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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

"Privilege" and Electoral Politics

The first anti-segregation student sit-in in the North, says the photographer.
Various reasons have been given to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. A lot of these reasons have been, frankly, ridiculous and disrespectful. There's the shallow attacks--Sanders is "sexist" because he benefits from an institutional advantage that says that men can have crazy hair or move their arms while they speak*--and the ones that have bordered on character assassination--photos of Sanders at Civil Rights protests were assailed as fake, but actually are real. But the fact that a lot of the attacks on Bernie Sanders have lacked character does not mean that there are no logical arguments for Hillary Clinton as a candidate. And so though I disagreed with the author, I was pleased to see this piece arguing for Clinton in a way that (mostly) seemed respectful and reasonable.

The piece argues for various reasons that Hillary Clinton is more electable than Sanders. The author admits that Sanders actually polls ahead of Clinton nationally--both candidates poll ahead of all the Republican front-runners--but says that for Sanders, that could change. He fears that the lie-machine that broke candidates like Michael Dukakis could come rearing back, and that Clinton--who is a known quantity to most voters--can't really be made more hated than she is (if you hate her, you hate her). On the other hand, he argues, Sanders could be "Willy Hortoned" because his record is less known than Clinton's.

Now, this is all fine and good, and is at least worth discussing and arguing.

Where the essay really goes off course, for me, is in its last--almost tacked-on--paragraph:
Finally, and at the risk of alienating you a little, I think that preferring my moral/political purity over these life-or-death questions is a privileged position to take. I think one reason Bernie’s supporters tend toward the white, young, and privileged is that we don’t have as much skin in the game as others who would be affected by a Republican victory. Moral purity is a luxury not.
I just do not accept this argument, and it kind of offends me.

The reason I think the "privilege" argument is dishonest, is that it misplaces privilege where personality should go. What (liberal) Clinton supporters are is cautious--and at that, cautious within the terms they have set up themselves. I respect caution, I just don't believe it tracks with how privileged a person is. There are privileged and non-privileged people on both sides of this debate. For that matter, there are privileged and non-privileged people on the Republican side. Whenever someone makes a long-term argument about what is right, there's the danger of ignoring the short-term interests of some (relatively) harmed individual. Do white working class workers, who often rail against immigrants' rights, have a point simply on the grounds that they are not privileged in the same way as a teacher in an inner-city school fighting for those rights? It's clearly morally right to fight for immigrants' rights, even though some "native" workers might have a point in thinking racist protectionism serves their short-term interests. We could go around and around about this.

Some very non-privileged people do support Sanders, and what unites these people most is probably that they're young enough to imagine a different world. Older voters who may like or agree with Sanders remember all manner of wounds inflicted to their optimistic psyches over the course of a lifetime, and may stray to the center less from ideology than fear. Take the young optimism of Erica Garner, for instance:

What separates Garner from other, older members of her family (who have favored Clinton) probably isn't as much politics--and definitely is not privilege--as much as it is an outlook of youth that says that a gambit for deep change is worth a try.

I've had mixed feelings my entire life about my own privilege/lack thereof. My family could varyingly be described as lower-middle-class or working class depending on the frame that one wants to use. When I look to the Yoda-like impressions of relatives long gone and try to ask myself who they might feel for, I feel like they'd be Sanders people: great-great grandparents who arrived in this country and no sooner than they settled into working class jobs also set out to do activism for their then-oppressed country of Ireland; a grandmother (still alive**) who taught me growing up that "the white flowers must be offset by the red ones for contrast--we need a little socialism to make capitalism work"; another chain-smoking grandmother (passed) who worked as an air-raid warden during WWII. Maybe other, honest, decent people have different influences on their votes, but these are mine. 

My Nana, who is no longer alive, weighs heavily on me when I think about racism. I have frozen her in my mind in a way that probably makes her a lot more uncomplicated and positive than she might have really been. But a story rings out, and plays over and over for me. My mom told me it again and again growing up.

My aunts and my mom were out in the street playing with friends, when one of the kids, a Filipino kid named "Pee Wee", started winning at whatever game they were playing. The kids chanted:


My Nana came out the front door, grabbed my aunt and my mom by the elbows, and started wailing on them with a shoe. "DON'T YOU EVER LET ME HEAR YOU CALL SOMEONE NAMES FOR HIS RACE! I'LL BEAT YOU WITHIN AN INCH OF YOUR LIFE! NO CHILD OF MINE. . . "

"But mom, we weren't calling him names! That's his name! He's called Pee Wee."

"Oh. Well, okay then. Go out and play."

No sorry, no nothing. "Hit first and ask questions later" my mom always said of her parents.

And I come away from this story feeling like, on the one hand, that this represents everything that's kind of white trash and icky about my family--Rachel, for instance, was never smacked as a kid!--but on the other hand, it's a core memory, having been told this story. My Nana died when I was in third grade from a life of chain-smoking, but I feel her presence over me telling me that I better not let her down. It says, "don't you ever let me find out. . . no grandchild of mine. . . ".

