Yesterday I was listening to the pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio, and one of the speakers said something that struck me as emblematic of the challenges that Barack Obama faces, though I doubt she realized the ironic significance. She was praising Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist legacy as a model for Obama, with some quotes from him at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or some other celebrated national park, though she only touched on a small sliver of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. He definitely did cherish the environment; a timeline of his life shows that in early April 1903 he “commune[d] with deer while writing letters in Yellowstone, WY.” He was indeed a conservationist, as were many progressives at the time.
But the progressives were also something else – something that today’s progressives would do well to remember: ardent planners whose plans often had grave unforeseen consequences. Just after his time communing with the deer at Yellowstone, Roosevelt traveled to St. Louis to address the 1903 Good Roads Convention. The “good roads” movement dated back to before the automobile rose to prominence, and was formed to agitate for improved roads for bicyclists and farmers. But around the time of Roosevelt’s speech, the movement was hijacked by the budding auto-industrial complex. Unwilling or unable to compete on their own against mass transit, the automakers, highway engineers, and road contractors sought for the state to both acquire the rights of way necessary for the roads, and to pay for them to be paved – an advantage the streetcars and railroads did not generally have. Not wanting to appear to be too blatant in their rent seeking, these interests lobbied the government indirectly, giving organizations like the AAA money in exchange for influence and seats on their boards.
The nascent auto industry was not the only booster of subsidized roads – even the private railroads were not immune to the siren song of the great new progressive future. They joined the cause in the 1890s with the idea that improved roads would mean more business for railroads, unaware of the threat that the long-haul trucking industry would come to pose to their business. This new semi-public, semi-private corporatist transportation model suited the progressives as well, who believed in a statist future where “private” enterprise was directed and controlled, though not outright owned, by the government.
In the years since the 1903 Good Roads Convention, the idea that government ought to be providing “good roads” has fundamentally altered the landscape of the country in ways that Theodore Roosevelt never could have imagined. The highway lobby gathered strength throughout the first half of the 20th century, eventually culminating in the Interstate Highway System, the widespread suburbanization of America, and the destruction of American cities. Urban planners like Robert Moses razed neighborhoods and blighted the remaining barren landscapes with highways that have become increasingly congested ever since. In order to stave off this inevitable overuse, planners flattened America with zoning laws and parking regulations that forced Americans to sprawl away from city centers, to areas reachable only by cars and trucks. A century later it’s hard to imagine it happening any other way, and it’s often forgotten that there was a workable free market urbanism before there was unsustainable sprawl.
Especially in recent decades, the system has acquired the façade of self-sufficiency and thus the illusion of being a market institution, because of the Highway Trust Fund and separate gas taxes and user fees levied specifically on motorists. But some of the most significant costs – the acquisition of land for rights-of-way – were paid for earlier in the century, when the government’s power of eminent domain was near absolute. Furthermore, roads are asked only to recoup their capital and operating costs (well, most of them anyway), though every freshman in Econ 101 ought to know that a profit-seeking entrepreneur seeks to recoup his opportunity costs rather than just his accounting costs. In other words, not only does he try to make a profit, but the underlying land shouldn’t earn him any more money were it put to some other use – a test no roads are subject to. To add insult to injury, the nature of roads and private cars is such that they work best in low density environments, but cannot scale upwards without becoming prohibitively expensive due to the cost of ever-widening roads. Mass transit is precisely the opposite – it handles high densities well, and is utterly unprofitable at lower ones. Predictably, America’s zoning rules and parking regulations are overwhelmingly oriented towards densities lower than what the market would demand in their absence.
Theodore Roosevelt might be more commonly remembered for his conservationist work, but it’s important for people today to remember the unforeseen consequences of the his other grand plans. The “good roads” path that he helped put America on has shown itself to be an enabler of global climate change, encouraging Americans to live farther apart, travel farther each day, have bigger houses, and fill those houses with more things. The common telling of the roading of America is that it oiled the gears of commerce and is an integral part of the “American dream,” but it’s impossible to know what sort of advances in mass transit technology would have come about and how we’d be living had the government not favored the automobile and the truck over the streetcar and the train. Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist efforts are indeed praiseworthy, but might both the environment and the economy be in better shape today had the progressives not interrupted the rail-based urbanization of turn-of-the-century America and put us on the car-based sprawling sub- and exurbanization that characterizes America today?
In calling for the government to fund more mass transit and urban projects, Barack Obama has shown that he sees the problems in America’s land use configuration. But in doing so, he’s shown himself to be ignorant of the root causes of the crisis: government meddling in the transportation and land use industries. Just as the progressives and futurists failed to use the government to design a more efficient transportation scheme, Obama will likely fail in using the government to fix America’s energy problems. Unless he renounces the legacy of the progressives and admits to America that it needs to return to its market-based roots – at least with respect to transportation and land use policy – his campaign promises of reversing our unsustainable ways will go unfulfilled.
This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.