Tag Archives: public transportation

Getting From Here to There…and Back

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching. Literally millions of Americans make their livings driving vehicles–trucks, Ubers, taxis, school buses…the list is long, and the consequences of those massive job losses will be severe and unprecedented.

I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster. But I do have a response to those transit skeptics who oppose improving city public transportation systems because they claim self-driving cars will make those systems unnecessary.They don’t seem to understand that whether or not someone actually has to drive their car is utterly irrelevant.

What is relevant is that good, reliable public transportation–whether driven by a human or a computer–makes automobile ownership less necessary, and automobiles take a huge chunk out of most household budgets.

A recent article in Resilience, written by an American now living in Ireland, makes an effective case for public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans — walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.

The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster.

The author notes, with regret, that many cities have begun to regard public transportation as expendable, since it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites. The people most dependent upon public transit don’t hire lobbyists or make “meaningful” political contributions, and in an era where “tax” is a dirty word and municipalities are starving for income, that lack of political clout makes it easy to defund transit.  When that happens, it not only inconveniences middle-income people who depend upon transit, it also isolates and strands thousands of poor, elderly and vulnerable people.

And it privileges automobiles in ways that we now recognize are both costly and unhealthy.

I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Taking public transportation to the job is an amenity that bolsters our sense of being part of a public, unlike commuting (usually alone and at substantial cost) in one’s own car. The author’s final point is worth emphasizing:

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.

 

Self-Interest Properly Understood–and Taxes

Since at least the late 1980s, policy disputes in the United States have largely revolved around the actual and perceived deficiencies of government. It has been an article of faith among self-styled fiscal conservatives that wasteful state and federal governments are imposing excessive and unnecessary tax burdens on the American public.

Engaging in this line of argumentation is particularly  appealing to candidates for public office, since it plays to widespread resentment of the obligation to pay taxes while avoiding the pesky need to identify specific instances of the “fraud and waste” that are widely supposed to exist.

There are certainly situations where tax dollars are misspent. Most of those situations involve poor management practices, since voters tend to base their support for political candidates on ideology rather than perceived managerial competence. But more often than not, assertions of “waste” are based upon disagreement with something that government is doing–a belief that services being provided or programs being supported are unnecessary (especially when such services or programs are primarily seen to benefit others).

What government should do, and how it should fund what it does, are persistent and entirely legitimate issues. The problem is, too many of us have imbibed the Kool-aid; we want the services, we want to live in thriving communities with a good quality of life, but we don’t want to pay for the services and amenities necessary to produce that quality of life.

Worse, we frequently don’t recognize the ways in which we benefit even from government programs and services we don’t personally use. A couple of examples:

When voters are asked to support bond issues or tax increases for public education, people who do not have children in the system (usually a majority of those voting) often oppose the measures, because they see no personal benefit, no immediate “return on investment.” What they fail to recognize is that the quality of local public education systems affects their property values, enhances (or diminishes) job creation efforts, and makes their communities safer and more attractive. In the long run, good schools are in their personal self-interest.

Similar metrics apply to taxes for public transportation. Even people who will never use transit benefit personally from public transportation systems that reduce congestion, improve air quality, connect low-income workers to their places of employment, and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.

Even people who care only about minimizing their personal tax burden will ultimately benefit, because long-term, the ability to hold down tax rates  (especially here in Indiana, where constitutionally-imposed tax caps severely restrict municipal governments’ revenue options) will depend upon a city’s ability to grow its tax base–its ability to entice people to move in, buy homes and start businesses. Cities that successfully market themselves do so based upon quality of life measures–good schools, well-maintained parks, excellent public transportation.

Often, sound investments take time to generate returns. That’s particularly true of investments in our communities.

Sometimes, “self-interest properly understood” (as De Tocqueville noted many years ago) is the opposite of immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean the investments aren’t necessary and worthwhile.

 

Calvinism and America’s Crappy Transit

Some years back, I wrote a book titled “God and Country: America in Red and Blue.” I was intrigued (still am) by the various ways in which contemporary policy preferences are rooted in religious ways of looking at the world. I wasn’t focusing on the more obvious connections–we all see the relationship between religious beliefs and opinions about abortion or gay rights or capital punishment, for example. I was interested in the under-appreciated ways that religious perspectives had shaped cultural attitudes and fostered certain approaches to public policy.

As I did my research, I was especially struck by the ways in which early Calvinist theology has shaped American attitudes toward the poor. Ours is a culture with a deeply entrenched, if bastardized, version of Calvinism; a belief that God smiles upon the “elect,” and the poor are poor because they are morally defective. (Accusations that poor folks lack “middle class values” are a modern and none-too-veiled version of that theologically-rooted conviction.)

A recent article at Vox connected that insight to America’s pathetic public transportation.