When I was in eighth grade, I was having a tough time. My family was splitting apart from domestic abuse. The church had started dropping bags of groceries at our house. My mom would go back with the bags of groceries and drop them off and say that we didn't need them, that there must be someone else. Take them back she'd say. But really, we needed them. In college, a friend of mine made me pancakes for breakfast as a kind gesture, and it was hard to explain her her--a fancy liberal arts school graduate with a trust-fund--why I didn't like pancakes. "I just have had all the pancakes I want in life" I said.

In the midst of this, I had a really close friend who I'll call George, who lived in the apartments near our rowhouse. He was white (which is relevant). His dad had just up and left him. It was a lot worse for his family than ours. His single mom had never had an ounce of support from anyone. And my friend really showed the stress. But he was kind to me, and we got close. We would play Magic card games (which I found boring, but humored him on). I actually had him over the house a few times (I remember convincing my mom that his apartment was definitely more messy than our house, and so it was okay).

George started dating this girl who was in our circle. She was always nice to me--kind of Gothy, and little "off"--but nice. Then she started saying weird things. Racist things. She'd talk about how black people weren't as good as white people. She'd say this stuff like that, and smile creepily at people's reactions. And George never blinked. It was fine with him. We were sitting with another friend, who was black--I'll call him Jamel--and George's girlfriend said something about how white people were better and then turned to the black friend and said "But not you. You're okay." Jamel grinned through the interaction, and didn't debate her. But I spoke up and said, "That's fucked up. You're being racist and you're tokenizing Jamel."

I told George that he should break up with his girlfriend, and that I couldn't be friends with him if he didn't. He came back with some eight grade boy bullshit, like "Man, that's my girl. Don't talk about my girl." And I'd try to argue with him, and say that he was disrespecting Jamel. "Jamel is our friend, and you're treating him as if he doesn't matter at all just because this girl's going to date you."

I came out of school one day, and a crowd of people was all around me. George was in the middle, and was really angry, calling me names, saying that I wasn't going to talk shit on "his girl'. The crowd, for whatever reason, actually had my back. I'd like to say it was because they understood the racism involved, but actually I think it was because they perceived George as even poorer and more white trash than me. Some kid told me to punch him, that George was a "faggot". I tried to walk away, and couldn't. The crowd walked me up the block until I was backed against a fence. 

I took a swing. I missed. George--who was halfway to a black belt in karate--swung back. He knocked my glasses off my face. I fell back. I tried to claw my way up against the chain-link fence and swing again. I missed. George hit me a couple more times and then I fell, sobbing openly in front of the others.

Something happened which was interesting, which was that George's anger suddenly broke. He came over and asked if I was okay, apologized. He kept dating the girl, but a few days later she apologized to me and said that she'd apologized to Jamel (I don't know if she actually did, but my courage had its limits. I accepted her version of events).

There's absolutely no doubt that I have white privilege, and yet the complex realities of my class and my relationships to communities of color around me have always made me resent upper-middle class white people telling me that my experience is just like theirs. It always feels to me like their reality of a white-bread world is simple and one-dimensional because, for them, it is. My world always feels a lot more complex. There's a delicate dance that always happens around this. I am privileged. I am not privileged. I am both. I'm happy to accept a back-seat and listen sometimes, but I'm also not going to sacrifice my agency to this P.C. bullshit.

I get the notion that people want to subvert themselves to an imagined community in need, to be cautious on behalf of the greater good, even at times sacrificing more passionate goals towards gradual change. And for certain, there have been times when I've listened to people around me and made the same choice. I voted for John Kerry. I wanted to vote for Ralph Nader, but I didn't. I voted happily for Obama the first time, but not as happily the second time--I wanted to vote for Jill Stein. But I voted for him, nonetheless. Being someone who until recently lived in a swing state, and understanding that the candidates I liked were not viable, I listened. But now we have a candidate who is viable. Do I know for certain that Bernie Sanders will win the election? No, I do not. Do I fear the results of a Trump or Cruz victory? Yes, I do. But there has to be a point at which we decide that it's worth risking something for progress. It's one thing not to vote for a candidate who polls at 3%. It's another thing entirely to come up with complex scenarios in which a candidate who polls at winning levels "might not" poll that way in a few months. You get to a point where such calculations make voting seem ridiculous, like an activity without any agency associated with it.

