It’s called public transit

The “catty reference”: to the Las Vegas Monorail earlier had to do with an idle libertarian comment I saw about it: that it was proof that the free market could build transit. In fact, though, it’s proof that the free market is incapable of building adequate transit _networks_. Private actors, in their zeal to efficiently cut out free loaders, will overlook major traffic generators while (especially in the absence of eminent domain) choosing paths which make little sense from a systems standpoint.

One example might be the PATH walkway system under central Toronto. As Emily Bowers writes in Spacing,

For all its commercialized shelter from the frigid winters and smoggy summers, the PATH has taken a somewhat bumpy road into existence, through years of conflicted city councils and profit-driven downtown corporations. There have been plenty of collisions of interest in a space that is privately controlled, but exists to serve the convenience of thousands of members of the general public.

One of the biggest problems has been signage. For years, buildings posted their own signs that guided pedestrians to services within their own buildings, but didn’t give any clue how to get to the rest of the system.

So the city took control of developing PATH-wide signage. Some city councilors wanted signs to be blatant, calling for street signs like the type seen high aboveground. But many owners of the PATH loudly objected, saying street signs might fool people into thinking the PATH was public space.

Moreover, proprietors weren’t eager to direct consumers out of their building and away from their shops and services. It seemed keeping people lost in the underground made good corporate sense.

Another example of an inadequate network: the “Mid Levels Escalator”: in Hong Kong, which has spurred wondrous development alongside it but as a result has become more of a shopping excursion, with frequent stops for chances to shop, than a functional transportation node.

The Las Vegas (and Disney World) monorails are in fact owned by the private sector. However, I don’t think that these highly unique settings are adequate precedents for turning over the business of mass transit to the private sector. Note particularly:

“But beyond that, officials say the system will need about 15 million passengers a year buying the $3 one-way ticket to break even.” And that’s for a four mile long line!

The frickin’ Brown Line el, which rivals only the Lexington Avenue subway in overcrowding, carries a mere 13.6 million passengers a year. Both NYC Transit and CTA are dead broke, and capacity enhancements to each (Ravenswood platform extensions and the Second Avenue subway) are stuck if they don’t receive major new federal subsidies in TEA3.

The streetcar systems of US cities, and the rapid transit in Hong Kong and Tokyo, only turn(ed) profits because of property speculation along the lines. Once all the land was developed, and once mass automobility broke the systems’ monopoly on land speculation, the systems started going broke. Transit has negative marginal profitability; its profits depend on its ability to “capture the value”: of ancillary development (i.e., positive externalities) that result from its construction and use: in particular, great urbanism and the profitable economic concentration of cities.

The same goes for Las Vegas: it only goes to the casinos that paid for it. It will have little real impact on the nightmarish traffic congestion along Las Vegas Boulevard — it does not serve the platoons of cars arriving via I-15, the boatloads of low-wage employees arriving for their shifts from far-flung housing tracts,(1) or the countless joyriders. The monorail does not address the fundamentally broken pattern of land use (not to mention the broken social dynamics)(2) in deregulated Las Vegas, nor do the casinos’ altogether minor attempts to address the monstrous traffic (the monorail, the elevated walkways, the mere presence of sidewalks) ultimately prove anything about the Enlightened Self Interest of the Invisible Hand — except perhaps that it’s always too little, too late. Gambling options closer to home and the end of the (government subsidized) cheap water, cheap land, and cheap oil that have fed Las Vegas for decades may eventually pull the plug on the juggernaut of its growth.

The business of moving people, with their impossible demands for creature comforts, is simply not profitable; witness the perpetual bankruptcy of the airline business,(2) of Amtrak, of Greyhound, of every city bus system in history, heck, even of the Cunard Line. Sure, tiny segments of passenger travel may be profitable: namely, high-priced business travel and sightseeing circuits. Similarly, privately run road networks, like the toll highways around Orlando, in South Orange County, and around Toronto or Northern Virginia, may appear to be profitable but don’t take into account the negative externalities of pollution, sprawl, and the wasted time of having thousands of drivers drive themselves — or the public cost of building and maintaining the extensive network of “feeder roads” that bring drivers to the tollways. On the other hand, having to pay bus or train drivers for eight-hour shifts (not just the four peak hours of rush hour) make the labor costs of running transit almost prohibitive — except for lines in 24-hour cities which can generate consistently high demand at all hours.

Essentially, I would argue that transit provides benefits to too many people but costs to too few. Auto transport imposes broad costs on society, but pretty much solely benefits those inside the car.

# These social dynamics may not ever be of interest to the market, but thoughtful consideration of social equity is necessary in a democracy.
# The airline industry has, at best, broken even over its entire history — subtract the mainline carriers’ $billion losses from the discount carriers’ $million earnings and they’re still gushing red ink right now — not to mention the broader subsidies to airlines: the airline bailout, defense subsidies that prop up Boeing’s and Airbus’ R&D department, “free” airspace, externalized air pollution costs, the military apparatus that secures cheap kerosene, etc.

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