From the WMATA governance debate to the 2030 Group’s transportation report, there’s been a recent push from business groups to convince elected officials to stay away from making decisions and instead leave the policymaking to “experts.” That’s dangerous.
If you want to get cable TV, an expert cable installer knows which pieces of equipment you need and how to set them up. But the cable guy shouldn’t decide how many premium channels you want. That’s your choice. The reasons to get certain channels are about what kind of TV you like and how much time you want to spend watching it, not the technical issues.
The same goes for transportation and development. Our nation decided to aggressively build a car-oriented, suburban society after World War II. We created engineering and scientific disciplines around figuring out how to do that: roads of a certain size, freeways spaced a certain distance, cookie-cutter houses and shopping centers that were easy to build quickly in any town anywhere.
If someone has been building these elements of infrastructure for 30 years, we could call them an “expert” on building that stuff. But should they alone decide what kind of towns we should build?
People are overwhelmingly saying, wait a minute, this isn’t what we want. Housing prices in walkable areas like Logan Circle, Ballston, or Silver Spring are high and still rising because a lot of people want to live there but there isn’t enough supply. We have lots of single-family, detached, suburban homes but not enough apartments and townhouses a short walk from shops, parks, and transit.
People are sending clear signals through their housing choices that they want walkable urbanism. Yet most (but not all) professionals working in the field are locked in to the ways they’ve been trained and the way they do things. That’s where we get the crazy traffic engineer adherence to “standards” even when they make little sense, as this Strong Towns video so effectively parodied.
There’s an important role for experts in identifying specific steps to implement a policy. Parochial political concerns become dangerous when making small-scale choices that can enrich indviduals, where the danger of corruption becomes strong. But when it comes to deciding the big picture, overarching directions, we need officials who listen to residents, not just make decisions based on how they’ve always done things.
The Washingtonian analogues of those experts are the ones Bob Chase and Rich Parsons consulted on their study that aimed to tell leaders what the regional transportation priorities should be (and coincidentally mirrored those priorities they were already pushing for). I spoke with Chase and Parsons last week, and they were adamant that they were just trying to find out the views of experts, devoid of politics.
They said they wanted “a pretty balanced, professional objective study about what works and what’s not working well,” to “take the local jurisdiction and state perspective out of it.” In selecting their anonymous experts, they said they were “looking for people who take the politics out of it, and “intentionally selected people very senior, with 20 years of experience.”
That doesn’t change the fact that the questions guided people toward megaprojects, and that there’s plenty of evidence the list had an exurban bias. Besides having a small number of people from DC, Chase and Parsons refused to tell me which counties the “experts” lived in.
But even had their sample been broader, there’s a problem with saying that senior engineers should set transportation priorities. I’d definitely prefer an engineer with 20 years of experience to design a new road or transit line over someone who lacks a professional degree. I’d also prefer to have them tell me how much it will cost and what hydrological problems might arise.
I’d even welcome their input on where to put a line, but we shouldn’t be setting priorities just on that basis. A transportation engineer is not responsible for thinking about the merits of different growth patterns, or their effect on people’s health and happiness, or on the environmental costs.
Remember, Jane Jacobs got regular people to step up to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway when the “experts” were saying it was necessary. All of the conventional wisdom in the urban planning field at the time held that the road was the only way to make New York work in the modern age.
Should decisionmakers disregard input from the 23-year-old college grad who has a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers but doesn’t want to live in Fairfax County because there aren’t walkable places with an urban vibe? What about the 75-year-old in Aspen Hill who’s finding it harder to drive, hates that she has to travel 30 minutes to the Pike just to get to most kinds of retail, and wishes she could live in Bethesda but prohibited by expensive housing?
The Board of Trade has been pushing WMATA and local jurisdictions to excise elected officials from any decisionmaking authority on the WMATA Board. Sure, it’s the experts and not the elected officials who should decide which contractor is best suited to replacing the broken track circuits. But I want officials who listen to riders to decide whether to cut weekend service. By a strictly performance-based metric, that service is relatively poor at cost recovery, but its benefits to the region go far beyond WMATA itself.
Now, with their survey of anonymous “experts,” Chase and Parsons are going to be pressuring groups like the Transportation Planning Board to abdicate their traditional role in setting priorities and instead choose the megaprojects their “experts” picked, which happen to be the same ones they were already pushing for.
They’ll say, as they told me, that local officials are too preoccupied with the immediate interests of their local jurisdiction to think “regionally.” Instead, decisions about how to spend billions in transportation dollars over decades should go to the professionals, who won’t think about the big picture of regional growth but rather just move as many cars or trains as fast as possible as far as possible.
The TPB and other officials should reject this idea. The input of professionals is useful, but far more so when those professionals can attach their names to their recommendations and everyone can weigh them knowing the biases and interests each person brings with them. The input of other people is important too, and our elected representatives, even if imperfect, are the ones best situated to make those choices.