The other reason I don't like the privilege argument is that it feels to me to be made by white people who have no realistic way of understanding the working class white vote. I'm not trying to play games here. I understand that "working class white" has complex contradictions associated with it, and I'm not going to romanticize myself or my family. Part of what was always odd about going to activist groups in college is that I would automatically assign myself to a "middle class privilege" discussion group, only to find that when I got there that none of the other "middle class" people seemed to have much in common with me. It felt confusing, and what I realize now is that an awful lot of people think of themselves as middle class when they're not. I've seen it on both sides. I've worked in inner-city schools where almost everyone is Latino or black, and had students tell me about their day at the Food Stamps office and then, in the next breath, declare that they belong to a "middle class family". I've met friends--many of them very good people--who seem to think that their trips across the globe from country to country are part of their "middle class" privilege. I want to shake these friends and tell them that they're not in the middle at all. But what it means to be lower-middle-class/working-class and white is to understand that voters who track to the right sometimes respect courage. White people who aren't super wealthy don't like being told about racism for various reasons. Sometimes they don't like it because they're racist, and that's a real problem that people like me should work to address from within our families and our communities (and I try). And sometimes white voters don't like being told about racism because they just don't like the feeling that someone with a university degree and a Subaru is telling them how privileged they are. I feel like Sanders, who grew up in the milieu of people like me, and who has taken a few potshots to the head standing up for justice, comes off as different to these voters than the average Harvard-bred liberal professor. Is Bernie Sanders like Michael Dukakis? Maybe in belief, but not in any other way.

Maybe I'm wrong. But whatever else might be true, I respect Bernie Sanders because he feels like me. I just wish people who never had Bisquick boxes show up on their doorstep in paper bags, who never got punched in the head in front of friends standing up against racism, would stop calling people like me privileged. It pisses me off. We're all trying to assess what the best way to address privilege is, and a Clinton supporters' choice to take the cautious path is best thought of as their earnest effort to do that. Sanders supporters are trying their best too.

I also just feel like, in the final analysis, that the work of honest activists should be to fight to make ideas known and understood. The author of the anti-Sanders piece says that voters don't understand the idea of democratic socialism. Well, first off, this isn't 1988. And secondly, if that's the case, why not go out and try to explain it to them? It gets tiring for me--going back to my point about friends who seem to fly off to this-country or that- for vacation--that the same people who often have money and time for this kind of outright luxury then come out of the woodwork to sanctimoniously Vassar-rant about "checking one's privilege" later on. We're struggling pretty bad, and we managed--in installments--to put together $27 for Bernie Sanders campaign. If you've got time and money to live such a supposedly self-aware existence in the midst of your privilege, maybe you should haul your ass over to Ohio and start talking to some swing voters.


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*Which, to be fair, probably has a tiny bit of truth to it. Women are held to different standards of dress than men. I've seen it at meetings where women are still wearing horribly uncomfortable shoes because it's expected. And this is wrong. But it's also a weird way of casting aspersions against a good person who's spent his whole life on the right side of gender and sexuality issues, and ignores the really deep issue-oriented ways that the Clintons have furthered racism or sexism through their careers.
**I haven't talked to my grandmother about the election this year yet, so she might come away voting totally differently than me; but this is a real story, and given that she told me "that Amy Goodman is such a nice girl" last time I saw her at Christmas, I'm guessing she's at least on the fence.


Would You Kill the Fat Man?
That's the question posed in the title of a book on what philosophers call "the trolley question" or sometimes "trolleyology". I am not going to pose as an expert on this, or try to say that my thoughts on the question are final. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem, in a variety of contexts, and I do think I have intelligent things to say about it.

The Basic Trolley Setup
Scenario 1: There is a trolley coming down the tracks. The trolley is unable to stop. It is about to hit five people. You cannot move the people or warn them. You are next to a switch. You can switch the trolley to another track, where another person stands. That person will die if you pull the switch, but you will have a net savings of four lives (five minus one) because of your choice. Would you pull the switch?

Now, many people say "well, I'd pull the switch." But, as it happens, I was telling this scenario to a friend, and I didn't get more than halfway through the setup when she said "Oh! Stop! My blood pressure is already getting out of whack!" So even this level of the setup is complex--emotionally, spiritually, morally, intellectually--for many people.

Now, Scenario 2: You have the same setup, but instead of pulling a switch, you push an extraordinarily fat man in front of the trolley with your hands. Again, the only way in the scenario to save the five people, as it is set up, is to push the man. Sometimes, the scenario is modified, so that it's not the man who is fat, per se, but so that he's a man attached to a very large boulder. But in general, this is called "the fat man" scenario. Would you push the man?

Many people who made it past the first scenario say that they're much more squeamish about pushing the man than pulling the switch. The trolley question is central to many schools of thought. It asks questions about what our emotional selves have to do with our rational thought (after all, isn't pulling the switch the same, morally, as pushing the person? But it doesn't feel that way, does it?).

It raises larger questions about how we determine what is "right". Other versions of this problem take on questions like whether it would be okay to kill a man who has a rare blood type in order to save the lives of five people with an illness that required blood transfusions. Even though, in theory, this is just another version of the utilitarian "trolley question", even people who feel accustomed to the idea of killing the man by pushing him feel upset at the idea of killing someone to harvest his blood. It just feels wrong (and perhaps it is. . . Stick with me. . . ). But amongst people who think it is wrong, there are varying schools of thought as well. Some talk about it in terms of "negative" and "positive" expectations (and I'll probably screw up or reverse the distinctions). I believe the "negative" means "things we don't do" and the "positive" means "things we should do if we can". Theorists who talk about negative expectations would say that certain types of behavior--not harvesting the blood and organs of a person--are just more important than our "positive" duties to help others who are sick. 

