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Democracy: Should We Bother?

(Photo: Prayitno)

(Photo: Prayitno)

What could be less controversial than the principle that the public should be consulted about transportation policy? In future posts, I’m going to write about why puppy dogs are despicable and why we should all root for the Miami Heat, but for today I’m going to question this seemingly unquestionable proposition.

There is good reason that one of modern transportation planning’s most fundamental precepts is that the public should be consulted on policies large and small, from constructing a new subway line to changing a humble bus schedule. This is the product of very real abuses, particularly during the creation of the Interstate Highway System. At that time, government had virtual carte blanche to displace residents and bulldoze neighborhoods. For example, for Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway in the late 1940s, the condemnation resolution for the right-of-way was approved by the court the day after it was filed by the state. The following day, every piece of property along the route was posted with a fifteen day notice to vacate. And less than three weeks after the filing of the condemnation resolution, the Division of Highways began clearing the property.

The apparently sensible response to this arbitrary exercise of authority has been the rise of public power and participation, which is something of a mantra among transportation planners. But while this is great in principle, there are some severe problems in practice.

The first is actually getting the public interested. Here in Greenville, S.C., for example, public hearings about the long-range planning of the transportation system, which is presumably of considerable import, often attract attendees who can be counted on the fingers of one hand, despite herculean efforts to drum up interest. In such a situation, a handful of people who may have turned out because that night’s episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey was a rerun may have an outsized voice in making policy.

Meetings about near-term, specific programs often don’t have this problem—in fact, they are sometimes swamped with eager attendees. However, this raises another problem: a small number of committed citizens can, and often do, stymie projects that would have very great benefits for the public at large.

I say stymie projects, as opposed to promote them, because this is typically what happens. Economists have long noted that people are generally highly averse to change, no matter what that change is. They also hate losing much more than they enjoy gaining. Most people vastly prefer to avoid losing ten dollars than to get ten dollars, despite the fact that they are the exact same thing.

People are also quite imaginative. So public officials who want to do anything at all are often bombarded with apocalyptic charges that a change to the transportation system, no matter how minor, will jam residential streets with a sea of traffic, result in cars parked on front lawns, generate earsplitting noise, block out the sun, invite armies of miscreants and criminals into the neighborhood, and result in boils, locusts, frogs, and slaying of the neighborhood’s firstborn. In contrast to the hyperbole about the costs, the potential benefits receive scant attention, even when the residents who are complaining would be the biggest beneficiaries of the accessibility the project will generate.

Of course, the benefits of such projects may be large, even gigantic, in the case of things like freeways, subway lines, or port or airport expansions. Literally hundreds of millions of travelers might save money and/or time. Even those who do not use the facilities benefit due to economic growth, wealth, and jobs for the entire region. The problem is that few of those future travelers or residents of the region are going to turn out at public meetings or bombard legislators with emails and calls, because the benefits, though widespread, are hard to conceptualize. How can anybody be expected to be able to understand and calculate, let alone get out and campaign for, potential savings on airline tickets or more convenient connections a decade in the future? The main voices representing the interests of those travelers are the airlines, but it is easy enough for opponents to dismiss them as greedy capitalists. (This they certainly are, but for the most part the only way they can satisfy their greed is to serve the public interest, a fact that few critics of the evils of the profit motive ever consider.)

For the relatively small number of airport neighbors, however, the costs—or at least the imagined costs—are great enough to prompt energetic lobbying. In turn, their elected representatives are willing to focus all of their efforts on blocking these projects, and are willing to horse-trade their votes on other issues to bring other legislators onboard.

In addition to political lobbying, another favorite tactic is recourse to the legal system. Of course, the ability of citizens to seek restitution for harm is one of the great strengths of our system of government, but as we all know, it can also be badly abused. I once heard a talk from an activist fighting the expansion of Los Angeles’s ports, who boasted that her organization’s immediate response to any such project was the filing of a lawsuit based on California’s Environmental Quality Act. This person happily admitted that the actual merit of such suit was of little relevance, since even if it was ultimately unsuccessful it would have to be defended against, raising the project’s cost and delaying it long enough for opponents to dream up other obstructionist tactics.

Contrast Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway experience with the building of the Century Freeway a few decades later. For the Century Freeway, acquiring and clearing the land for the right-of-way took 20 years. The project faced numerous lawsuits from residents and pressure groups, resulting in ten years of delay and costly litigation. The suits were eventually settled with a consent decree that resulted in costs ballooning to $250m/mile (today’s dollars), well more than double what was initially forecast. For these reasons, the era of building urban freeways is basically over.

You may hate freeways, and consider this a success, and in some respects it is. But don’t forget that this same principle will stymie other interventions that might be more to your liking. For example, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me, residents of Beverly Hills have long blocked making the curb lane on Wilshire Blvd. a bus lane during rush hours, despite the fact that this would ease the lives of transit riders, help to get Angelenos out of their cars, and reduce traffic on Wilshire, of which Beverly Hills residents themselves are the biggest victims.

Or maybe you simply don’t like transportation. But few stop to consider the mammoth cost of a world with no highways or airports. Their benefits are utterly taken for granted by most people, who grouse only about the system’s failings. Yet while I know of many passionate critics of the Interstates, I don’t know a single one who doesn’t travel on them. Past sacrifices were essential for today’s prosperity, but thanks to the current gridlock, we ourselves are now unwilling to make such sacrifices for future generations.

There are certainly some modern-day examples of projects, like the Three Gorges Dam in China, which have had terrible environmental impacts and where the displaced residents (there were 1.24 million of them) should have had more of a voice. And okay, the solution here isn’t amending the Constitution to permit autocratic rule by Robert Mugabe. But it would be nice if our press and elected officials occasionally reminded us of the admittedly vote-losing proposition that the price of living in a community is that sometimes we all must tolerate some discomfort for the benefit of the polity as a whole. Also, in addition to blaming the easy targets of self-interested neighbors, parochial interest groups, and craven elected officials, it might behoove us to take a look in the mirror. The situation where the interests of the few are trumping the interests of the many exists because the rest of us are too uninformed and apathetic to participate in the process in an educated and energetic manner. Public participation can work, but only if the public actually takes the trouble to participate.