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Causal Factors

Is Public Transit in America Calvinist?

Research & Commentary
August 17, 2015

by Sheila Kennedy

Canadians view public transit as a vital public utility whereas Americans view it as a social welfare program.

By Sheila Suess Kennedy

Credit: theamericangenius.com

Credit: theamericangenius.com

Some years back, I wrote a book titled “God and Country: America in Red and Blue.” I was intrigued by the various ways in which contemporary policy preferences are rooted in religious ways of looking at the world.

I wasn’t focusing on obvious connections—we all see the relationship between religious beliefs and opinions about abortion or gay rights or capital punishment, for example. I was interested in the under-appreciated ways that religious perspectives had shaped cultural attitudes and thus fostered certain approaches to public policy—in the relationship between early beliefs about the nature of reality and contemporary arguments about criminal justice, the economy and the environment—issues most of us consider entirely secular.

As I did my research, I was especially struck by the ways in which early Calvinist theology has shaped American attitudes toward the poor. Ours is a culture with a deeply entrenched, if bastardized, version of Calvinism—a belief that God smiles upon the “elect,” and the poor are poor because they are morally defective. (Accusations that poor folks lack “middle class values” are a modern and none-too-veiled version of that theologically-rooted conviction.)

A recent article at Vox connected that insight to America’s pathetic public transportation.

American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. At the same time, a much greater percentage of US public transit costs are subsidized by public tax dollars.

Many people try to explain this paradox by pointing to US history and geography: Most of our cities and suburbs were built out after the 1950s, when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. Consequently, we have sprawling, auto-centric metropolises that just can’t be easily served by public transportation.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

What, then, accounts for the discrepancy?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

It’s true. American politicians don’t see transit as a quality of life issue, or even as an economic development tool (which it surely is). Rather than regarding our buses, trolleys and light rail as part of a vital transportation function, they think of it as another government aid program to help poor people.

And the poor are “undeserving.” If they were deserving, God would have made sure they had cars.

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net.

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