Another, completely different school of thought says that it's not necessarily a difference of negative or positive duties that separates the scenarios, but a longer term calculus of morality. Yes, killing to save five people takes a problem that is one dimensional (should I kill?) and makes it two dimensional (can I kill to save lives?). But yet a third dimension exists. These theorists say that that dimension is the moral expectation that guides society. Though in isolated cases it might be morally good to kill one person to save five, the expectation that that could happen would throw life into chaos. People who expected to be attacked and "harvested" would be constantly on the alert and lacking trust in other people. There would be paroxysms of violence. People would steer clear of hospitals and cause diseases to spread, out of fear of what might happen to them. So, when you look at moral questions from a "utilitarian" point of view, the original simple questions get more and more complex.

What Does This Have to Do with Transportation?
You might say--and I guess I wouldn't blame you--that I'm stretching the subject of my blog. Yeah, this is called the "trolley question", but this is not really something about transportation. And true enough, I have been known to jump into random topics only tangentially connected to transportation before. So fine. But the "trolley question" has impacts that are direct on transportation itself. When we decide to look at transportation infrastructure, we encounter many of the same morally vexing questions. To name a few instances that come immediately to mind:

*Is congestion bad or good? Ronald Reagan's California was the first (I believe, or at least among the first) state governments to decide that congestion was an environmental issue, and regulate transportation accordingly. The basic ideas behind the "level of service" rules that were developed are not controversial. That is to say, even though I'm no fan of Ronald Reagan, there was a basic truth to what the policy stated: our cars operate at peak efficiency around 50-60 mph. So to the extent that we can run our cars amuck at that speed all the time without ever having to stop or slow down--in theory--we'd be doing the best good for the environment in terms of optimizing our transportation per use of fuel. 

The problem with this idea is that there are many dimensions instead of just one or two. So, for instance, spending money to widen roads means not spending money on transit. That's not good for the environment. Spending money to widen roads also impacts how much people choose to drive, both because of land-use patterns that evolve around the new widened roads, and because people simply choose to take more trips with the additional capacity. Having people get to high speeds everywhere all the time--even when it doesn't lead to traffic jams--means making it impossible to walk or bike anywhere. So that's not good. When you look at the many dimensional aspects of this instance of the trolley question, you realize that two dimensions just doesn't go far enough. That's why level of service is gradually being abandoned as a metric. 

*Is running transit to the suburbs always good? This seems like it would be easy to sort out too. Obviously transit is good, right? It seems even more intuitive than the congestion question. 

The problem with this school of thought is that transit operates totally differently depending on land-use, and when you focus a large amount of funds on running what is called "coverage" service to the suburbs, there may be an opportunity cost to services that could carry more riders. Jarrett Walker is a key proponent of careful thinking about this question. The issue, in the end, is not binary. We need some coverage services. We also need services that may not perform well for ridership immediately, but which are meant to help development in such a way as to allow them to perform well in the future. But Walker has done a lot of work to rein in unnecessary "coverage" buses, and gotten better ridership results without more money in cities like Houston. Just like the original trolley question, the benefit is clear. Many people will be better off with few people being worse off. But Walker himself concedes that that does not make the issue easy, or without human suffering.

My Secret Agenda

Here's the real reason I decided to talk about this now. Last night's Democratic debate featured Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. One of many reasons I've been concerned about our use of oil through driving has always been my concerns about U.S. foreign policy, and so it's a natural thing for me to talk about that here. We have a vital electoral chance to change the course of U.S. foreign policy for the better.

The conservative Rhode Island writer C. Andrew Morse wrote that Sanders' foreign policy stances were "loopy". Sanders had brought a number of points that I thought were incredibly important. As he has pointed out in a number of other debates, we have to think "about the day after". What he means is that when we're talking about utilitarian questions in the context of foreign policy, we have to think about not just the immediate goods and evils that seem to be on the table, but also the potential for complexity and blowback if our original intentions don't work. He's made this point most saliently with regard to the Iraq War. Much of what he predicted about the war came true, down to fairly fine details. Yet, despite this, Sanders is frequently assailed by the media as being "unprepared" on foreign policy.

The question Morse raises is whether the horrible consequences of war are outweighed by the horror that was Saddam Hussein. Morse says that in the math, killing Saddam was just better.
As you can gather, the question is fair because our emotional tendency to think of our active actions as different than our passive ones is at least up for fair debate. If we "allow" Saddam to be a dictator, that is in some ways similar or even equal to "causing" Saddam to be a dictator (Oh yeah, we did actually cause that--that wasn't passively "allowed"). With the organ/blood situation, there's a debate opened as to whether we can do simple two dimensional* math can explain our duties clearly. Is it okay to kill in order to save? Maybe we have to also consider a third or fourth dimension. Does killing to save in this instance do more to destabilize the situation around us, undermine our rules of war, and empower other bad people, than not doing anything would have done?

