Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do you want to be Serious, or do you want to be right?

I very much appreciate that Yonah has taken the time to read my response to his earlier post, and taken my critique in the constructive spirit that I intended. But I have to confess I'm not sure why he's so perplexed.

In his April 29 post, Yonah lays out his goals for transportation, and they're much the same as mine: he deplores "very high traffic fatality rates" and "our continued dependence on the congestion-causing, sprawl-inducing, pollution-generating private automobile" and favors publicly-owned transit systems that produce "gains to the society in other ways" - just as I want reduced carnage, increased efficiency, improved society, reduced pollution and access for all. So our goals are the same; we just differ on how to achieve them.

How do we differ? I look at the people killed by cars; the wasted space, material, time and energy devoted to creating, moving and storing cars; the damage done to society by our isolation in cars; the pollution spewed by cars; and the injustice of denying access to jobs, housing and commerce to people who don't own cars, and I conclude that the problem is cars and we need to get rid of them.

Yonah looks at all these things, sees that we can replace cars with transit, and concludes that the problem is we don't have enough transit. He then argues that we need to let people build more cars and more car facilities so that they will let us build a little more transit. Then he is perplexed that I don't agree.

Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that we wake up tomorrow morning and none of the cars work. We can't get them working because the knowledge is locked away in our brains like the Third Doctor in Doctor Who. Trains, ships and airships still work, and over the next thirty years (ten for Los Angeles), the cars and highways are recycled into a comprehensive rail network, supplemented by bicycles, canal boats and the occasional horse or donkey cart. (If the suddenness bothers you, assume instead that one car after another stops working, over the course of thirty years, and we can't fix them or make any more.) How would that affect our goals?

Traffic deaths and pollution drop to the tiny levels from trains, bicycles and donkey carts. They rise a bit as more trains run, but never approach anywhere near the levels we currently have. There is a mass upheaval as all the people in the suburbs and exurbs move their homes, jobs and shops closer to downtowns and train lines, but the increase in efficiency and social cohesion is phenomenal. There are new battles as the rich try to find new ways to shut the poor out of jobs, housing and commerce; maybe they succeed, but maybe they don't.

Now let's imagine that instead we wake up next morning (or in 2041) and the rail transit network has been magically increased so that it is the same size as the road network. There's just as much carnage and pollution as before; if anything, there's more. Things run a bit more efficiently, but the road system is still prone to crazy traffic jams and generates tons of sprawl. The poor have more access, but not as much as they should. Politically, this brings us back to around 1965, and the politicians exhibit the same kind of denial that they do now. Maybe rising gas prices shift the political winds, and eventually the road system is cannibalized to extend the train system, buoyed by political support from a large transit-riding population. Maybe not, since what I described is pretty close to the transportation network here in the Greater New York area, and most politicians pander to drivers.

For a third scenario, imagine that we wake up tomorrow and the transit network is ten times its current size, the same size as the current road network - but the road network is also ten times its current size. Have we gained anything? No.

This is why the absolute amount of transit matters very little. It's the absolute amount of car usage that matters, and the way to make a difference in that is through changing the funding formulas. If we keep the same formulas but increase the size of them, we don't win anything.

This is why the Very Serious People are wrong when they say, "I'm not anti-car." If you're not anti-car, you're not doing it right. It's up to you: do you want to be Serious, or do you want to be right?


BruceMcF said...

Magically same size networks ~ the car carnage and resource waste could well drop inexorably over the next three decades, since given a choice, many of those presently choosing to drive will, at the cost of gasoline when it costs $2/gallon to extract in 2010, rising to multiples of that over the decades ahead, choose the transit, development will cluster around transit stops, and the Auto Uber Alles lock will be broken.

Now, it takes quickly coming up with funding for the transport operations, which we cannot afford as we presently fund things, with so much operations funding locked into hidden and cross subsidies to drive, but with that relief from the gas prices sitting just there, the political pressure to cobble together some finance to run the things will be strong, and if it can be kept running long enough to get that ball rolling, its quite similar to the "cars gradually just stop working" scenario.

The question is, rather, what if sustainable common carrier transport was substantially expanded but still dominated by the car transport system, which is what is implied by financing the construction of new highways, on which no gas taxes have yet been paid, in order to be allowed to build some new transport.

The likelihood of getting the new funding cobbled together to keep that less complete system running is a lot more dicey, and unless we get lucky in terms of the stars being aligned for a national funding system, then while it will be kept running in certain parts of the country, in others it will not be, and in those parts of the country, that magic system will decline into disuse.

As far as the "user fee" argument, one way to address that is restrict formula grants to road maintenance only, with new road construction having to compete on a cost-benefit basis with other transport projects.

nathan_h said...

This is the reason I stopped reading TTP some years ago. I have no interest in Truth moderated by one guy's assumptions about what's possible in 'merca. I think we tried that with Kerry's Cap & Trade, and the last 30 or 40 years of muddled liberal politics before it. Being afraid to tell the truth necessarily results in telling lies (e.g., CAHSR will pay for itself and be powered 100% by wind turbines! <3 !) that are then eagerly exposed by the opposition and exploited to ridicule your movement for years to come.

It's amazing to me that there exists a political culture and party where it is controversial to fight for your share of the pie, but it is not at all surprising that they fail so utterly and consistently to win anything more than filthy scraps.

Alon Levy said...

Yeah, like, whatever. You're misinterpreting the argument Yonah's making now. He's not saying you need more transit spending to compensate for roads; he's saying that under present-day political structures, the funding is fixed by formula. If you go back to what he's said about political funding of transportation since forever, he has consistently attacked user fee models and promoted general fund spending.

jazumah said...

Exactly...the fact that the road network is also a potential bus network is sometimes forgotten.

BruceMcF said...

BTW, I linked to this post, the one its replying to, and the one its replying to in the Sunday Train:
and Agent Orange

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Bruce! Your idea of restricting gas tax revenue to road maintenance is definitely worth pursuing.

Alon, it's nice that Yonah has promoted alternatives to formula funding, but when those alternatives fail he still wants the formula funding increased.

No, Joel, I don't forget that the road network is also a potential bus network. I'm just more realistic about the chance of getting that network dedicated to buses.

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n: yes... the analogy you should think of is Krugman's views on stimulus. In early 2009 Krugman kept saying that, within present-day political reality, it would be impossible to enact more than one stimulus, and therefore Obama had to pass a large stimulus, erring on the side of too much rather than too little. But he still supported $775 billion with one third of money going to tax cuts over nothing, or over a 100% tax cut plan.

For a different analogy, what APTA should have done was advocate for higher transit funding as part of a climate change bill, but if that was impossible then it should have supported the bill nonetheless.

jazumah said...

I don't want a large dedicated busway network per se. I want a road network that can be flexible and service the needs that are demanded of it. Cars are already understood to be more expensive than buses, but most of the buses out there preclude their use as full car replacements because of their hours. We need to fix the roads and the rails simultaneously as they have both come up for replacement around the same time. The greatest chance of having funding for both modes is to do them together.

The gas tax on the federal level needs to go straight to 50 cents a gallon. However, I am only going to be in favor of that if both auto users and mass transit users BOTH see benefits from it. This would include the ability for private operators to directly obtain federal funding for capital expenses for transportation.

nathan_h said...

Alon, your stimulus analogy lacks a counterpart to problem of mode share and relative investment. The fact that some of the potential stimulus was wasted on tax cuts sucked, but the tax cuts themselves did not pose an ongoing impediment to Fixing the Economy. That is not the case for new spending on auto infrastructure, as has been argued in several posts here.