Anti-Anti-Light Rail: A Response to David Osmek

An op-ed is an op-ed, and I should know better than to respond to an anti-transit rural libertarian.* But the anti-light rail argument in the Star Tribune this week annoyed me all the same. It’s an argument that I’ve seen many many times, and no matter how many times you put it to bed, it’s a somnambulist. I’m far from the best person to respond to this kind of column, as I tend to shy away from economic arguments in general. But even if you take David Osmek at his word, the anti-transit argument doesn’t really hold up.

Here are three things that neither Osmek nor the Strib  mention about transportation funding:

1. Cost/benefit analyses are next to meaningless – Cost/benefit analyses are a staple of the planning profession, so this one might annoy a few engineers and planners. But cost/benefit analyses are notoriously malleable, and reveal more about the assumptions of the planning professions than they tell us about the future. This is particularly true for the benefits side of the equation (though often some “costs” are left out of the equation as well; see point #3, below.). Chuck Marohn of Strongtowns (and has really made this point well and often, analyzing how DOT’s tend to create “benefits” by placing a specific value on the time saved by each of the commuters. As Chuck states, this kind of financial benefit isn’t real money, and one of the things that happens when you build lots of new freeway infrastructure is that people just travel more, move farther way, and spend the exact same amount of time in their cars. Freeways create their own demand for traffic, which is why you can’t build your way out of congestion over the long term.

Another point to make is that these sorts of analyses are very conservative when it comes to forseeeing changes in economic or social trends. For example, it’s very difficult to predict changes in energy costs. Likewise, estimates for traffic are often based on previous patterns of development and rising VMT. This is one of the reasons why people designing transit systems are unable to project added TOD growth along the lines, and instead rely on current estimates of transit ridership. (That’s one of the reasons why transit ridership almost always exceeds expectations.) In my opinion, these kinds of ways of predicting growth tend to reinforce the status quo at the expense of potential alternatives. And in the US, that means reinforcing our expensive and harmful auto dependencies.

2. Tons of Externalities – Economists have a term for everything that can’t be captured by financial value systems: “externalities.” Well, our automobile dependent society has lots of these, things that will never show up on an accounting ledger. Examples include: the public health cost of an immobile society, all the damage to the environment caused by burning gasoline, the health effects of particulate pollution, and the 30,000+ people that die each year on the roads.

Not having any alternatives to the car means that people have to make terrible Hobson’s choices. For example, the recent story of a 92-year old driver running over and severly inuring two public works employees on I-94 is a tragedy for all involved. This is an externality that will never appear on Osmek’s balance sheet.

3. Hidden Auto Subsidies – Finally, you have to understand that gas taxes and license fees don’t even come close to paying the true cost of our auto and freeway system. There are all kinds of hidden subsidies, from the costs of parking lots to the costs of traffic enforcement, maintanence, and using our military to help us procure oil in the first place. Any calculation about the relative costs of cars and transit ought to include all this stuff, and it doesn’t.

We Need Vision, and that Isn’t Happening

The point of all this is that infrastructure is political. There’s no such thing as a “neutral” analysis of transportation needs and costs. You always have to make some assumptions based on implicit preferences. For the last 70 years, almost all of those assumptions in the US have been in favor of the automobile. Sure there’s a case to be made against light rail, but the debate should be between light rail and a well-funded bus system, not between light rail and remaining stuck in our cars.

I guess there’s no way to stop these kinds of op-eds from appearing in the paper. Unfortunately, this kind of argument does reflect wide-spread opinions. Almost every American spends a terribly long amount of time in the car each day, and while you’re in there you tend to internalize the experience.

But stop for a moment, and imagine a world where legitimate alternatives exist. After one of their reporters got run over while bicycling around the city, the Times of London recently launched a journalism campaign that is taking seriously the idea that our cities need to change. It’d be nice if the Star Tribune would follow suit. Re-thinking our cities is going to require a leap of imagination. Let’s start making that happen!


* After all, I used to be a page for the Minnesota House Transportation Committee back when Mary Liz Holberg was in charge of the state’s transportation budget. She basically opposed anything having anything to do with transit or cities, but was a really nice person (with an adorable dog) as long as you didn’t try to get into an argument with her about anything. 

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.