Sanders differs from ordinary politicians in that he raises open questions about the third or fourth dimension of our decision-making. The typical narrative in U.S. politics has been about killing to save, and there are legitimate instances where that might be the scenario. Sanders reminds us that sometimes we killed because we wanted stuff: oil, copper, or fruit. And he reminds us that even when the people we killed were much more clearly murderous or evil, other stability questions were worth asking. He doesn't just say Is it okay to kill to save? He also says, Are there instances when we tried to kill to save, and ended up killing far more people? The points Sanders brings up about Henry Kissinger in Cambodia, and how carpet-bombing that country for perceived utilitarian good in the Cold War ultimately empowered the Khmer Rouge, are worthwhile to think about too (even if one accepts, as some people do, that Communism was a danger worth opposing). Incidentally, concerns about Kissinger have even been raised by Iraq War supporters, like Christopher Hitchens.

The linguist Steven Pinker (whose views on the election I don't know, but who I imagine is not a Bernie supporter) has spoken to the limitations of utilitarian thought in his book The Stuff of Thought. Pinker notes that even though utilitarian thinking has rationality behind it, that it has its limits. Talking about research that studied the emotional aversion that people have to physically causing the harm of other people, even ostensibly for good, Pinker concludes:
A scenario in which the actor is the antagonist and his sacrificial victim (the fat man) is the agonist--the prototypical meaning of causal verbs--evokes an emotion that overwhelms our reckoning of lives saved and lost, whereas an alternative scenario, in which the actor is a mere enabler of an antagonist (the train), does not. 
Does this mean that our force-dynamic mindset [I do, therefore I cause; I allow to do, therefore I do not cause] makes us irrational in the moral arena? Does the eye-catching difference between causing and enabling contaminate our ethics and render our intentions untrustworthy? Not necessarily. We value people not just for what they do but for what they are. And a person who is capable of heaving a struggling man over a bridge or covering the mouth of a baby until it stops breathing is probably capable of other horrific acts that lack a redeeming reduction in the body count. Even putting aside the callousness that would be necessary to carry through these acts, the kind of person who chooses his acts only by their anticipated costs and benefits (reckoned by calculations that he arrogates himself) might skew the sums in his favor whenever the odds and payoffs are uncertain, which in real life they always are. . . [This] has been satirized in a compendium of philosophical humor: "A brain in a vat on Twin Earth is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. On one track is a worker, Jones, who is planning the murder of five men, but one of those men intends to blow up a bridge that will be crossed by a bus filled with thirty orphans. . . "
Pinker's quote brings us back to why in the modern world, we have typically (at least in theory) said that we only go to war for imminent threats to our own country's safety, or against imminent threat of genocide. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but his days of being an imminent threat were worst when the U.S. was supporting him with weapons in order to play extended-move chess games on some utilitarian chessboard (while also supporting the Iranians to oppose Hussein through the illegal mechanisms of the Iran-Contra Scandal). The questions are numerous: Why was Hussein the worst and most imminent threat at that time? Why couldn't the U.S. wait to work with U.N. inspectors? Why did the U.S. make grabs for Iraq's oil? Why did the U.S. ignore warnings that sectarian violence might kill a lot more people than the background noise of injustice in Iraq was in 2003? When you stop to count the complexities of the issue, it's still true that there might have been some theoretical circumstances when violence for democracy would have made sense. It's just not clear that the Iraq invasion was that circumstance.

And so why should we blame Bernie Sanders for being right about that?

I feel certain that if we need to go to war against an imminent threat, Bernie Sanders can and will lead us. And I feel certain that he'll be surrounded, in any case, by a plethora of officials with deep experience in weaponry and warfare to help him to lead. What I'm looking for in a candidate for president is not a pacifist, but what I am looking for is someone who considers war a deeply harmful last resort. I want a president who does not consider war something to swagger about for political gain in an election. I want a president who knows the evil things we've done, as well as the well-intentioned mistakes we've made--and who also understands the evil things other countries have done, and their well-intentioned mistakes. Bernie Sanders is that person. And so I'm not impressed with the typical expectation that the president where a ridiculous military codpiece and stand in front of a Mission Accomplished banner to remind us of what kind of a man he is. I want someone more serious.

Bernie Sanders is my vote for commander in chief.


*Again, "one dimensional" here meaning "don't kill". "Two dimensional" meaning "kill, but only to save". "Three dimensional" being "kill to save, but perhaps not in some situations". 

"If You Don't Have a Seatbelt. . . "

". . . you better get one."

Yep, because all the traffic's gonna' be moving fast. And you're gonna' be behind the wheel an awful lot.

Just for all you kids out there who are enamored by the "moderate" message of John Kasich, let's remember his signature transportation proposal: adding a new highway to Cleveland, a city that already has too many highways. And--of course--promising economic growth by tearing down an urban neighborhood. Nothing like adding roads to a shrinking city to build success!

