On the Politics of the Rhetoric of Choice

We often hear from transit advocates that expanding public transportation is good because it increases the choices available to people. Framing the issue this way reveals something about the deeper commitments of the supporters, namely that it is a good in itself simply to expand available avenues for people to assert their will. The ability to choose, regardless of the kinds of choices people make, is good. It is then often suggested that what the city or state or governing authority needs to do is incentivize certain choices above others; or it is hoped that people acting in their own rational self-interest will choose well. To increase available options is believed to be an equitable move insofar as it levels the field for choosing agents, enabling people who were previously limited with respect to transportation to increase their power.

In this scheme, the state becomes an actor alongside private agencies, companies, and other public bodies, competing for market share in providing services to citizens; citizens in turn are considered primarily as consumers. We are not allowed to think of, for instance, the Metropolitan Council, as a part of the social political body without making the relation an economic one. Politics is reduced to economics, or perhaps rather economics functions as a social ontology, indicating what simply is the order of things.

In order, then, to “compete” and “succeed,” transit agencies aren’t allowed to ask the kinds of questions we might want public bodies to ask, or act in a way that we might want them to act. Instead they must behave in such a manner as to maximize their share of the market. This is at least one reason “efficiency” and “feasibility” so quickly creep up in discussions about transit. It’s not merely about political possibility but a matter of judging public goods by the standards of corporate ‘success.’ Such measures are assumed to be morally neutral or at least a natural given.

What is covered up in this language is how choosing, either as a political body or as a person, creates limits on what else can be chosen. To prioritize (and subsidize!) the movement and storage of privately owned, individually driven automobiles limits what other modes of transportation make sense; because the engineering of public space engenders a certain kind of relation of people to their environments. This is, among many other reasons, why I find BRT partially problematic; not because it isn’t a relatively efficient and helpful way to move people, but because it simply accepts auto culture as the norm and doesn’t challenge it. It takes more than paint to make cycling safe and it takes more than nice bus shelters to create healthier urban spaces.

Moreover the rhetoric of choice refuses to interrogate class and race issues surrounding transit and infrastructure. For poor people and many people of color, taking public transit  is the only way they can quickly and safely get to work, to stores, to school, and so on; they are without choice, limited by a host of factors, the majority of which are outside of their control. Without the ability to afford a car, it is only for those who already have that ability that “options” are expanded when better transit is available. People with lesser means continue to be excluded from a full social and political life.

And often for the economically disadvantaged, not only do they not in fact have a choice when it comes to transit, but they are maligned as dependent; whereas a financially enabled white man who chooses to live car free, ride bikes, and take transit is hailed as a moral exemplar, full of civic virtue and care for the environment. Both use the same modes of transportation, but the “choice” of the one is exemplary, the other a result of moral deficiency.

Related is the way that transit in general is often framed as a service. This is explicit in the Twin Cities where trains and buses tell us they are “A Service Of The Metropolitan Council.” While I would not want to lose the ability to speak of “service” positively, as I would like to keep alive the language of “dependency”, it is not unimportant that functionally this vocabulary results in viewing transit as a type of welfare rather than as a social and public good. (Not, of course, that welfare is bad or shameful in any way. I only mean to draw attention to how advocates are fine propping up the current system with a kind of ‘benevolence’, but are unwilling to challenge the deeper roots of socioeconomic inequality. It is all the worse that welfare carries with it a stigma.) And in the Cities there is the literal analogy to the time and energy it takes to navigate the complicated, spotty bus system and the time and energy it takes to prove you’re poor enough to need WIC or public health care.

What I hope is emerging from this analysis is that the language of choice is not innocent and in fact hides problems and assumptions that I believe we ought to challenge. If we are to advocate for the expansion of our transit system, then the rhetoric of choice ought to be abandoned in favor of language that is more socially democratic and inclusive, that encourages us to think about shared goods and public ethics.

Tony Hunt

About Tony Hunt

Tony Hunt rides his bike places and is just narcissistic enough to want to tell people about it. He majored in Greek and Latin at the University of Minnesota. This, he believes, qualifies him to write about anything. You can follow his rantings at https://twitter.com/adalehunt

16 thoughts on “On the Politics of the Rhetoric of Choice

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Really interesting piece Tony. As you point out, transportation is often framed as consumption. (e.g. driving is a “consumer choice”). If people don’t walk or take the bus, it’s the “market at work” and the outcome (everyone drives) is simply the expression of the “will of the people.”

