A few years ago, when I taught at a university for a term in China, we lived in Changsha, a city of 7.5 million people. Because we didn’t have a car, we depended upon public transportation to get away from our campus and shop downtown.
Especially attractive was the gleaming metro that has since been expanded. Its cleanliness and efficiency contrasted with the infamous New York Subway system that has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with public transportation in the United States. When measured in per capita income, the United States is considerably wealthier than China. However, one certainly could not tell it by comparing Changsha’s public transportation system to that of the New York City subway with its delays, a near century-old switching system, graffiti and criminal activity.
If the symbolism from the New York subway isn’t enough, there is the $100 billion boondoggle in California named the California High Speed Rail system. The project, which began with fanfare after voters approved initial bond funding in 2008, is struggling amid delays and changed routes, its obituary pronounced by the progressive New York Times, of all publications.
Between the failed New York Subway and the behemoth mess in California lies a system of mass transportation that is inadequate even at best, especially when compared to the systems in Western Europe and Asia. Critics blame the intransigence and alleged stinginess of governments at all levels, the attitudes of American taxpayers, and, of course, the so-called love affair Americans have with their automobiles. Apparently, mass transit in America wallows in mediocrity because Americans are irrationally unwilling to support it.
This way of thinking is so ingrained in the minds of transit advocates that it seems foolish to look to alternative thinking. One reason that California’s high-speed rail project appealed to policy wonks such as former California Gov. Jerry Brown was that it promised to provide a better transportation experience than they could have either flying or driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Yet, the project was doomed from the beginning just as most other U.S. mass transit systems are doomed – and it’s not because Americans want to negotiate traffic jams or because Ronald Reagan convinced Americans to be selfish. Instead, American mass transit was undermined by the progressives who most loudly advocate for it.
To understand how progressivism has harmed mass transportation, one must first remember that prior to the Great Depression, the U.S. had probably the best mass transportation system in the world. During the 1930s, many private mass transportation systems failed.
First, many cities imposed price controls on fares, driving firms into bankruptcy and depleted capital. Second, the progressive ethos of the New Deal led urban planners to shift their focus from public transportation to serve riders to public transportation as a welfare and jobs program and as a tool for social engineering (changing the way we get around).
In the post-war years, the streetcar lines continued to diminish, and the suburbs served only by private automobiles began to flourish. As mass transit continued to decline, Congress sought to revitalize it by doing what social engineers in the 1960s believed would work: throw money and technology at the problem. According to Jonathan English of Bloomberg:
President Johnson’s Great Society programs sought to use the resources of the federal government to address urban problems. Inspired by increasing public resistance to expressways, which seemed to fill up as soon as they opened, the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 was the first significant federal support for transit infrastructure since the Depression. If the United States could put a man on the moon, Congress’ logic went, it could certainly solve urban traffic jams – and this technology focus would be important in all the ensuing projects.
Automation, magnetic levitation, and even comparatively prosaic things like wider track gauges were all considered in an effort to make public transit truly modern. The aerospace industry – the Silicon Valley of the day – took a major role.
While Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and Atlanta got new subway systems, they have not flourished because they have depended upon the “park-and-ride” system in which people drive themselves to the stations, as bus routes have not operated in sync with commuter rail and subway lines. Furthermore, the mentality of seeing public transportation as a welfare benefit for people who cannot afford cars as well as a repository for high-cost union labor means that they are extremely rider-unfriendly, leading to declining ridership.
Writes the Free Cities Center’s Steven Greenhut:
It doesn’t take much research to see how disastrously these government-provided, union-controlled transportation systems are run. One need only Google BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and scandal to get a sense of the misery involved in riding that system. Of course, it’s a great place to work: One janitor reportedly earned $270,000, including benefits and overtime.”
This situation is contrasted with the experience of Toronto, Ontario. English writes:
The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.
In other words, Canada, like its European and Asian counterparts, has built systems that cater to riders, not to special interest groups. Unlike the “park-and-ride” system in U.S. cities, Toronto provides extensive bus services in neighborhoods that provide access to the commuter rail systems, providing clean, comfortable surroundings. European systems also make themselves commuter-friendly and reliable. The experience in the United States, unfortunately, is quite different.
Can mass transit be successful in the United States? It can be relatively successful anywhere the systems are organized and capitalized to provide services that will benefit riders. Doing so here would require a huge paradigm shift from serving unions and politicians to serving customers. Even though most mass transit systems are subsidized, that doesn’t mean they cannot be rider friendly.
Progressives are full of reasons as to why Americans should “support” public transit. However, they also insist on building systems that are financially wasteful and don’t meet the needs of riders. The good news, however, is that such systems exist elsewhere and can serve as roadmaps to success.
William L. Anderson is an editor with the Mises Institute and Emeritus Professor of Economics, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, Maryland. He lives near Sacramento.