Transportation Should Be Fodder for Serious Political Debate

As French politicians entrenched in regional elections battle over who can offer the best transport improvements to a willing public, Americans hope to avoid service cutbacks.

RER Train in Paris jfgornet

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The interview went something like this:

- Journalist: “How much is a return ticket between Paris and Mantes?” – Candidate: “I’m not sure…” – Journalist: “Well, €15.80. How many trains are there between Paris and Mantes per hour?” – Candidate: “I don’t know at all…” – Journalist: “You still don’t know, even though you want to become president of the region?… If you don’t know that, you’re not going to become president.”

It was an unfair question posed by a 12-year-old “journalist:” Mantes is the 45th-most-populated city of Ile-de-France, the region in which Paris is located. It would be hard to expect anyone — even someone running for the Presidency of the region — to remember the cost of a train trip there specifically.

Yet the video of the interview with conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse has been making the rounds nonetheless, along with a similar interview in which current socialist Ile-de-France President Jean-Paul Huchon, running for reelection this year, fouls up when asked the price of a metro ticket.

The regional elections in France, to be held later this month, are serving as something of a primetime event for transportation discussions in the 12-million-person Ile-de-France, one of 22 regions that hold a status in the governmental structure similar to that of American states. Throughout the campaign, there has been a focus on the role of transportation improvements as key to future of the region — and candidates from far left to hard right have been falling over themselves to promote transportation improvements in France’s most populated and wealthiest region — and its most transit-dependent.

The three major parties — the socialists, the conservative UMP (of which French President Nicolas Sarzoky is a member), and the ecologists, each have announced that they would pursue fare reductions even as they invest in major new capacity upgrades in new rail and bus lines, though the details vary substantially. The substance of each campaign’s position statements on mobility is extensive.

Transportation is the most important issue in the campaign for control of the region. Whether fares go up and down, whether a new line is built or not — these are political questions in France. Their answers will be decided by the people through democracy: during his last mandate, President Huchon began construction on seven tramway lines and three metro extensions, all projects he had promised before he was elected.

It’s hard to think of a similar situation occurring in the United States. When was the last time a gubernatorial candidate announced her support for a transit fare reduction in her state’s biggest city, only to be outmaneuvered by a rival on the other side of the table with a bigger plan? When was the last time an American elected official laid out a pages-long tract documenting how he would decrease transportation costs even while promoting more transit offerings?

Why isn’t transportation a bigger issue in U.S. elections, anyway?

One clear explanation is that French regions have few other mandates outside of transportation: fully one-fourth of Ile-de-France’s budget goes towards roads and transit. Meanwhile, decisions about how to spend on operations and capital projects are made politically at the regional level, not by independently-run transit agencies. Moreover, economic and social activity in French regions, unlike in most U.S. states, radiates around one or two significant urban hubs; this means that the electorate cares about how people get around in their region’s central city — and they have a motivation to respond to problems.

The comparison with France is especially brutal now because of the effects of the global recession. Many American cities are likely to see huge transit service reductions and fare increases over the next few months (Atlanta alone is likely to see a 30 percent cutback), but few politicians are willing to stand up to maintain transportation offerings, let alone increase them. In other words, there is no political will to spend more government dollars on backing better mobility.

Meanwhile, French politicians, despite their economy’s own problems, are promising major improvements. That’s because they have to if they want to get votes. Whereas people in France expect their regional leaders to fight for better transportation, for the most part Americans have no such expectations from their governors — and cities are usually too poor to make much of an effort either.

And indeed, trying to make an American electoral campaign “about” transportation is probably an unlikely proposition: most states are too big for gubernatorial candidates to get interested in local traffic problems, while most cities are too small to handle mobility issues at the metropolitan scale.

But in many ways this results from the American push to separate transportation from politics, a years-long effort kindled by the progressive movement whose primary result is a disassociation between the voters’ will and actual policy change. By putting control of local transit, for instance, in the hands of unelected “non-partisan” authorities, politicians have created instruments for independent decision-making… but also powerless punching bags poorly supported by elected officials who claim they have no power over them. To whom are such organisms accountable?

In other words, there’s no political figure taking responsibility for transportation improvements. So we don’t talk about the issue during campaigns.

One way to inject transportation into politics, then, is to force decision-making into the hands of politicians. If governors or mayors had to sign off on fare increases or service reductions in more instances, there would be more to discuss about transportation in American elections — and we might actually see improvements in our daily commutes as a result.

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Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationgovernanceatlantayonah freemarkgrassroutes

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