American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. At the same time, a much greater percentage of US public transit costs are subsidized by public tax dollars….

Many people try to explain this paradox by pointing to US history and geography: Most of our cities and suburbs were built out after the 1950s, when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. Consequently, we have sprawling, auto-centric metropolises that just can’t be easily served by public transportation.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

What, then, accounts for the discrepancy?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

It’s true. American politicians don’t see transit as a quality of life or economic development issue (both of which it certainly is) or even as a vital transportation function; they think of it as another government aid program to help poor people.

And the poor are “undeserving.” After all, according to Calvin, if they were deserving, God would have made sure they had cars.

Public Transportation Matters

One of the more galling recent debates in Indiana’s dysfunctional General Assembly was over the question whether Indianapolis could ask its own citizens whether we want public transportation enough to tax ourselves to support it. The Grand Poobahs of our legislature were reluctant to allow us that measure of self-government, but after restricting the scope of our decision-making, they finally authorized a referendum.

There are lots of reasons why public transportation is essential to urban America’s economic vitality and quality of life. Frequent, reliable and attractive public transportation reduces traffic congestion, improves air quality and saves citizens’ money. Businesses that employ lots of entry-level workers rely on transit to get employees to and from work. And of course, low-income folks, the disabled and the elderly are particularly dependent upon public transportation.

A new study from Harvard adds social mobility to the list.

The research found that access to good, reliable transportation is “the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.” In fact,

The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.

For most middle-class folks, good public transportation is an amenity–an attractive convenience of urban life that is unfortunately missing in central Indiana.

For poor folks, it’s an escape route.

 

A Pox on Thy House (and Senate)

I am in an utterly foul mood. I guess that’s what I get for following the news.

In the last few days, lawmakers from near and far have engaged in a contest to see who can offer the stupidest laws while ignoring constituents’ most pressing problems. A couple of days ago, I reported on some craziness from Tennessee and South Dakota, opining that those states’ legislatures were making a bid for the coveted “worst” title; several comments here and on Facebook attempted to reassure me that Indiana lawmakers would come through to win that accolade before the session was over. They were right–although North Carolina just made a gutsy play. Their legislature just voted to establish a religion and declare the state exempt from the Establishment Clause (and, presumably, the Supremacy Clause).

Indiana’s intrepid lawmakers have been working overtime to exasperate reasoning people. Is gun violence a worry? Let’s require an armed person in each public school. What could possibly go wrong there? (As Matt Tully noted, the NRA and the Indiana Legislature are a match made in hare-brained heaven.) Is a family planning clinic prescribing a (legal) pill to induce early abortions? Require the clinic to meet standards devised for surgical facilities. Pill, surgery–same thing, right?

What really has me gritting my teeth and contemplating a move out of state, however, is what our retrograde legislature is doing to Indianapolis.

In the last few days, the Indiana General Assembly has taken pains to remind us that home rule is a foreign concept. The Republican Super-Majority, in a display of really breathtaking arrogance, has reminded residents of Indianapolis and its collar counties that they don’t like cities and they really don’t like democracy.

Mike Young’s bill to create an “imperial Mayor” is sailing through (although we all know it will be repealed the day after Indianapolis elects a Democrat as Mayor); and lawmakers have once again derailed the measure that would allow us to decide for ourselves whether we want mass transit enough to pay for it.

The Indiana legislature has long been dominated by rural and small-town interests. Legislative hostility to Indianapolis is simply a fact of Indiana life. That doesn’t make it any less infuriating. At the Statehouse, there is an absolute lack of sympathy for–or understanding of–urban issues. It’s bad enough that most of our lawmakers really do not care about Indianapolis’ problems; what’s worse, not only do they refuse to address our issues, they won’t allow us to tackle them either.

The imperial mayor bill is an invitation to corruption. While most of the media attention has been on the proposal to eliminate the at-large council seats, the most dangerous parts of the bill give the mayor control of the Development Commission and remove council oversight of many–if not most–spending decisions. It effectively removes important checks and balances on administrative behavior at a time when local media oversight is virtually non-existent. Actions by the Development Commission can move big money; for one thing, the Commission can ensure successful financing for a project that would otherwise be unable to secure such backing. The current appointment structure was intended to prevent decisions based upon cozy relationships and political connections rather than sound principles of land use. The imperial mayor bill will facilitate cronyism.

The refusal to allow Indianapolis citizens to decide for ourselves whether we want mass transit is the most infuriating action taken in a legislative session that has produced plenty that is infuriating. The notion that a study committee is needed is laughable–Central Indiana transportation organizations have studied the matter for the last twenty years. Let’s call it what it is: a giant “fuck you, Indianapolis” from the General Assembly to the region that generates the bulk of the state’s tax receipts.

And let’s call the Indiana Legislature what it is: an embarrassment.