| Sunday, February 13, 2005
The fevered dreams of transit
When I was 22, and totally dependent on mass transit, my
walking shoes and my 10-speed Raleigh bicycle for my
transportation needs, I dreamed of the day that I would get a
decent-enough paying job to afford an automobile.
I dreamed of it often. Especially on the morning I sat on
the bus heading from my one-room apartment in northwest
Washington, D.C., to my job downtown. It was like any other
morning, except that one of the homeless people on board lost
control of his bladder and, as the bus turned, everyone else
raised their legs so that the sea of urine could roll downhill
On another day, I stood at the bus stop and glanced up the
street looking for the long-delayed bus. A group of young
toughs thought I was looking at them as they dealt drugs, so
they surrounded me and began shoving me. I made my escape but
I would have rather been in that dreamed-of car, sailing down
city streets in relative safety.
I recall these and other disgusting and sometimes dangerous
moments in my years of riding mass transit to put a damper on
those in our midst who believe that cars are always bad and
mass transit is always good. The Orange County Transportation
Authority, charged with developing the transportation systems
that move us around, is dominated by ideologues who echothat
trendy anti-car sentiment.
That's why, no matter how low the predicted ridership
numbers and how high the predicted costs, OCTA officials
emphasize light rail rather than roads and freeways. I call it
nostalgia as public policy, as planners ignore the way
Americans really get around and instead try to build
retro-style systems that would prod us to live like in olden
Listen to the New Urbanists, Smart Growthers and
transportation planners talk about light rail and other
similar systems when they are speaking at their
taxpayer-subsidized conferences. "Cars pollute." "They destroy
communities by promoting 'sprawl.'" "Light rail and buses are
more egalitarian, and they build a sense of community." "It's
wasteful to have a yard and garage and live in the suburbs
rather than in a high-rise or row house."
That's what they really believe.
The people who promote such social engineering think back
to the good old days, when they went to college in places like
Washington, San Francisco, Boston and New York. They walked
and they rode the subway and they took the bus. It was all so
wonderful then, before they grew up, moved to the
soul-destroying suburbs and commuted alone in bumper-to-bumper
traffic along the smog-enabling freeway.
I remember things differently.
Light rail, with its agonizingly slow-moving trolley cars,
is now the system of choice because it offers an old-timey
urban aesthetic. OCTA can't get the hundreds of millions of
dollars in federal funds needed to build this system, so
officials there are now likely to switch gears and promote a
"bus rapid transit" system instead. I'm not opposed to more
buses per se, but think of this system as light rail on
rubber, with costs almost as high as rail. The specifics don't
matter to transit planners. Most important to them, BRT would
keep the light-rail dream alive, because sometime down the
road, the bus lanes could be converted into rail tracks.
BRT won't make any more sense than CenterLine in termsof
ridership or costs, especially if the initial $100
million-per-mile costs are accurate. The Register Editorial
Page has often made the cost/benefit argument against light
rail, but that always falls on deaf ears. That's because this
is a debate about a lifestyle vision, not about
Rail theologians talk about the ugliness of car-driven
sprawl, but never mention the ugliness of transit-driven
urbanization. Try hopping on a train from New York City's
Grand Central Station to Westchester some time, and look out
at the abandoned high-rises that define the Bronx landscape.
As a longtime transit user, I can attest that the
transit-dependent world planners are recreating is a dreadful
dystopian place of shuffling, huddled masses filing into train
cars and buses, building their lives around other people's
schedules and other people's preferences.
Ignore those glossy transit brochures, with their drawings
of happy, latte-sipping commuters waiting for the train. I
think instead of the two years I depended on the bus in Des
Moines, Iowa, where I skidded down the ice-covered sidewalks
to catch a bus that could arrive anywhere from 10 minutes
early to a half-hour late.
Of course, it was usually late, especially on those
frightfully cold Iowa winter mornings, when our group of
pathetic souls would stand huddled around the bus stop to
shield ourselves from the whipping winds and below-zero
Growing up in and around Philadelphia, I don't recall the
elevated trains, subways or trolleys being particularly
friendly or clean places. To walk through the urine-drenched
subway tube was to take one's life in one's hands, as drug
dealers and muggers waited for customers or victims there.
Even Washington, D.C.'s Metro system, which I depended on
during my college years, was no joy. It was clean and
well-patrolled, unlike the aged Philly subway. But the stops
were often isolated, leaving the rider in lonely, dark parking
lots at the end of the journey. The subway had limited hours,
so riders could be stuck if they ran a little late. I remember
once trying to lug groceries home in the rain on the D.C.
Then the glorious day arrived that I got that job. I could
finally buy a sand-colored 1983 Ford Escort, with its cheap
woven upholstery, four-speed stick shift and air conditioning.
That enabled me to leave my inner-city neighborhood, with its
trash-strewn sidewalks and constant sirens, and move onto a
tree-lined street in the Virginia suburbs. I could commute in
comfort, listening to the radio far away from anyone who might
have bladder-control or cleanliness issues.
I even car-pooled for a while - but it was when it suited
me, not to take advantage of those blasted HOV lanes. I racked
up 20,000 miles the first year, driving to the West Virginia
mountains, the Maryland beaches and everywhere in between. It
was the feeling of freedom, of the open road, of being able to
come and go as I pleased.
One activist group that helps the poor released a study
years back acknowledging that the best form of transportation
for the working poor is a used car. Good for them for
acknowledging the truth: Most people, rich or poor, would
rather drive than be herded into rail cars. We'd rather read
Car and Driver magazine about 300-horsepower Mustangs than
listen to lectures about sustainability.
Mobility is freedom. Which largely explains why government
officials, academics and planners are so hostile to the
automobile, suburbia and every other icon of the American
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