John Kasich may be a nice man, but his policies are still crazy. And the only thing more dangerous than a crazy and offensive many is a crazy and well-spoken one.

Sorry, Cleveland. I've never visited your great city, and this hurts me more than it'll hurt you. But I'm doing it. For the good of the country! 

Full coverage from Streetsblog's Angie Schmitt (a Cleveland native).




Because I'm sure that Mayor Elorza's administration must not be ignoring snow-shoveling violations the way that the Taveras Administration seemed to do, the city must be floating in fine moneys from properties that refuse to clear their sidewalks (and especially the ones that clear their parking lots and dump the snow on the sidewalk).


That must mean there's a "pants fund" for people who slip on the unshoveled walks and rip their pants, right? You know, for the people who can't afford a car, and for whom buying a new pair of pants is. . . kinda' stressful?

I'm sure.

Because we always hear politicians talk about how drivers are doing damage to their cars with potholes, even though only 50% of U.S. road funds come from user fees. And of course, more than half of our road funds go to expanding roads instead of taking care of existing ones, so I'm sure that's part of the math too. 

I'm sure. Everyone is very aware of this. Always a part of the conversation.

So, I pay my payroll tax towards someone's highway, so that they can complain when the road that has potholes in it ruins their suspension. So surely there must be a pants fund for me too, right?


I'm sure the city will be willing to produce receipts of its fine efforts to show that it's serious on this issue, and not just hashtagging it for press relations purposes.

Because some of us need to pay for pants.


Pahhhking: The Two New Yawkers Couldn't Be More Different.

We reported on Bernie Sanders' parking spot. Now let's learn about Donald Trump's.

If you didn't catch the brick-throwing smackdown that was the most recent Republican debate, then you might not know about this gem (above). Jeb Bush attacks Trump for using eminant domain against an old lady, while Trump retorts that without eminant domain, the Keystone XL Pipeline would never be possible.

As part of Trump's Atlantic City casino business, he attempted to use eminant domain to take the house of an elderly woman for a parking lot. FactCheck.org finds that in the end the house was not taken, but that the Trump casino consortium made every effort to use eminant domain for parking. 

Again, for review, Sanders:

Couldn't be a bigger contrast.

No information has come forward about any of the other candidates' personal experience with that most-favorite-of-issues, pahhhking, but if Transport Providence comes across any news, we'll share it right here.


Parsing Sanders' Transportation Record in Greater Detail

Last week, Streetsblog editor Angie Schmitt asked where Bernie Sanders stands on transportation. Schmitt started a vital national conversation about Sanders’ proposed trillion dollar infrastructure spending, and asked whether Sanders—a climate change champion—might worsen transportation priorities by focusing too much on rural priorities like roads. A careful review of Bernie Sanders’ track record shows Schmitt to be wrong about Sanders’ priorities—he isn’t road trigger-happy—but validates her spending concerns. Senator Sanders is already a strong choices for urban voters, but his campaign still needs to improve his transportation planks to account for problems in the way the United States spends federal transportation money. The call from activists is clear: Sanders must declare his administration’s intentions to employ a “fix it first” policy, and outline how he will use federal power to hold state departments of transportation accountable for their incessant road expansion projects. This policy will energize the progressive voters Sanders already does well with while also attracting moderate voters who are concerned about costs and climate change.

Where Schmitt is Wrong: Sanders’ is Not Road-Hungry
Schmitt’s questions about Sanders are appropriate and come at an important crossroads in his campaign. Sanders has captured the imagination of much of the country—especially young voters, who have favored Sanders overwhelmingly, and who have shown a strong preference for urbanist approaches to transportation. Schmitt’s analysis of Sanders’ position comes from a look at his planks leading into the Iowa Caucuses, where Sanders tied with Hillary Clinton. Sanders mentions “rural economies” or “rural development” several times, while never using the word “city”. Schmitt wonders in the article whether, at worst, the Sanders campaign is willing to sacrifice its environmental bona-fides in order to satisfy road-building unions, which would benefit from increased highway building. At best, she wonders if Sanders is unaware of the financing schemes that would produce the best transportation results.

Senator Sanders has a clear record of supporting walking, biking, and transit, and of being suspicious of auto-oriented development, so while Schmitt’s query is fair, a closer look reveals her conclusion to be wrong. Senator Sanders announced his run for president with Burlington, Vermont’s waterfront bike path behind him, a symbolic choice that could not have been accidental. Leading up to the announcement, The Burlington Free Press highlighted Sanders’ choice of venue (video), remembering that it was a four-term Mayor Sanders who had fought to maintain the public land used to build the bike path. In the article, the Free Press encouraged attendees that “Parking could become a challenge: The city encourages people to use the Burlington Bike Path, take the free College Street shuttle bus or walk from downtown parking garages. No parking is available on-site.” No doubt, the culture that shuns cars for large events had a great deal of nurturing from Sanders. In his memoir, Outsider in the House, Sanders highlights (page 73) bike infrastructure as one victory from his administration: impressive, considering that very few places outside the Netherlands were thinking about bikes, much less acting to promote biking, in the 1980s. Says Sanders:

After an enormous amount of public discussion and fierce debate, we ended up with a very successful and people-oriented waterfront of public parks, and nine mile bike path, and a public boat house. Today, cyclists can travel from one end of Burlington to the other. Swimming is free of charge at any one of our four public parks. We’ve got some very nice athletic facilities as well. We’ve also developed some very innovative concepts in affordable housing.

