Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mass Transit is Just Not Profitable!

At a mass transit meeting in Indianapolis recently, a representative from the Reason Foundation declared that the automobile would remain our mode of transportation for the "foreseeable future" and that mass transit options ran a distant second in addressing traffic congestion and corollary problems of sprawl and smog.

His argument went something like this: mass transit is just not profitable. It generally requires large expenditures of public funds to operate and maintain. And the Reason Foundation, as a libertarian think tank, holds to the ideology that public funds ought never be spent for things that private enterprise would otherwise handle if only there were sufficient profit in it. No profit to be made? That must mean people don't want it -- and if people don't want it, why build it?

I find this kind of reasoning circular and unhelpful, and more than a little disingenuous. The supporting infrastructure that made the automobile industry possible in the first place has been so heavily subsidized by public spending it ought to qualify as a branch of government. The interstate highway system was created with public funds. Local roads are built and maintained with public funds. Driver's licenses and vehicle registrations are administered by government agencies. Roads are patrolled by government workers -- police, sheriffs, state troopers.

It should come as no surprise that the Reason Foundation supports the status quo. It has produced studies and reports that claim that sprawl is not a problem and air pollution is not getting worse and that any difficulties that arise from global warming ought to be dealt with as they emerge, not taken as evidence of a need to change behaviors to ameliorate the trend itself. It's one approach, I suppose -- akin to the "race for the cure" rather than a "race for the cause" -- and it's reminiscent of Daniel Quinn's example of positioning ambulances at the bottom of a cliff to take the injured to the hospital, rather than installing a good barrier at the top to keep people from falling off in the first place.

The ambulance is profitable, you see. The hospital, ditto. The barrier, not so much.

The Reason Foundation argues that mass-transit ridership is simply insufficient to support a system economically. But here's a news flash: those interstates were pretty empty at first. And as anyone who's ever driven I-90 knows, a lot of them remain pretty empty for long, desolate stretches even now.

The simple truth is, if we believe there can be no alternative to the automobile "in the foreseeable future" then we will have no alternative. Rather than invest our imaginative efforts into developing a new transportation paradigm, we will simply drive ourselves over the cliff again and again, and wage wars over oil to perpetuate our lifestyle, and pretend that all is as it must be.

When I lived in Los Angeles I sometimes took the train to my job in San Bernardino, some 70 miles inland. That train ride was often the best part of my day. When I lived in Boulder I commuted by Express bus to Denver to work downtown, and it was a pleasure. A pleasure!

Imagine that.


  1. Another awesome post! It is sad when a "think tank" comments on possible solutions to problems by denying that the problem even exists! Maybe that "think tank" needs some new fuel sources itself. ;) It's also pretty sad that their opinions are so dependent upon the market value of things. Is that what being free really means? Only that which is profitable is valued? I think not!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Deanne. One obvious problem w/think tanks is transparency: who's paying this guy's salary, and what is the agenda of those holding the purse strings? Think tanks don't exist in academic bubbles, producing research free of bias or ideological taint; as Molly Ivins used to say, they dance w/the ones that brung 'em.


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