Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has come under fire for using cars instead of the subway. Some of those critics are right.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ transportation choices are rightly getting attention.
The freshman congresswoman representing Queens and the Bronx was called out by the New York Post over the weekend for “tripping over her own giant carbon footprint.” The Post detailed her use of rental cars and ride-hailing services while promoting the Green New Deal, her much-discussed package of environmental reforms. The piece also reviews her congressional campaign’s spending on transportation and finds nearly $30,000 spent on vehicle trips, “even though her Queens HQ was a one-minute walk to the 7 train.”
The story triggered a good old-fashioned Twitter pile-on, with observers on both the left and right dinging Ocasio-Cortez for eco-hypocrisy.
“AOC's staffers are presumably taking so many Ubers for the same reason everyone else does: unless you’re in a very dense, very congested urban core, it’s way more convenient than transit,” tweeted Megan McArdle, the libertarian-leaning columnist for the Washington Post. “It is, in fact, worth noting that while AOC is preaching that the world is shortly going to end, her staffers are prioritizing personal convenience over environmental benefit.”
“It would be better if AOC was taking the subway especially since she reps NYC,” chimed in Streetsblog journalist Angie Schmitt.
Gawking at high-profile politicians riding public transportation is an old American spectator sport. People tend to notice it when it happens—when former Mayor Michael Nutter rides SEPTA to the Phillies game, or President Obama tours the new Minneapolis light rail line, or Beto O’Rourke pedals around El Paso on his Surly. (OK, bicycling stretches the limits of “transit,” but you catch the drift.) Joining the straphangers is a classic man-of-the-people move: Like eating, doing yard work, or going to the supermarket, getting around is just about the most normal-looking and thus relatable thing political figures can appear to do. In a county that’s long elected presidents based on the “beer test,” such moments of down-to-earthiness are occasions to connect with voters and constituents.
But in a country where less than 5 percent of Americans take public transportation to work, such stunts may be of diminishing political utility. Especially because, like Cynthia Nixon’s weird-bagel-order scandal or disturbing revelations about what John Kasich does to pizza, they’re also opportunities to mess up. When Hillary Clinton fumbled with a stubborn MetroCard on the New York subway during the 2016 campaign, it served as an unwelcome reminder of just how long she’d been ferried around in black cars.
But seemingly only in New York City do people yell when politicians screw up by riding transit and by not riding transit. Mayor Bill de Blasio, frequently harangued for taking his limo to his favorite Park Slope gym from Gracie Mansion on the regular, seems to be stunningly oblivious about the experience of riding the subway in 2019. After riding and talking to passengers a bit last week, “what I gleaned is people really depend on their subways,” the mayor said at a news conference afterwards, as if he’d seen none of the countless headlines screaming about the system’s increasingly dire state during his term.
In New York City, where a majority of residents use the scoliotic MTA to get to work, being a leader of the people means following those commute-paths, at least some of the time. But for Ocasio-Cortez, there is a nation-sized bone of hypocrisy to pick. The Green New Deal policy resolution she has drafted alongside other Democratic lawmakers calls for a vast remake of the U.S. economy, in large part through a massive build of alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning transportation modes, including high-speed rail, electric cars, and lots of public transit. If she’s opting not to ride in the best-connected transit city in the U.S., critics say, how can people trust her to lead national transportation policy? Tucked into that criticism is, perhaps, a legitimate fear: What hope is there for rest of the country to move towards a greener future if even she would rather take a car?
A few things here are true. One is that many of those Twitter wags are right: AOC should take the subway as much as she can. Setting aside the hoary PR benefits, there is no better way to maintain a grasp on the needs of her Queens constituents who heavily rely on transit than to continue to take transit. Likewise, Bill de Blasio should weather the MTA’s inconveniences and frustrations from time to time.
So should all local leaders, in every city, even if transit’s mode share is tiny. Look at Toledo, Ohio, where only 2.5 percent of commuters ride to work. Since Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz took office in 2018 he’s been making a once-weekly bus trip to city hall. It’s half a political stunt, and half a genuine attempt to grapple with his city’s mobility needs, he told Streetsblog: “It is a big deal for the future of our city that we get public transportation right. I am doing this to lead by example… I’m not saying me taking the bus to work once a week is going to solve all our problems.” It won’t, but if Kapszukiewicz gets a sense of which routes never show up on time, there’s a decent chance it’ll make life a little easier for Toledoans who are all too familiar and, maybe, keep that many more cars off the road.
No doubt, the stakes are different for a celebrity-status politician like AOC, who has been the target of stalker-grade attention from the conservative media since arriving in D.C.: If she took the train, she’d draw a swarm of fans, critics, and cameras, making her and everyone else’s journey aboard already-crowded trains that much more cramped and arduous. The security issues are considerable. And yes, if AOC took the subway on occasion, she’d be guaranteed to miss a few important meetings. But that might make her all the more driven to improve transportation for the rest of New York. And her fame is less of an excuse for transit-avoidance among her staffers.
But, in any event, AOC’s ability to keep step with Queens is a separate issue from her qualifications to fight for the environment on a national, even global stage. In that context, if her every MTA swipe (or lack thereof) is interpreted as a brick in the ethical foundation for her climate advocacy, AOC will fail—because everyone who aspires to live by an environmental ethic 100% of the time fails, too.
To transform society, after all, you still have to live in it: consume food that has traveled hundreds of miles, use technology that has huge environmental footprints, and travel aboard a vast network of fossil-fuel-burning vehicles and aircraft when walking or transit isn’t an option.“Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions,” George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian in 2008. But the alternative is cynicism, he explained, not moral purity, because removing oneself from industrialized society would mean disengaging from the fight for planetary survival.
As an elected official, AOC should try to stand on a higher moral ground than the people she represents. But to serve those constituents—at home and abroad—she should ride the modes that best serve her fight.