Democracy is sometimes messy, and listening to the people means there are multiple values that urban planners must take into account.
David Seymour brings up excellent points about the future of urban transportation (“Urban Planners vs. Democracy,” November-December 2013). New technologies and new institutional arrangements are radically changing the transportation field by erasing the traditional distinction between the private automobile and mass public transit. But he errs in his political understanding of the debate on urban transportation.
Seymour faults planners for their “ideologically driven war against the car,” but he does so by waging an ideologically driven war against planners. He should recognize that, in the same way that there is a huge middle ground between car-dependent suburbs and high-density downtowns served by subways, there is a great distance between free markets, where consumers rule, and technocracy, where planners rule.
He seems to forget that the sorts of municipal plans and policies that he cites as evidence for his case against planners were adopted by elected municipal governments. It turns out that many Calgarians who elect to drive also elect representatives who want to boost transit. Does Seymour believe that people are fully informed, rational agents when they choose their mode of transportation, but irrational victims of planners’ propaganda when they choose their representatives?
It is important for urban planners such as David Seymour — what else should you call someone who works to improve the functioning of our cities? — to show as much open-mindedness on political questions as they do on technical ones. One eminently political question we must ask is, what aims must public policy pursue in the field of urban transportation? Efficiency in mobility is an important collective goal, and so is protecting individual freedom. But a good transportation policy must not maximize only those values that Seymour finds most important.
Surely, environmental protection, social equity and urban amenity are also worthy of public action. These aims have not been well served when we maximized the individual freedom to drive private automobiles. Large numbers of Canadians seem to hold that view and to act on it when they elect their representatives and entrust them with the power to regulate land development and to tax and spend.
Seymour is right when he says the age of the private vehicle is far from over, and that is a good thing in many ways. Varied types of transportation technology, used in varied institutional arrangements, hold great promise for our cities. Many urban planners are eager to contribute to the development and implementation of new options. What is needed now is for Canadians to elect politicians who can balance different interests and values in a wise manner.