Mass transit hysteria - Jay Maynard

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Wednesday, 16 March 2005


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0936 - Mass transit hysteria

P. J. O'Rourke, in today's Wall Street Journal, debunks the hysteria behind spending billions of dollars on mass transit systems that only tiny minorities of the people use. The article's available online, but only to subscribers. A copy was posted to the misc.transportation.road newsgroup. Since I couldn't find it via Google Groups (it's probably not going to appear there for a few hours yet), it's reproduced for your reading pleasure here.

Mass Transit Hysteria

By P.J. O'ROURKE
March 16, 2005; Page A24

The new transportation bill, currently working its way through Congress, will provide more than $52 billion for mass transit. Mass transit is a wonderful thing, all right-thinking people agree. It stops pollution "in its tracks" (a little ecology-conscious light-rail advocacy joke). Mass transit doesn't burn climate-warming, Iraq-war-causing hydrocarbons. Mass transit can operate with nonpolluting sustainable energy sources such as electricity. Electricity can be produced by solar panels, and geothermal generators. Electricity can be produced by right-thinking people themselves, if they talk about it enough near wind farms.

Mass transit helps preserve nature in places like Yellowstone Park, the Everglades and the Arctic wilderness, because mass transit doesn't go there. Mass transit curtails urban sprawl. When you get to the end of the trolley tracks, you may want to move farther out into the suburbs, but you're going to need a lot of rails and ties and Irishmen with pickaxes. Plus there's something romantic about mass transit. Think Tony Bennett singing "Where little cable cars / Climb halfway to the stars." (And people say mass transit doesn't provide flexibility in travel plans!) Or the Kingston Trio and their impassioned protest of the five-cent Boston "T" fare increase, "The Man Who Never Returned." No doubt some lovely songs will be written about the Washington County,Ore., Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line to be funded by the new transportation bill.

There are just two problems with mass transit. Nobody uses it, and it costs like hell. Only 4% of Americans take public transportation to work. Even in cities they don't do it. Less than 25% of commuters in the New York metropolitan area use public transportation. Elsewhere it's far less -- 9.5% in San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, 1.8% in Dallas-Fort Worth. As for total travel in urban parts of America -- all the comings and goings for work, school, shopping, etc. -- 1.7 % of those trips are made on mass transit.

Then there is the cost, which is -- obviously -- $52 billion. Less obviously, there's all the money spent locally keeping local mass transit systems operating. The Heritage Foundation says, "There isn't a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by the passengers cover the cost of their own rides." Heritage cites the Minneapolis "Hiawatha" light rail line, soon to be completed with $107 million from the transportation bill. Heritage estimates that the total expense for each ride on the Hiawatha will be $19. Commuting to work will cost $8,550 a year. If the commuter is earning minimum wage, this leaves about $1,000 a year for food, shelter and clothing. Or, if the city picks up the tab, it could have leased a BMW X-5 SUV for the commuter at about the same price.

We don't want minimum-wage workers driving BMW X-5s. That's unfair. They're already poor, and now they're enemies of the environment? So we must find a way to save mass transit -- get people to ride it, be eager to pay for it, no matter what the cold-blooded free-market types at Heritage say. We must do it for the sake of future generations, for our children.

That's it! The children. The solution to the problems of mass transit is staring us in the face. Or, in the case of my rather short children, staring us in the sternum. All over America men and women, at the behest of their children, are getting on board various light-rail systems that don't even go anywhere. And these trips -- if you factor in the price of cotton candy, snow cones and trademarked plush toys -- cost considerably more than $19. Yet we're willing to stand in line for ages to utilize this type of mass transit. All we have to do is equip Hiawatha with a slow climb, a steep, sudden plunge, several sharply banked curves, and maybe a loop-the-loop over by St. Paul.

The new mass transit can harness clean, renewable resources. "Unplug the Prius, honey! I'm taking the waterslide to work!" And it need not be expensive. In fact, we might be able to make certain advantageous cuts in transportation spending. A few reductions in Amtrak's already minimal maintenance budget would turn the evening Metroliner into a reeling, lurching journey through the pitch dark equal to anything Space Mountain has to offer. And here is a perfect opportunity for public/private partnership. The Walt Disney Co. is looking for new profit centers. The New York subway can become a hair-raising thrill ride by means of a simple return to NYPD 1970s policing practices.

Not all of the new mass transit has to be frenetic. Bringing groceries home on the tilt-o-whirl presents difficulties. We can take a cue from the lucrative cruise ship industry -- every commute a mini-luxury vacation. Perhaps this wouldn't be suitable in areas without navigable water. But don't be too sure. Many "riverboat casinos" are completely stationary, and a lot of commuters don't want to go to work anyway. Slot machines could be put on all forms of mass transit. Put slot machines on city buses and people will abandon their cars, or abandon their car payments, which comes to the same thing.

This is a revolutionary approach to mass transit. It can save the planet. And it can save me from taking the kids to Orlando. Now I can stay home in D.C. and send them for a ride on Washington's new, improved Metro of Horrors, where scary things jump out at your from nowhere -- things like $52 billion appropriations for mass transit.

