Analysis and rationality in a nonrational world

May 12, 2006

Mass transit is the best thing for the hard-core driver

Filed under: Driving, Energy — analysis @ 1:44 pm

Though Americans are always ready to spend billions on highways and bridges, outside of a few sparsely populated states, most of our roads are jam-packed with drivers, day and night, making spirited driving difficult or dangerous; car insurance starts expensive and quickly rises to a small fortune after a ticket or two. Meanwhile, out in Europe, with higher population density, there seem to be a lot more enjoyable highways and byways.

To intensify the irony, European cars are generally small; we Americans, with our many V-8 trucks and V-6 sedans, guzzling fuel, usually cannot achieve the speeds of a lowly Fiat Punto (65 hp) on a French, German, or Northern British road!

One of the funny things in life is that, often, when you do something you think should result in more A, you get less A. When you try to make life easier for drivers, you end up with heavy traffic and bad roads. Indeed, highway planners (the honest ones, at least) have long admitted that traffic increases to fill any available capacity.

To reduce congestion, don’t build highways. Build rails.

To raise highway speeds, don’t add lanes. Add buses.

To make your drive more satisfying, don’t support road building, new bridges, or bypasses. Support mass transit, trolleys, buses, and trains.

To make gasoline cheaper, don’t ask for cuts in the gas tax. Ask for car-pooling lanes, reduced tolls for car pools and buses, and mass transit.

In short, if you want a more satisfying driving experience – support mass transit and car pooling. Anything else leads to a dead end.

Highways cost more than rail or buses in the long term. They must be maintained and repaired regularly. Rail is the cheapest way to move people, once you have put down the tracks. Yet, we have removed many of the tracks that once criss-crossed our land and let us ride from place to place. While our Federal government pours billions into highways and airports, Amtrak is supposed to pay its own way; thus, it is cheaper to drive (or fly) most places than to take the train, in those rare cases when the train still runs. (Ever so slowly, we are building local train systems, and they usually end up with far higher ridership than politicians had predicted.)

In New York City, we have three area airports: one in New Jersey, one in Flushing, and one out beyond Flushing. None are convenient by rail or bus. Ironically, all are NEAR major commuter lines – the subway for both NYC airports and PATH and NJ Transit for Newark Airport. (Newark, for some reason, added a new monorail instead of simply extending PATH. Cheaper in the short run but darned inconvenient and very unreliable compared with PATH!).

The past five decades have seen growth in the need for mass transit in New York City – and a decline in the number of subway lines. The past three decades have seen almost no expansion of the subway system. Even when they changed the system to allow more than one ride per swipe (replacing the tokens), they did not add trains to carry the extra load.

When we compare the United States to European nations, we find a major difference in attitude. Here, where everyone is an individualist with freedom of choice, we usually cannot “choose” to live without a car. In Europe, where gasoline is unsubsidized (or less subsidized), there are more options. Most people can live without a car; the buses run frequently, there are more options for paying fares, and there are trains heading out to rural areas. Many more people feel free to have no car. Ironically, the “more free” Americans find themselves without as many choices as the government-controlled West Europeans.

The true motoring enthusiast does not enjoy sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. A single bus can carry 30-60 people, enough to take 30-60 cars off the road. A single train can carry hundreds or thousands of commuters. Put enough trains and buses out there, and the driver can start using their engines again. The only down-side is that those who own a Toyota Prius will see their gas mileage fall by 10 mpg with the increase in speed, but that’s a small price to pay.

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