    Healthcare and transportation are not even close to being marketplaces, and most people don’t really have a choice about how to get around. I’d say that many people are locked in to an auto-dependent landscape for various reasons. As you point out, the “choice” of driving is so complicated by its relationship to land use, housing, schools, distribution of jobs, etc. that it makes little sense to frame the issue in that way.

    But you are saying something even more critical, that the language of consumer choice and “marketshare of transit” masks the ethical dimensions of our urban development patterns. But I’m curious about your “dependency” suggestion. What other kinds of frames might work to combine an analysis of transportation and land use patterns with an ethos of social equality?

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

      Hey Bill, thanks for the response. I was out all day so I’m just getting to it.

      “But you are saying something even more critical, that the language of consumer choice and “marketshare of transit” masks the ethical dimensions of our urban development patterns.”

      I’m so glad you caught it. That’s a spot on way of describing what I was getting at.

      It seems to me the language of “dependency” makes explicit what is always there in a society, namely that we need each other in order to build the kinds of communities we want to create. So whether it’s schools, or sewers, or wifi, or roads, through various intermediary bodies we create things together that we would not be able to create by ourselves. This involves levels of trust and a letting go of power that is not, I believe, conducive to the belief that increased choices will make for a better social arrangement.

      And if we get to the point where we don’t believe we actually need a particular group of people; that their ability to give into our shared life is negotiable and disposable; that’s when we need to have the critical space and grammar to examine the ethical dimension of what’s going on. Mutuality, dependency, service, citizenship, neighborliness…words like this provide that awareness. But I’m not convinced that a purely economic way of speaking is able to do the same in no small part because, being a (classically) liberal way of thinking about social relationships, it assumes that maximizing one’s freedom to choose what one believes is in their best self-interest will, somehow, of itself, be better for everyone.

      That may seem simply obvious but I’m not sure it always is. Once we are cognizant of our mutuality it becomes less easy simply to attempt to procure a pocket of goods for some at the expense of others.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Tony, great thoughts. I’ve had numerous discussions with people about when a public government service should act more like a private competitive business and when a public service. It’s a tough balancing act because leaning too far towards just being a service and it looses its edge and is no longer much of a service (becomes inefficient, run-down, unfocused, etc.), too far the other way and it stops becoming a service as well since it’s focused too much on ‘the market and making a profit’.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that we’ve redefined economics from being about an economy and all that is a part of it to being just about money?

    One quibble, you said “For poor people and many people of color”. Income certainly has much to do with people’s lack of choice, race or ethnicity doesn’t and shouldn’t. Many people of color aren’t poor and do drive. Same for Latinos and Asians and Kiwis and Scots.

    Transit shouldn’t be a service for people of color, but simply a service. For that matter, we shouldn’t think of it as a service for poor people (even though they may choose it more often) but a service for everyone.

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

      I said “many” specifically to indicate that I know it’s not an across the board issue. And yet percentage-wise, people of color tend to be proportionately less affluent and this is a problem stemming from systematic racism. So although class and race are not the same thing, they are definitely related and addressing the scope of the problem is very important.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Are we (I include myself because I’ve said the same thing) not creating a bit of self fulfilling prophecy? For decades there has been a constant discussion equating race and wealth (or non-wealth) as if it’s a foregone conclusion and expectation. We do the same with transit. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard with regard to transit “we have to do a better job serving the black community.”

        While once quite necessary, I think that in doing this today we are doing far more harm than good. We are effectively putting a giant cloud over the head of an entire population and casting them with a not very flattering image — one that they don’t deserve and that is sometimes extremely difficult to overcome.

        1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

          Can you help me understand a bit more what you’re saying here? Are you saying that somehow we’re in a more post-racial situation and thus talking about it isn’t relevant?

          Because I hope you see that I am attempting to *criticize* viewing transit as a “service of the poor”; at least inasmuch as it continues to be a bandaid on a normalized car culture. I would like to see car infrastructure cut severely back and public transit prioritized, which would be, I think, better for most in the city.