Mr. O'Rourke is the author, most recently, of "Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004).

current mood: [mood icon] amused
current music: Lou Rawls - Love Is In The Air

(22 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:unspeakablevorn
Date: - 0000
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What's not said is that you're hard-pressed to find a road system that's entirely maintained by tolls and vehicle taxes, either.

Also surprising is that he calls "[l]ess than 25% of commuters in the New York metropolitan area" not many people. On the contrary, considering that there's something like twenty million such commuters (a conservative estimate), 4-5 million of them are therefore taking the bus or the subway. Those buses and subways are crowded, not standing empty. On the other hand, 25-33% more cars on the roads would make it literally impossible to cross the street in most parts of the city.

I agree that many places are inappropriate for mass transit - there's just too much area to cover, and not enough people. But O'Rourke doesn't bother discussing real solutions, he just pulls out the absurdity card.

Vorn
[User Picture]
From:vakkotaur
Date: - 0000
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The one thing I have yet to see from anyone is a real comparison of how much additional money is needed for either means of transport, per passenger or per mile or per passenger-mile. I'd like to see just how they compare, and it seem both sides fear the answer - or one side would be busy using that information.

What amount is spent on roads that is not covered by vehicle and fuel taxes (state and federal) or tolls? What amount on passenger rail is spent that is not covered by ticket sales? The answers to these questions would seem to be actually useful.

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From:wakkowarner
Date: - 0000
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What amount on passenger rail is spent that is not covered by ticket sales?

Here are some for-instances. Note that, at least in the case of the NY metropolitan area, federal funding isn't even mentioned. The entire system appears to be state/locally subsidized.

- A.P.
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From:foolscap001
Date: - 0000
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So even in what's got to be among the most densely populated regions in the country, mass transit can't support itself, according to the linked page. Why should others have to pay for part of commuters' rides?
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From:phanatic
Date: - 0000
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Not to mention that some of the problems described are self-correcting. If prices go up, that can force more people onto the roads, sure.

But if the traffic on the roads gets worse, that's an incentive to take mass transit.
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From:jmaynard
Date: - 0000
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In general, I'll accept that there are places where mass transit makes sense, even to the extent of public subsidies. Those places, however, are generally limited to dense major cities like NYC.

Unfortunately, there are lots of places like Houston and Minneapolis/St. Paul where it makes no sense at all. Nevertheless, those who think we should all live like they do in NYC are agitating to pour more and more money every year into transit solutions that just don't fit.
[User Picture]
From:phanatic
Date: - 0000
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What's not said is that you're hard-pressed to find a road system that's entirely maintained by tolls and vehicle taxes, either.

That's 'cause you're leaving out fuel taxes.
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From:howardtayler
Date: - 0000
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I'd be interested to know what the percentages are for Mass Transit in Europe. Population density there is, well, DENSER than it is here in the U.S.

I'm also not interested in using Mass Transit myself. But then I don't commute anymore.

--Howard
[User Picture]
From:wakkowarner
Date: - 0000
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I find it amusing that you support a war which wasted hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars with no real results, yet see something wrong with appropriating a relatively small amount of money toward all forms of mass transportation, all throughout the country.

I'd also be amused to hear you (or the snide little bozo who wrote this article) explain how a city like New York or Boston would remain liveable without mass transit. Sure, light rail may be pointless for Washington County, OR, but I'm pretty sure you'd get laughed at (or possibly shot at) if your first order of business as the new mayor of New York City was to shut down public transportation.

I agree that mass transit is, in many cases, a waste of time and money. Most smaller cities and municipalities could get along just fine without it. A lot of places are wasting money by researching and funding it. But O'Rourke seems to be painting all cities with the same brush, and that makes him either either ignorant or biased -- and, hey, he does cite a "study" from the Heritage Foundation, so you can guess which one I think he is.

- A.P.
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From:phanatic
Date: - 0000
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with no real results

No real results?

Generally, people as profoundly disconnected from reality as you seem to be are heavily medicated, often without their consent.

yet see something wrong with appropriating a relatively small amount of money toward all forms of mass transportation, all throughout the country.


Well, gee, you yourself point out exactly what's wrong with that:

mass transit is, in many cases, a waste of time and money. Most smaller cities and municipalities could get along just fine without it. A lot of places are wasting money by researching and funding it.

[User Picture]
From:bronxelf_ag001
Date: - 0000
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Id be happy to do the shooting. Aint no one taking my subway system.


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From:ckd
Date: - 0000
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When LA, probably the least transit-oriented major city on Earth, had a transit strike, traffic went from bad to unbelievable, from what I hear. $52 billion, that's about three Big Digs worth of money...and I suspect that it's a more effective form of traffic relief to run transit.
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From:jmaynard
Date: - 0000
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When Minneapolis had a bus strike not long before the Hiawatha Line opened up, traffic got better. There were more than a few newspaper articles at the time discussing the improvement, but I don't recall seeing that anyone came up with an explanation.
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From:michaelmink
Date: - 0000
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Given the fact that the IRT was completely shut down this morning because of a power failure, making me rather late for work (as well as a few hundred thousand other folks), the timing of this article is amusing.
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From:bronxelf_ag001
Date: - 0000
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I was wondering how you were doing this morning. Even as of an hour ago, there's no service on the 4.5.6 in Manhattan.

