Friday, March 25, 2016

Neoconservatism's death knell

A specter is haunting Washington's Republican establishment this election season. The specter of a deceased neoconservativism.

That blinding faith in American power as a force to promote democracy and capitalism and showcase American exceptionalism is surprisingly absent from the discourse of the current campaign, on both sides of the aisle.

Donald Trump bluntly castigates Bush the Younger's invasion of Iraq, at a Republican debate, and receives applause. The Republican front-runner has also gone on the record as supporting "neutrality" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in stark contrast to neoconservative tradition of fawning adulation for the Jewish state, a stalwart ally and "lone democracy") and expressed praise for neocon pariah Vladimir Putin. None of this has managed to seriously dent Trump's bluster or popularity.

Ted Cruz, Trump's most viable rival, sounds lukewarm about efforts for democracy promotion (another pillar of traditional Republican foreign policy doctrine). He generally expresses the belief that American foreign policy should adhere to the country's national interest rather than to ideological crusades for free elections and markets.

Meanwhile, over on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is similarly presumed to adhere to the "Powell Doctrine", namely that the US should only use military force when it has clear objectives and knows what force can achieve. Such force, in Sanders' view, should be limited to "last resort" scenarios: in debates with Hillary, Sanders touts his vote against the Iraq War.

Only the drastic underperformer, Marco Rubio (who has already been booted off the stage), and stale perennial Hillary Clinton have expressed support for a greater projection of American power overseas.

The opinions of the most dynamic candidates in the race reflect upon widespread skepticism among the population writ large towards America's capacity to play "world police".

A Pew poll taken two-and-a-half years ago, when it appeared that Obama might use force against Syria to stop the Assad regime's use chemical weapons, showed record low levels of support  for such a hypothetical action, with high levels of opposition emanating from both liberal and conservative respondents.

A poll conducted by the Brookings Institute's Shibley Telhami in May 2015, by which point ISIS had spread its cringe-inducing reign of terror to the far reaches the Middle East (and had begun lone wolf attacks in the West), showed that a majority (57 percent) of Americans opposed sending US ground troops into Syria to defeat ISIS, even as more than 72 percent responded that ISIS was the "number one threat" in the Middle East (a second set of questions indicated that opponents of military action believed such action would fail to effectively stem the threat). Moreover, the poll showed that a supermajority (of 72 percent) opposed the use of force against Assad (a level of opposition no doubt aggrevated by the rise of a deadlier force in Syria).

And its not just the Middle East. Obama's promise to lift the embargo on Cuba, a position that would once have been considered untenable for any national political figure, now enjoys the support of nearly three-quarters of the American population, according to to a Pew poll from last July, including not only 83 percent of registered Democrats but 59 percent of registered Republicans (and 56 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans).

I've expressed (hopeful) alarm bells over neoconservatism's health before, but this time, the affliction appears genuinely fatal.

With the Robert Kagans and Max Boots of the world pledging to back Hillary in a general election against Trump, while the William Kristols vow to abstain from voting, the movement is in fragmented disarray with no projection on the national stage.

Regardless of who wins, the neoconservatives will face political exile for at least the next term or two (or more), stranded between a Democratic party with an antiwar bent and a Republican party marked by resurgent isolationism.

Such is the price of hubris.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Profiles in Transit: Washington D.C. vs. Los Angeles

I had the opportunity to ride Washington D.C.'s Metrorail again on Saturday on a brief visit to the region for a loved one's funeral.  Established only in the late-1970s (within ten years of Los Angeles' subway and light-rail system) but boasting the second-largest ridership by both raw numbers and mode share among the nation's heavy rail mass transit systems, D.C.'s Metrorail has long intrigued me as a potential model for Los Angeles to follow. Riding Washington's subway system for the first time since I became more involved in transit planning issues gave me the unique opportunity to compare, contrast and reflect. My journey involved taking the Red Line from Bethesda to Gallery Place-Chinatown station and then transferring to the Yellow Line to Archives station, on the way, and taking the Blue Line from Smithsonian to Metro Center before switching to the Red Line to Bethesda station, on the way back. Below are some takeaways.

(Slightly outdated) Map of Washington D.C.'s Metrorail system


1. Cleanliness
This was the first distinction I noticed when I stepped onto the Red Line Train at Bethesda. Whereas the Los Angeles Red Line usually greets riders' nosebuds with malodorous wafts of urine, tobacco and/or weed, its Washington counterpart is bereft of unpleasant smells. Except for a couple stains on the carpets, the Red Line's railcars were also surprisingly spotless compared to a typical Red Line car in LA (with no visible litter). I personally suspect (though I could be wrong) that the D.C. system's cleanliness has something to do with the region's lack of a large population of chronic homeless. Also, the upholstery used for railcar seats was not only more comfortable than the fabric used for seats on Los Angeles' trains but seemed to be less prone to retaining stains and smells.

