Transit Needs both Quality and Quantity

February 29, 2012 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

A recent column published by our friends at Reason Foundation, “Why More People Should Ride Mass Transit” by Tim Cavanaugh, starts with a question: “How many public transit expert/advocates actually ride on public transportation?” Well, from the time Washington’s Metro heavy rail system opened its King Street stop until Free Congress moved to Alexandria, more than twenty years, I took Metro to work almost every day. It was far more pleasant than driving in Washington’s notorious traffic. After Free Congress moved to a building about two miles from my house, I commuted on my bicycle. My colleague Glen Bottoms, a former employee of the Federal Transit Administration, took the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter rail service almost from its inception until his retirement in 2005.

Mr. Cavanaugh’s column goes on to establish a false dichotomy: do we need more transit or better transit? Employing the vernacular, he writes:

The reality of transit use . . . is that you don’t need smarter hubs or better coordination more efficient transfers . . . you need more sh[*]t running more frequently to more destinations.

He’s right. Good transit service is characterized by the old line of many a street railway company, “Always a car in sight.” The more routes, the fewer transfers required (though Cavanaugh is flat wrong when he says that “For every transfer in your itinerary, you need to double the time allotted for the trip.“) and the more frequent the service, the more people will take transit.

Unfortunately, Cavanaugh then goes on to attack the idea that transit also picks up more customers when it offers an enjoyable travel experience. We are all, it seems, Jeremy Benthems, caring only for efficiency. Specifically, he attacks Darrin Nordahl, who wrote in his 2008 book, My Kind of Transit, of New Orleans’ wonderful trolley line.,

Consistent features of wonderment aboard the St. Charles streetcar – – history, connection to the urban context, stimulation of the senses, and sociability through architectural detail – – offer important lessons about providing a memorable transportation experience.

I have ridden the St. Charles Avenue line, and Nordahl is correct. Just being aboard the historic trolley cars, built in the 1920’s, with wooden seats and windows that open wide, is a joy.

Those who worship reason tend irrationally to discount non-rational factors. The things that draw people to the St. Charles Avenue line are in part non-rational (not irrational). But they are still real. Therefore, any reasoned appraisal of the line (and streetcars elsewhere) should take those non-rational factors into account.

Libertarians refuse to do so. Why? Because they always start with the answer – – buses, not rail – – and who likes riding a bus? Even the best bus trip is regarded by most people as a necessary evil. No non-rational factors lead people to board, looking forward to the experience for its own sake – – the way they do board the St. Charles Avenue streetcars.

Now, it so happens that the St. Charles Avenue line also provides frequent service. There really is (almost) always a car in sight. And that is the point: good transit service, service people want to ride, offers both quantity and quality. It appeals to both our rational and non-rational sides.

St. Charles Avenue does it with equipment that will soon be a century old. Perhaps some genius among consultants will find a way we can manage to do it with modern technology. If so, it will truly be back to the future.

Detroit Leads the Way?

February 7, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Detroit’s off-again, now on-again Woodward Avenue streetcar line offers a model conservatives should favor (see my colleague’s earlier piece; Detroit Misses the Train (again)). Most, perhaps all of the money to build the 43.4 mile line will be private.

The source of the funds will not be investors, but philanthropists. Wanting to revitalize their home city of Detroit, they have chosen to put their money not into hospitals or museums or schools but into something that will create more money in the form of economic development. From that perspective, a streetcar line is an excellent choice. If it has the same effect streetcars have had elsewhere, the Woodward Avenue corridor could soon see substantial new construction and business activity.

A recent article on the Woodward Avenue streetcar line, “Three Cities, Three Tales of Tenuous Transit Plans” by Mark Bergen, found in the January issue of Forbes magazine, makes an interesting observation. It quotes Matt Cullen, chief of the coalition that is funding the streetcar, as saying its “backers are ‘people whose heart and soul are with the city of Detroit.’ In some sense, the philanthropists are shareholders of the city.”

His is speaking metaphorically. But what if we allowed major donors to important city infrastructure projects, whether philanthropists or investors, to become actual shareholders of the city? It might work something like this. Detroit, seeing the benefits private funding of infrastructure can bring as represented by the Woodward Avenue streetcar, establishes an Urban Shareholders Council. The Council issues Detroit Infrastructure Shares at a price of, lets say, $1,000 per share. Owning shares allows a person to vote at an annual meeting, just as in a private company. That meeting elects not a board of directors, but the Urban Shareholders Council.

Here is where my proposal gets conservative. The Urban Shareholders Council is given real authority over such matters of city governance, specifically those aspects that relate to economic re-development and growth. The Detroit city council cedes its own authority over such matters to the Shareholders Council. Being a Detroit shareholder is not merely an honorific; it brings an important voice in the future of the city.

Liberals will scream that this would diminish their favorite false god, “democracy.” People willing to put their money on the line for the city’s future would have a stronger voice than those who merely stumble into a voting booth every couple of years, if they do that. That is true – – and a good thing.

Conservatives are not egalitarians. We think people who are willing to invest in something should have a greater say than those who are not. Usually, they will be more knowledgeable about whatever they are investing in. They are more likely to care about long-term results. And they may be less susceptible to corruption, which in Detroit city government, reached notable proportions in recent years.

Detroit was, not too many years ago, a magnificent city. If it is to become one again, it needs to draw in private funding for infrastructure. All levels of government are broke. Without good infrastructure, economic re-development is difficult. The Woodward Avenue streetcar shows that infrastructure can attract private money. Why not take a bold step forward and see how much more private funding might be obtained in return for a voice in determining the city’s future? Given the shape Detroit is in now, what does it have to lose?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation