The Conservative Case for Urbanism

Although John McCain believes in global warming and has promised to combat it, it is no great surprise that the Republican National Convention is swarming with people who say climate change is unrelated to human activity. Like evolution, many social conservatives will tell you, global warming is "just a theory" advanced by secular intellectuals, and so requires no urgent action. One of the biggest applause lines of the convention thus far was a dig at Al Gore, the patron saint of global warming activism.

"I have one more recommendation for energy conservation," Mitt Romney said Wednesday night after delivering the expected line in favor of offshore drilling, a policy that will do nothing to decrease the United States' carbon footprint. "Let's keep Al Gore's private jet on the ground!"

With folks like that across the aisle, concerned liberals and independents might despair of ever finding a serious bipartisan solution to the energy crisis. But what if solving global warming doesn't require believing it is a crisis in the first place?

That was the message of some more sensible Republicans Wednesday afternoon at a bipartisan panel on public transportation and energy policy sponsored by the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. Proposals to shift from a sprawling, car-dependent geography to one of denser population centers connected via public transit have often been called elitist and out-of-touch with how most Americans choose to live their lives. The typical family does not want to live in a city or commute by rail, writes suburban-triumphalist writer Joel Kotkin, since big backyards, quiet, and privacy are "everything they have wanted for a half-century." Wendell Cox, a Heritage Foundation partisan, has written a book calling anti-sprawl activism a "war on the American dream."

That is the rhetoric the University of Minnesota event sought to dispute. Policies in favor of dense development shouldn't be viewed on a left-right spectrum and certainly needn't be filtered through culture-war rhetoric, the panelists said. In fact, one doesn't have to be concerned about climate change at all in order to support such policies; values of fiscal conservatism and localism, both key to Republican ideology, can be better realized through population-dense development than through sprawl.

Tom Darden, a developer of urban and close-in suburban properties, said Wednesday, "I'm a Republican and have been my whole life. I consider myself a very conservative person. But it never made sense to me why we would tax ordinary people in order to subsidize this form of development, sprawl." Darden told the story of a road-paving project approved by North Carolina when he served on the state's transportation board. A dirt road that handled just five trips per day was paved at taxpayer expense, with money that could have gone toward mass transit benefiting millions of people.

"Those were driveways, in my view, not roads," Darden said.

More common sense came from Congressman John Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "I can't just continue to pave over every metro area," he said. "Our goal is to reduce the negative impact on the environment and also reduce our dependence on energy."

But the federal government is a hindrance as often as a help, Mica admitted, throwing years worth of bureaucratic red tape in front of states that want to construct light rail lines. "As the federal government, we're a very unreliable partner, and we haven't decided what our policy is," Mica said, adding that he has been working since 1989 on building one light rail line in his central Florida home district, and expects to see grandchildren before the project is completed.

That's a tale that Chris Coleman, the Democratic mayor of St. Paul, said he could relate to. A third of the cost of a new commuter rail in the St. Paul suburbs comes from fulfilling unnecessary federal construction regulations, Coleman said on the panel. The Twin Cities region once boasted one of the most sophisticated street car systems in the country. But as in hundreds of cities nationwide, that system was dismantled in the 1960s in favor of massive highway construction. Seven years ago, the pendulum gingerly swung back as Minnesota built a single light rail line connecting the Mall of America, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, and downtown Minneapolis. But despite years of maneuvering between local authorities and Congress, St. Paul still has no light rail of its own, and there is no rail line at all between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. During the convention, which took place in both cities, this was a major problem. Because of security restrictions on car travel and serious traffic, transportation to and from various convention activities has been a major (and expensive) headache.

The bottom line, the panelists agreed, is that the cost of gas should motivate Americans to consider public transportation options regardless of whether they identify as environmentalists or accept the science behind global warming. "People don't want to live 40 miles away from their workplaces," Coleman said. "But we have to offer them options. If we can build a light rail line into the city of St. Paul and build the density of business around it that we are planning, we will be able to significantly alter people's lifestyles."

But in order to build public support for such policies, conservatives must join progressives in rethinking the United States' geography. Density is cost effective, it fosters small business development at the local level, and it strengthens ties within communities. None of that should be anathema to either national party -- unless they continue to put the interests of construction behemoths and automakers above the interests of ordinary Americans.

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