2. Maintenance/Security 
During my journey, all four stations that I traversed (Bethesda, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Archives and Smithsonian) had a manned personnel booth on the ticketing level. In contrast, even 7th/metro station, arguably the most prominent hub in the Los Angeles MetroRail network, lacks a permanent personnel booth and hosts maintenance on only a sporadic basis (usually for the purpose of upkeep rather than customer assistance). The personnel presence in WAMTA stations not only enhanced my sense of security but allowed me to seek out advice on how to use the system's new "Smartcards" (reusable, plastic fare-holding cards akin to TAP cards). If only I had such assistance all the times the TAP-vending machines at the Civic Center Station malfunctioned.


3. Frequency
Based on the timetable monitors, trains had average headways of only about 5 minutes on the Red Line and 7 to 9 minutes on the Yellow and Silver Lines-when I rode on a Saturday morning. By contrast, Subway and Light Rail trains in Los Angeles have headways as gaping as 20 minutes on Weekends, with even weekday rush-hour headways decreasing to no less than 10 minutes. As the transit consultant Jarrett Walker famously notes, "Frequency is Freedom": the tight headways in D.C. allowed an 8+-mile suburb-to-city trip, with transfers, to be completed in as little as 25 minutes (on the return). In Los Angeles, an 8.5 mile trip from Downtown to my house in the "Central" area of the city (involving both subway and bus) takes an hour, at minimum, during rush hour due in part to the limited frequency.

This is not to say that the D.C. system does not have flaws of its own-particularly in infrastructure upkeep (as this past week's shutdown shows). But as the Los Angeles County Metro seeks to counter ridership drops and make LA a transit friendly city, it needs to consider factors that make D.C. shine comparatively.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Metro Gold Line opening: a gleaming Potemkin rail ine

I journeyed to Azusa for the first time yesterday. Why, you may ask? It was not to cheer on the Azusa Pacific volleyball team or to take a hike up to Mt. Baldy but to experience the "Foothill extension" of the Gold Line, which opened for service yesterday.

I had a lot of fun. I not only got to see new towns and landscapes (including stunning views of the San Gabriel mountains) but sample excellent beer at the various pubs placed conveniently along the route.

With that said, small but pertinent operational flaws checkered my experience (and my optimism for the line's success).

For one thing, getting to the Gold Line by public transit was not easy because bus service on arterials headed to Downtown was rather infrequent (due to scheduling) and prone to traffic delays. Though I am a fan of expanding Metro's rail coverage, I believe that such expansion must be coupled with initiatives to improve the utility of its buses, which carry three times the ridership of Metro's trains.

The litter arrayed around the seats on the Red Line (which I took for the second leg of my pre-ride journey) and the odious smells that permeated the train proved to be another blot on my experience. As I discussed in one of my recent posts (and as public commeters on articles like this have frequently brought up), Metro could boost transit use and ridership significantly simply by increasing maintenance (and heightening onboard security) on vehicles.

                                          Does clutter make for an appealing daily commute?                    

Then when I first boarded the Gold Line at Union Station, I was surprised (and a bit worried) to see Sierra Madre Villa listed as the destination on the train's front monitor, as well as on the maps posted in the interior. Even the programmed announcer which blared upon departure from each station still parrotted Sierra Madre Villa as the "final destination". Only when the train passed Sierra Madre Villa without making a "final stop" announcment (or dispensing of all its passengers) did I know for certain that this was not a "Short Line" service.  

Most disappointing of all, the neighborhoods the stations served displayed little semblance of the transit-oriented, walkable "third Los Angeles" Metro is supposed to work towards. The Duarte station was surrounded by suburban office parks. Monrovia station tempted with a grass-covered commons in the immediate vicinity (called "Station Park") but this gave way, as I moved away from the station along Myrtle Avenue, to a desolate strand of auto body shops, office park complexes and gas stations, encasing a sea of single-family homes: the Monrovia "Old Town", which wayfinding signs pointed to as if right at the station's doorstop, lay a good mile-long walk away, uphill (and under a freeway overpass). Irwindale station, as expected, amounted to little more than an island in an industrial wasteland. On the other hand, the Arcadia station is snug in the heart of a commercial strip that appeared nonetheless (on both approach and departure), depressingly car-centric.

Only the Azusa station opened out immediately onto a commercial and retail corridor along Azusa avenue, though this "downtown" was none-too impressive. There seemed to be as many vape shops as eateries (I counted only five restaurants and bars in three blocks). The early 20th-century Spanish Colonial-style buildings charmed but none integrated a residential use into the district (whether exclusively or as a mixed-use project). Copious parking suggested that most people drove here.

I shouldn't have been too surprised. Eric Brightwell's 2013 exploration of the line's course noted Arcadia's dearth of sidewalks and the Monrovia and Duarte stations' distance from those cities' pedestrian cores.

But I had hope that Metro learned in its 20-odd years of constructing rail lines from debacles such as the Green Line and that its planners had some awareness of the common (transport planning) knowledge that mass transit requires residential density and walkable urban design to be profitable.

With a subway along the region's densest commercial corridor not slated for completion until mid-century and the Sepulveda Pass rail project not even on the table of Metro's 25-year plan, one can only assume that Metro cares little about workable transit.