives, a group which The Nation fancies itself a member of.
And in fact, a search of The Nation’s archives reveals that my suspicions were correct: the magazine was, sure enough, among those who were calling for a de-densification of America, and railing against the inefficiencies of mass transit. From the April 24 issue published in 1920, there’s an article entitled “The Lack of Houses: Remedies” in which the author, Arthur Gleason, lays out his policy prescriptions for dealing with what he considered to be a dearth of housing in America. Regarding zoning (which at the time almost always meant separating homes from jobs and decreasing density – anathema to the New Urbanist call for mixed uses and density), Gleason was wholeheartedly in favor of it:
Zoning regulates and limits the height and bulk of buildings, and regulates and determines the area of courts, yards, and other open spaces. It divides the city into districts. It regulates and restricts the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings. It conserves property values, directs building development, is a security against nuissance, a guarantee of stability, and an attraction to capital.
Not only did The Nation circa 1920 abhor density, but it also treated mass transit with disdain, writing that “[s]ubways make a slum out of a suburb.” This is typical of progressives of the era, who saw mass transit as capitalistic and backwards. There was also a tinge of racism to the attitude, as the “slum” was populated largely by Polish, Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, while the “suburb” contained more acceptable non-immigrant Americans.
The Nation pays lip-service to America’s mass transit-laden past, writing that “it predates the automobile,” but then conveniently forgets the reasons that mass transit in America ceased to exist. And that’s convenient, because the reasons – almost all driven by government intervention against streetcars, subways, and density – were once causes that The Nation championed.
This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.