John Buell

The Ecology of Transportation and Democracy

After Hurricane Sandy wreaked devastating damage to the New York and New Jersey coastlines, there was no question as to whether NYC and the surrounding coastal communities of the tri-state area would be rebuilt. And as a recent series of ad campaigns suggest, the tourist economy of these communities has been restored, in large part through Federal funds. But the response to Sandy raises larger questions about transit and urban planning for a future that will be marked by continuing ecological and economic challenges.

Sandy has put the climate science deniers on the defensive. The combination of continued economic stagnation and the storm’s vast destruction has opened up possibilities of worker/environmental alliances that might reshape our economy.

Sandy raises questions of the role that urban land use and transportation planning can play in reducing the incidence and severity of monster storms and mitigating their effects. More ecologically oriented planning has become a survival necessity.

Forty years ago Andre Gorz pointed out: “The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread, its superiority would be striking.”

The ecological case for making public transit more accessible to more communities is overwhelming. York University environmental studies professor Stefan Kipfer reminds us: “Public mass transportation produces five to 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted by automobile transportation. The latter is responsible for about a quarter of global carbon emissions. In addition, public transit consumes a fraction of the land used by individualized car transportation (roads and parking space consume a third or more of the land in North American urban regions). Not even counting other negative effects of automobilization (congestion, pollution, accidents, road kill, cancer, asthma, obesity, and so on), shifting to transit will markedly reduce the social costs of economic and urban development. It would also make a substantial contribution toward global climate justice” (

But the case for public transit is not only ecological. A compelling case also must include more than critiques of the auto. Sandy can become an occasion to promote and build modes of mobility, housing and working, shopping and relating to our peers that are more humane and satisfying. The harms and the risks attendant on global climate change are real enough, but too little is made of the human costs of our acquisitive, workaholic, auto-dependent society or of the kind of satisfactions more sustainable alternatives might offer.

Kipfer argues that capitalism as a world system imposes both mobility and immobility on the poor and working classes. Many poor in the developing world are displaced and forced to migrate to first world cities where they often then find themselves confined to urban ghettoes with only marginal job prospects. Even the working and middle class finds itself trapped in traffic jams and spending larger sums on the auto. Road rage and various forms of scapegoating of these urban minorities grow out of and intensify the travails of our highways.

Are there ways to change this pathological dynamic? One way is to make mass transportation more widespread by making it free. Free mass transit would increase ridership among current users and add some new ones. To those who would complain about the budgetary implications Kipfer points out: “[T]he overall budgetary cost of transit budget expansion can be measured against the typically much higher cost of underwriting car-dominated transportation (road and infrastructure budgets and tax policies which subsidize them). Second, from a macro-economic and social efficiency point of view, public transportation is far less expensive than the existing privatized system.”

Kifner recognizes that mass transit by itself is no panacea for economic injustice or environmental degradation. Transit systems can be designed to bypass poor neighborhoods or to serve only wealthy suburbanites to the exclusion of decaying inner city bus service.  Such suburban-centered systems ultimately reinforce sprawl, the car culture, and consumption- intense economies. Even the expansion of transit systems to formerly underserved areas can become an occasion to remove minorities and gentrify neighborhoods.  

Unfortunately the ongoing economic crisis is being used as an occasion not only to reduce transit subsidies but also to privatize many public systems. Brooklyn based writer Willie Osterwell points out that when transit is privatized the emphasis is upon immediate returns. One consequence is reduction in services and cuts in transit workers wages, thereby blunting support for these systems (http://www.commondreams. org/view/2012/12/09-1).

How to respond to such challenges will be the subject of my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013

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