The 1/9 is just peachy though. :)

I love the NYC subway system. Seriously.
[User Picture]
From:jmaynard
Date: - 0000
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I appreciate the subway system as well. I think it's the right answer for the conditions.

Where I think people go wrong is in assuming the same solution applies when conditions are different - which they are, just about everywhere else.
[User Picture]
From:bronxelf_ag001
Date: - 0000
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Reason #4,387,462 : Why I will never move from NYC again.
[User Picture]
From:jmaynard
Date: - 0000
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Yet another reason why I just don't get NYC. But then, that should not be news to you.
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From:shelbystripes
Date: - 0000
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People also go wrong by assuming that just because the conditions are different, the same solution can't possibly apply, or be adapted. It can, and with mass transit, it has, in a variety of markets, including here in Dallas, where it's so far very successful at what it does.
[User Picture]
From:phanatic
Date: - 0000
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I loved the D.C. Metro, when I lived there.

Here in Philly, Septa's going through a bit of a debacle of a funding shortfall. Septa basically went and threatened the state government in Harrisburg that if they didn't give more money to the SOUTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA transit authority, well, they'd have to drastically curtail service, basically cutting out all weekend routes.

Boggles my mind it does, why this is even an issue. Instead of making folks in Pittsburgh and Erie and Scranton pay for people in Philly to ride the train, why not just eliminate routes that nobody uses and raise fares as necessary? I can't tell you the number of trains I've taken into and out of the city that were virtually empty; clearly, if Septa had to make economic sense, those trains wouldn't be run. There's a *lot* of slack capacity during off-hours that is simply just a waste of money to keep in service; even without raising fares, eliminating those empty trains at those useless times of day would probably go a long way to closing the gap.

You might argue that's 'unjust' for the 5 people who are actually using that train. But I'd argue it's far more unjust to extract money from taxpayers in Allentown just to benefit those same 5 people, instead of charging people who take the train to the Eagles game (where they spent easily $100/ticket) what the service actually costs.
[User Picture]
From:shelbystripes
Date: - 0000
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It's kind of ignorant to cite the 1.8% number for the DFW area, for example, without looking into why that might be true.

Part of the reason is that the rail system isn't finished yet; it only goes half of where it's designed to go, which means it can serve fewer people and take them to fewer places than it will when it's finished. That also means that it'll be roughly double the people-moving capacity that it is now when it's open; so that 1.8% will in reality be 4%, and moving 4% of all the people in the DFW area is something of an accomplishment.

It's also important to look at usage in terms of actual services provided. For the rail system, well, the trains fill up. Standing-room-only. DART has 100 rail cars and moves 60,000 people a day, which gives you a rough average of 600 people moved on each rail car on any given day--which also means that, for each rail car DART operates, they're taking 600 cars off the road (yes, it is safe to assume in Texas that there's on average one car per passenger), eliminating a need for 600 parking spaces somewhere (usually downtown, as DART provides a commuter service that allows people to get to and from their workplace each day without having to mess with the already-clogged downtown area).

And that final point is the clincher; you're not just talking about numbers of people moved, but volumes of space. You can only fit so many cars into an area, and downtown Dallas is not a large area; with the targeted solution geared toward providing downtown commuting without driving, those 60,000 passengers mean 60,000 fewer cars headed to and from downtown every day.

That provides a benefit to far more than just those 60,000 people. It provides a benefit to the other people trying to drive in and out of Dallas every day, because 60,000 fewer cars on the road means less congestion on the roads and therefore fewer delays while getting to work, more parking spaces available for those who are driving... You're creating a benefit equivalent to building a whole new highway in and out of downtown, and there's no room to build a highway that big anymore, at least, not at a cost significantly greater than the rail line itself did.

And that's totally ignored, that the benefits extend beyond simply the people who ride the things and to everyone else in the city (including those who do continue to drive), and that the alternatives would indeed cost as much if not more. It's sure easy to ignore that when you're simply waving a pricetag around, as you wish to do.

60,000 people, "tiny minority" or not, is a significant number of vehicles to get off the road every day, for just one city. And if it works for Dallas, it'll work elsewhere too.
[User Picture]
From:korgmeister
Date: - 0000
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Good argument. One of the things often missed when people cite merely financial figures is they ignore other economic factors. In particular, real estate, which is a thorny issue in an urban area because there has to be room for enough cars to move about and parking spaces for when they don't move.

Part of the 'opportunity cost' of not using mass transit is the space taken up by the additional roads and parking, and the cost of construction of such. Needless to say, said costs, especially in large urban areas, are quite considerable.

(Of course, this leads one to ponder if urban real estate developers are the biggest benificiaries of mass transit?)

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