by Sam Roach, Ph.D., J.D.
John Adams famously said that “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The facts concerning government subsidization of public transportation in the U.S. reveal billions of wasted dollars and nothing less than colossal failure. Yet new urbanists deem public transportation a justice issue that requires continued government funding. In the present article on social justice and urban planning (part 2 of 3), I assert that, not only does government subsidization of public transit make for unsound public policy, a biblical view of justice does not require Christians to use public transportation nor to support government funding for it.
The “modern era” of government financing mass transportation began with The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (P. L. 88-365, 78 Stat. 302), part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Under current federal law, public transportation (also known as public transit, mass transit, and mass transportation) is defined as “regular, continuing shared-ride surface transportation services that are open to the general public or open to a segment of the general public defined by age, disability, or low income . . .” (49 U.S.C. §5302). Bus trips account for about one-half of public transportation; a little more than one-third involves heavy rail; commuter and light rail each account for five percent of the total.[i] As one writer notes, “[w]ith annual subsidies of $50 billion covering 76 percent of its costs, public transit may be the most heavily subsidized consumer-based industry in the country.”[ii] However, proponents of publicly funded mass transit programs in the U.S. have continually forecasted its many advantages: increased ridership, reduced road congestion, reduced air pollution, increased energy efficiency, revitalized cities, and assistance for the poor. What do the facts reveal? At least one expert concludes that “public transit systems have failed to deliver any of the promised benefits.”[iii] For example, although public transit supposedly helps poor people travel to their jobs, “only about 4 percent of American workers live in households that lack cars, and a majority of them don’t commute by transit.”[iv]
Despite these facts, new urbanists and others argue that public transportation serves as a matter of social justice. Justice activists view the automobile as a culprit in the saga of U.S. transportation policy and American culture.[v] Following in the footsteps of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who dubbed certain aspects of post-war American capitalist society as “Fordism,” many new urbanists view cars as a “scourge” in American culture. For instance, one Christian new urbanist writes that “the automobile has taken on some of the characteristics of an idol for our culture at this point in our history.”[vi] Furthermore, the writer laments the “typical pattern in the insular church” where the “automobile shields the congregants from the public realm until they arrive safely at home.”[vii]
As thoughtful Christians, we need to push back against the new urbanist approach to transportation policy. Admittedly, some individuals may bow at the altar of Ford, BMW, and Lexus; a desire to avoid public places could involve something sinister. Yet, how should the church respond? What does justice require?
The Bible clearly teaches Christians to be concerned about justice, including the plight of the poor and needy. However, as Ronald Nash notes, when one understands justice in its distributive sense, in terms of how goods and obligations should be distributed within a society, “the entrance of the state into such considerations is inevitable.”[viii] For example, René Padilla argues that “Scripture indicates that the state is responsible for ensuring that socio-political and economic justice is highly honored in society [emphasis mine].”[ix] Following Padilla’s reasoning, it should come as no surprise that Christian new urbanists would have us view subsidization of public transit as a biblical justice issue. In fact, through an attempted weaving together of Scripture and post-modern philosophy, one Christian new urbanist gives pride of place to an “Urban Bill of Rights.” Those rights include the “right to convenient and dignified public transportation, including…[t]he right to convenient access to buses, rail and bike paths [and] [t]he right to walk or to take public transportation to work.”[x] The implicit call for the government to instantiate those rights could not be more obvious. Moreover, since God is just, he would have Christians support government involvement to procure and protect those rights—at least, so goes the Christian new urbanist argument.
If Christian new urbanists have their way, Christians will put down their car keys, hop on the bus and/or train, and support increased government funding of public transit. Yet Christian new urbanists do not trust church members to follow that course so readily. Thus, they see more government coercion as the way forward to guarantee justice, which I will explore further in Part 3 of the series (forthcoming). In sum, not only does government funded public transit make for bad policy, it fails miserably as a biblical justice mandate. Facts are stubborn things.
[ii] Randal O’Toole, “The Coming Transit Apocalypse,” Policy Analysis (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, October 24, 2017), 1, https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa_824-updated.pdf.
[iii] Jean Love and Wendell Cox, “False Dreams and Broken Promises: The Wasteful Federal Investment in Urban Mass Transit,” Policy Analysis (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, October 17, 1991), 1, https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa162.pdf.
[iv] O’Toole, “The Coming Transit Apocalypse,” 1.
[v] Richard Florida, “How Cars Divide America,” CityLab (blog), July 19, 2018, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/07/how-cars-divide-america/565148/.
[vi] Eric Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 54.
[vii] Jacobsen, 204.
[viii] Ronald Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1983), 19.
[ix] Rene C. Padilla, “God’s Call To Do Justice,” in The Justice Project, ed. Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Ashley Seeber (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 27.
[x] Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, 234–35.