cap'n-transit

Second, there are also “carfree by choice” households that chose not to make Investments in cars, and thus are “captive riders” from a practical point of view. We are able-bodied, of sound mind, with driver’s licenses, and could theoretically afford to buy and maintain a car, but we choose instead to go on European vacations, or pay off our debts, or do any number of other things with the money. We are everywhere, but we tend to be concentrated in walkable cities with good transit.

Oh hai.

There is nothing that says that a major expansion of infrastructure will require any of it to be highway infrastructure. You might just as well say that since we have a canal system originally designed for an 1820 population of ten million, we have to dig more canals. There may be good reasons to build roads, but the fact that our roads were originally designed for a smaller population is not one of them.

The troubling part is that McDonald seems to have no clue that roads and transit compete with one another - or possibly to be deliberately ignoring this fact. If we add a lane to the Tappan Zee Bridge (and everyone knows it’s going to be at least three lanes), that makes it easier to drive, and lowers the demand for transit. In other words, as long as the government keeps widening the roads and bridges the farebox recovery ratio will never warrant the investment in transit.

Someone’s got to say it. Our predecessors have played the Grinch with transit and city streets for the past 50 years; if we don’t learn to play the Grinch with roads and multi-billion dollar bridges there’s not going to be anything left to play with at all.

When the government does try stimulus, what does it build? Roads and bridges. When Americans feel that things are looking up, what do they buy? SUVs and McMansions. If we have a recovery, that’s what we’re going to get. Roads and bridges, SUVs and McMansions, tar sands and electric cars. Parking required at the apartment building, parking at the train station, parking at the office park.

You can do the same thought experiment with any place. No matter how sparsely populated it is, just subtract some roads while keeping the rail and/or bus network constant, and eventually the place “supports transit.” Take Wyoming. Now imagine it without interstate highways. Would that be enough to support restored passenger service on the train lines? How about if we turn all the roads to gravel?

Sounds harsh, but we have essentially done the converse: let transit degrade to its equivalent of gravel roals while investing billions in the automobile equivalent of high-speed rail—interstates. Then we mumble about how sparsely populated areas can’t support transit, but it is only true under our highly artificial and unsustainable arrangements.

When I tweeted that I figured it was only a matter of time before some railroad executive figured out that if the market conditions are right they didn’t need Amtrak or state governments to run passenger trains. Turns out it took about a week. Yesterday, the Florida East Coast Railway announced that they’re planning to invest a billion dollars to start passenger service on the tracks they own between Miami and Orlando.

Yay. This is even (a lot) better than private intercity buses.

When I was younger I thought this just happened, that you could get up and start walking and just spend the night wherever you wound up. I was disappointed to discover, in Christopher Wren’s Walking to Vermont for example, but also firsthand, that there are large sections of the country that are really very inhospitable to people on foot. To a large extent, it’s because major roads have been built for cars with almost no thought to pedestrians. Outside of towns and cities, sidewalks are scarce, shoulders are narrow, and speeds are high. In some places, pedestrians are harassed, particularly outsiders.

A Walk in the Woods, which everyone has probably read, has a great deal on the issue. It’s a commentary on walking the Appalachian Trail that’s also a criticism of our culture that pushes the act of walking to the margins of the landscape and of society.

All Meltzer wants is what she had. That’s all that the taxi medallion owners want too. That’s all America’s drivers and politicians want, too - the cheap gas and open roads that they had. All East 57th Street business owners want is the parking they had. All Tim Hughes wants is the right he had to drop off his bottled water and Goya beans at his curb on 34th Street. All Kvetch Greenfield wants is clear streets after a snowfall, which he had.

#1 reason for New York suckage. No quality-of-life or even life-saving improvement for the many may come at any convenience cost to the few.

The fight over the 34th Street Transitway really shows how limiting the ‘Two New Yorks’ worldview is. In that case you have wealthy Manhattanites against poorer outer borough residents, but the ‘billionaire Mayor’ and the ‘elitist bikers’ are on the side of Queens and ‘the community’ is on the side of the wealthy Manhattanites.

As you can see, I’ve tried mightily to make sense of this. I probably spent a lot more time on it than it deserves. And I’m pretty damn sure that I put more time and thought into it than Sam Schwartz or anyone who’s working for him on this plan. A dollar reduction in fares in “neighborhoods without subways” is hard to implement, would accomplish very little, would probably be counterproductive, and would take money from more worthy uses.

Is it fair that poor black and Latino people can’t afford to live in these neighborhoods any more? Probably not. It wasn’t fair when the neighborhoods were built and their grandparents couldn’t afford to live in them. But the solution is not to keep the neighborhoods dirty, noisy and dangerous. As Matt Yglesias says, the best way to bring down the price of housing is to build more of it. And as I said last month, the best way to make sure that we have affordable housing that isn’t dangerous or inaccessible is to build lower-quality housing alongside the high-quality housing.