Congressman Sanders showed his understanding of transportation priorities in a surprisingly cogent and off-the-cuff response to a 1991 Congressional roast. Comedian Dave Barry, ridiculing Sanders’ socialist proclivities, asked Sanders whether he would demonstrate his working class spirit by sharing his reserved Capitol parking space. Sanders took the opportunity to go beyond the question and to highlight the poor choices the U.S. had made in transportation:

The question was asked of me about sharing--sharing a parking space--and that's much too conservative a statement. I'm going to be bolder than that statement. And I'm going to announce tonight, before this illustrious and important audience, that I will do more than share my space. What I intend to do, at the right moment, and the appropriate moment, is to give up my space totally. . .

When the United States Congress begins the process of breaking our dependency on the automobile, when we put billions of dollars into public transportation rather than to highways and to roads. . . when that happens, I am prepared, unequivocally, to say before you, that I will give up my space.

Notably, Bernie Sanders is a pedestrian commuter to his work at the Senate, meaning, in fact, that Sanders did give up his parking space at least some of the time. As many transportation advocates know, parking policy can separate the wheat from the chaff, and Sen. Sanders followed through on this most vexing of land-use and transportation questions.

Schmitt’s conclusions about the words “rural development” don’t check out. On rural development, preserving “small family farms” (video, see especially at 13 minutes) has figured heavily in Sen. Sanders’ past priorities. Sanders’ webpage highlights efforts to reform the Farm Bill, advocacy on behalf of undocumented immigrants, and interest in food diversity and sustainable farm techniques as among is most important rural priorities. Schmitt’s highway-based development just isn’t there.

Where Angie Schmitt is Right: A Call for #NoNewRoads
That doesn’t mean Sen. Sanders is off the hook. Schmitt’s overarching point that Sanders proposes far too much transportation spending is something the campaign must address, because she’s right. Sanders’ campaign can put urbanist voters—whether they live in small rural towns, small cities like Burlington, or larger ones like Sanders’ native Brooklyn, New York—at ease by declaring a preference for “fix it first” road policies. Currently, the U.S. spends more money expanding roads than maintaining them, so while the infrastructure crisis Sanders talks about is real, much of the money needed to fix the problem should come from ending these road expansions. The best model for “fix it first” has been the Strong Towns’ #NoNewRoads campaign, but other organizations, like Smart Growth America, also have models for such a policy.

The Hill interviewed Sanders’ following his recent sponsorship of a $1 trillion transportation funding bill. The results were encouraging, but left room for improvement. Sanders mentioned transit funding and road “maintenance”, but did not highlight expansion of roads, congestion, or other dog whistles that typically stand-in for highway widening. However, Sanders also said nothing concrete to rule out use of funds for road widening, however. Sanders should support such a policy, because it has become commonplace. Some state DOTs, like New Jersey and California, have moved to a “fix it first” maintenance schedule, eschewing road widening in favor of efforts to preserve the roads the states has under its belt.

Whatever his intentions, Sanders’ new spending proposal could put that pattern in jeopardy. Strong Towns blog interviewed Urban Cincy blogger Randy Simes. Simes said ODOT, long enamored by roadway expansions, might follow New Jersey and California in choosing a fix it first stance. Simes said that ODOT was unlikely to keep that stance if it found itself awash in new money.

I wouldn’t say that Ohio is a leader on this. You know, from my understanding, Michigan was the first state to go [fix it first], and then California is the largest one, and they joined the group of states who have taken this approach last year. They announced a similar type of policy. So I think you’ll see more and more of this. The other thing that I would say about this announcement from ODOT is that it’s, it’s a bit tepid. You know? I don’t think they’re in this for the pure reasons of, you know, ‘we want to build a more sustainable system going forward’. I think it’s finances. So with that said I think that if they can expand and add capacity and pay for it using user fees, they’ll do it.  (my emphasis)

Simes said he felt that more roads in return for a higher gas tax or tolls might be acceptable as a compromise. Notably, Sanders’ approach to funding closes tax loopholes on corporations in order to pay for roads and transit, rather than using tolls, gas taxes, or other user-fees. Unfortunately, this would subsidize driving, something that is already a problem, according to U.S. PIRG. Should state DOTs find less progressive priorities than Sanders intends, the new funding stream could be the ultimate fuel-on-the-fire for climate change.