        2. Janne

          Walker, as long as structural racism (and sexism, etc.) exist, it is important to highlight where poor performance (service) places a disproportionate impact on those communities. It is challenging to name that respectfully, but not acknowledging it reinforces the structural racism.

          We are not in a post racial world. Yet.

          That does not name individuals as racist (though that is an important issue, too), but rather systems that perpetuate inquiries.

    2. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

      Also you said

      “Transit shouldn’t be a service for people of color, but simply a service. For that matter, we shouldn’t think of it as a service for poor people (even though they may choose it more often) but a service for everyone.”

      That’s exactly what I’m saying in this piece. So we are in agreement!

  3. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    I agree with Walker that transit should be a service for everyone. I also agree with the title of this post that the choice that is thrown about is really rhetoric. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, however, to lobby to the people transit as choice. There are some beautiful cities where transit is actually chosen by people who also have cars. It takes more investment than what the Twin Cities has been doing so far, but it is possible. As far as eliminating “choice” from the rhetoric, I disagree. I think in the Twin Cities, despite the recent push for “transit as choice,” the majority still see transit as a service for the poor (the dependent). The Twin Cities is very moralistic compared to other cities- the Catholic nature of the area is to give to the poor. If you listen to working people, middle class people who own cars and drive a majority of the time (at least people I’ve worked with throughout my time in the Twin Cities), you will hear that 1- they believe their tax dollars are going to a public good with transit investment 2- it is good because it is helping other people “less fortunate” than themselves 3- when they move around the city (especially as they start to have families or wish to own rather than rent), they seem to move further from transit options (including the rails) rather than closer (despite their stated belief that transit is a good investment and that people want to live and work near it). Getting people to believe it is a choice, a valid choice is the first step towards eventually getting people to invest in it like is it a viable choice.

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

      Hello Monica,

      I’m afraid I am going to have to strongly disagree with you. As I said in the essay, viewing transit as a kind of social welfare is part of what holds it back from becoming a better system. Why wouldn’t we want public transit to be the normal mode of transportation for most urban dwellers instead of a ‘service’ we simply offer to poor people? The benefits to it being more proportionately used are legion.

      1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

        “Why wouldn’t we want public transit to be the normal mode of transportation for most urban dwellers instead of a ‘service’ we simply offer to poor people?” I guess that is the question that I thought I was asking in my post as well. The transit we get in the Twin Cities is built as a service. I just disagree that we need to lose the language that transit is a choice. Instead, I think we should continue to use language that transit is a choice and then prove that we agree it is a viable choice by choosing to make real investments in it to be a competitive option.

        1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

          And my post enumerates many of the things I think are wrong with this approach, from a problematic collapse of the social and political into the economic, and the glossing over problems of socioeconomic inequality.

  4. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    I guess I read this as highlighting the problems with the rhetoric of choice, rhetoric meaning the language without the action. That is how transit is built in the Twin Cities from my perspective- language with no action towards achieving the rhetoric that is thrown around. It is what I was pointing out in my original comment.

    If you are talking about Metro Transit actually being actionable in producing a choice, well, I haven’t yet seen that. So, I don’t think the using the language (rhetoric) of choice is causing Metro Transit to be “efficient” and “act like a business.” I think quite the opposite. They are using the words “choice” to get voter support, but in reality are producing what they’ve always produced (bare minimal).

    Auto travel is subsidized, as you point out, and not like a business. Roads in the city aren’t closed due to low use. They are maintained at the same level as everywhere else. They are, in essence, a service to the people.

    Transit service can be just that- a service for the people. It can be treated as a choice and a service and not have to succumb to cuts due to “low performance.” It can be, but it requires action versus language. That is what I thought you were saying in your post. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me, that involves the action of choice in choosing to make the investment, choosing to make it a priority for a larger population.

    1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

      In other words, keeping the language, but holding elected officials accountable for the language they use.

  5. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit

    Thanks for highlighting how we talk and act about transit. I hope the conversation about transportation equity continues and we can also talk about smaller places like my city of Northfield (20,000 population) where transit barely exists (and is unlikely to exist) because our low density development pattern makes it difficult to provide transit efficiently at any price. We’re still small enough in Northfield that cycling and walking could be a significant part of equitable transportation, but are all too often dismissed as an amenity for the affluent.

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