Monday, September 10, 2012

Sometimes the center is wrong

Some transit advocates love explaining to us that of course we all need cars sometimes, and some of us need cars all the time. They're not anti-car, cars aren't going away, they support transit *and* cars, and ferries and bikes and walking.

Some of this may simply be that it takes people a while to come around to a new idea. I remember when I first saw the slogan, "Auto-Free New York." I thought, "what the fuck is that? Never gonna happen. Nobody's going to listen to this." But over the years, as I've read more and experienced more, I've become more and more convinced that we can't live with these machines and they will eventually have to go. A lot of people who are "not anti-car" may simply not yet have processed all the horror that comes from cars.

I have no such understanding or sympathy for the sanctimonious centrists who want to take the Wise Middle Path. They see pro-car people and anti-car people, so they position themselves in the middle and spout platitudes about "choice." Then they get to insult "bike zealots" and "rail fanboys" so that they look reasonable and sensible by comparison. These are the transportation equivalents of Paul Krugman's Very Serious People. Why can't we all just get along? Why do we have to say "no" to anyone? That's so mean!

To fully appreciate how crazy this Very Serious view of transportation really is, let's imagine that we were truly committed to mode choice. Real mode choice means that if anyone, anywhere, wants to use a particular mode to get somewhere, it should be provided by the government at an affordable cost. If we support bikes and cars and subways and buses to get from, say, Woodside to Lower Manhattan, and maybe "BRT" in addition to local buses, why stop there?

If I want to go to Lower Manhattan by aerial tram, the government should build one, right? A ferry dock at the old Penny Bridge landing, with an inclined plane leading to it? Airships to Boston, Chicago and Syracuse? High-speed rail from my apartment to the corner pub? What's the matter? Don't you support all modes?

The response to this is that our Serious transit advocate only supports Serious modes. What makes a mode Serious? How about if we looked at where people are and where they want to go, and figured out the most efficient system to build from scratch? Oh, no, it must not be based on that kind of blank slate cost benefit analysis, because highways and parking tend to do pretty badly on those.

Instead, it's based on modes that would be the least demanding or outside the mainstream, which turn out to be cars, buses, rail-trails, and maybe reactivating an old train line as commuter rail or light rail - with lots of park-and-rides, of course.

I can understand this up to a point. I don't like disrupting other people's lives unnecessarily. But if they're disrupting my life, and mooching my resources, then either they get disrupted or I get disrupted. And if they're making the planet worse for all our children and grandchildren, then that should be stopped.

The true Wise Path can only be found by taking a broad perspective. When you do that, you see that sometimes it veers quite far from the Middle Way.


ant6n said...

Well, getting rid of all cars may be a bit ambitious. Getting rid of individual car ownership is more reasonable, without going to far towards the center.

neroden@gmail said...

I don't think it's going to be possible to get rid of all cars in rural areas. They're just too useful, even though they're very dangerous. (Yes, in rural areas, they are still very dangerous.)

But danger was always expected to be higher in rural areas; perhaps that's the key here.

And cars aren't *that* bad when there's one of them going by per hour.

Truly rural areas are weird, and not like the rest of the country. We still have exceptions to the child labor laws for farming.

neroden@gmail said...

As for urban cars, I suspect they can be made to be like urban helicopters. You can't make them go away entirely because the rich *really like to show off their playthings*.

However, you can reduce them to a minimal number and charge through the nose for the privilege of using them in a city. (As with helicopters.)

Chris Smith said...

coc62Your definition of choice is: "Real mode choice means that if anyone, anywhere, wants to use a particular mode to get somewhere, it should be provided by the government at an affordable cost."

How about if we defined it as "a mode should be available at a price that reflects its market cost/value plus its externalities"?

That would allow us to tax auto usage for its climate impact (and contribution to the need to maintain a military to secure fossil fuel sources) while subsidizing cycling and transit that have positive externalities.

Cap'n Transit said...

Chris, I'm more sympathetic to that idea of choice, but I have a few objections to your formulation:

1. That's not the system that most "give people a choice" arguments promote.

2. I'm not a libertarian, so I do think the government should help people who can't afford to get around. On the other hand, if we separated transit from charity, we could do that.

3. It's hard enough to set a price that reflects market cost; just look at the clamor for discounts on the Tappan Zee Bridge tolls. I'm skeptical that you could come up with a price for driving that truly reflected its cost plus externalities and find anyone willing to pay it.

John Thacker said...

So your claim is that the much higher gas taxes found in most European countries, and gas taxes plus extensive highway tolls found in Japan, also fail to truly take cost and externalities into account?

My trips to Yorkshire, Edinburgh, Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kyoto reveal them all to be quite full of cars, even the places with well-functioning transit systems. Especially the rural areas, but not only the rural areas.

Cars are useful because they allow flexibility in destination and timetable. To true replace them will require some kind of personal transit; it's possible that autonomous cars will evolve in that direction.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, John, I would claim that.

The "convenience of cars" is a myth. Cars only allow flexibility in destination and timetable if you have a really good road system. For the same price you can have a transit system that offers a greater flexibility in destination and schedule.