Putting more funding to transportation worries me too. As a Rhode Island transportation advocate, I have worked hard on the Moving Together Providence campaign, which is getting bipartisan attention for its call to remove the decrepit “6/10 Connector” urban highway in Providence, and replace it with a more affordable and green urban boulevard. The City of Providence is in strong support, and RIDOT has given encouraging words. In the back of my mind, I still worry that once Governor Raimondo’s truck toll plan RhodeWorks passes, RIDOT will back off of the cheaper and greener ideas of Moving Together and just build another highway. A Sanders campaign can be used to amplify the concerns of people like me, working to rebuild cities after decades of bad planning choices, or it can remain vague on the details, and leave us all worrying.

It isn’t that Sanders is wrong to want to close these corporate tax loopholes. In the most recent New Hampshire debate opposite Hillary Clinton, Sanders took the laudible position of demanding that General Electric—a company that currently pays nothing in federal taxes—pay its full share by ending exemptions for its nominally off-shored accounts. The question is whether transportation infrastructure is really the best use of those funds, once procured. Would a Sanders administration be able to expand tax credits for low-income families with that tax money instead? Would a Sanders administration be able to bolster its proposal for free state colleges and universities by taxing G.E.? Would a single-payer healthcare system—already expected to save money over private insurers—be even more affordable if Sanders forewent new transportation funds? And how might moderate voters—voters who want to steer away from Donald Trump or Ted Cruz anyway—respond to the idea of finding ways to fix bridges with the current financing the country has? Since America spends more money on expanding roads than fixing them, choosing not to put more money into transportation could be a win-win for everyone—a path chosen not to benefit multinational corporations, but ordinary citizens. It would reinvigorate an under-reported Sanders tradition: bipartisanship. Sanders worked closely with Republican council members as mayor, and garners about a quarter of the Republican vote in his own state each Senate election. Past Republican allies have said that he “out-Republicaned” them with rational policies like competitive bidding for city contracts. The New York Tines praised Sanders for his pragmatism, not a word often associated with the wild-haired socialist, but one that has been true to many voters over a many-decades-long career. A “No New Roads” approach would add to this pattern of fiscal conservatism mixed with social democratic ambition, and add depth to Sanders’ policy portfolio on infrastructure.

Let me lay my cards on the table clearly: I am a Sanders voter. I like most of the proposals Sanders has brought forth, I find the uplifting and clean-handed character of his campaigning style appealing, and ultimately I think he is more electable than Hillary Clinton. If it comes to it, I can certainly find other reasons to vote my conscience for Bernie. But far more exciting yet would be seeing Sanders respond to this call that way his campaign has responded to other activist critiques: by adapting. I believe that Sanders will do this.

At publication time, I have contacted Press Relations at Bernie Sanders’ campaign twice by email, but have not heard back.

Bernie, adopt “No New Roads” as an official plank. It’s the right thing to do, and it would be yuge.


Don't Mess With Rhode Island Either

As mentioned in this video, the center of Austin Texas is bigger than the entire city of Providence (40 square miles vs. 25 square miles--and that includes water, because we only have 18 square miles of land). But as they say, everything's bigger in Texas.

You think we could get as many people to bike as this? Nah, probably more. But we've got to have infrastructure.

When are those protected bike lanes coming? Not too clear. I was at a ResilientPVD meeting last night where the city presented some vague and poorly-thought-out* bike "path" ideas, but bike paths take a lot longer and require a lot more money per-mile to develop than protected bike lanes. There's an reticence to use the existing wide streets we have, and even a denial that those streets are wide in the first place. Where can we fit the infrastructure? Here's where the Netherlands did it.

But Central Falls is about to become the first city in the state to get a protected bike lane. I guess some places in Rhode Island are leading.


*They were placed across hills, in places where there were no existing highway crossings, and without any thought put to creating a comprehensive network. The city really needs to get its act together. NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

Bernie Sanders Offers Up His Parking Spot

Hashtag: #Swoon

At a 1991 Congressional roast, the moderator makes fun of Sanders, ending his remarks with a question: If Sanders cares so much about the ill-gotten gains of the wealthy, will he share his reserved Congressional parking space?

Sanders doesn't miss a beat. After some brief self-deprecating comments on Congressional pay rates, Sanders declares sharing a parking space as the "conservative" option:
All of us who are politicians hold the sacred right of totally ignoring the question and answering it in any way that we want to [laughter]. . .
 . . . The question was asked of me about sharing--sharing a parking space--and that's much too conservative a statement. I'm going to be bolder than that statement. And I'm going to announce tonight, before this illustrious and important audience, that I will do more than share my space. What I intend to do, at the right moment, and the appropriate moment, is to give up my space totally. . .
. . . When the United States Congress begins the process of breaking our dependency on the automobile, when we put billions of dollars into public transportation rather than to highways and to roads. . . when that happens, I am prepared, unequivocally, to say before you, that I will give up my space.
True to his word, Sanders notably walks to work (from Reddit):

I think this answers (answahhhs?) some questions that Angie Schmitt and I have both raised about Sanders' transportation priorities.

Feel the motherfucking Bern. ;-) Anyone that puts transit before roads and pahhhking has my vote.