Locke Up the Trains

Yesterday, the John Locke Foundation sponsored a conference whose aim was apparently to trash rail plans for the Triangle. You can read about it in the Herald.

Some interesting excerpts:
The American dream is being challenged by "misguided planning policies" and doctrines "that call for greater government control over development, housing, transportation and consumer choice."

"mass-transit is a dollar-gulping failure"

"the cost of each passenger mile in an average car was 20 cents, compared to 60 cents for each mass-transit passenger mile. In most U.S. locations, each new rider could be provided with a leased car for his or her entire lifetime for the cost of building a mass-transit system,"

It sounds like this conference could just as well have been planned by the highway industry. The comments above reflect a glaring failure to understand federal and state transportation subsidies, the incredible success of transit in many major cities in the US and around the world, and American history.

I know there are plenty on this blog who can tear apart the Locke arguments. Anyone care to defend them? Did anyone attend the conference?

Total votes: 132

Comments

Joe,

I was in Tempe last week and there are signs everywhere downtown indicating that light rail is coming. Take a look at:

http://www.valleymetro.org/rail/

for info on the design and routes.

I wonder how many high school students drive to school when they could easily be taking the bus?

Mark

Not mine! Though some HAVE to drive--if they have zero period that is "pretty much" their only option. And I know kids who routinely stay after school drive--so that they can get home. I suppose they COULD take the City bus, to East, at any rate--but from here it would be a little complicated...

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that my sophomore gets a ride from a young woman who lives down the street and stays after everyday to work on things for the Drama department--that is when she ISN'T playing team sports. He takes the bus HOME. BUT he isn't driving--and next year he'll be back on the bus...because his ride will have graduated!

Unless he's in zero period--and then I'll be driving again...sigh.

Melanie

Welcome, John Hood! This site is becoming a Who's Who of conservative activists. Further proof about the mythical nature of Chapel Hill "liberalism."

I also welcome John Hood to our discussions. I want to tell

a quick relevant story and get his (and others') reactions.

I go to Glendale, Arizona about once per year. It's part of

the Phoenix metropolis, is in the Phoenix basin, its air quality is bad and worsening, traffic congestion on the main roads

is horrific, I-10 and I-17 are far over capacity, and there is

no hope for any kind of mass transit to allow people who would

want to commute to downtowns (there are two) Phoenix

by train. Glendale's population is about 130K, and

as far as I can tell is simply one medium-priced subdivision

after another built onto the edge of the desert by simply

paving it over. One cannot go anywhere except by private auto.

Two weeks after one trip, I attended the National League of

Cities meeting in Washington and shared dinner with two

city council members of Glendale. I asked them why they

didn't require the developers of subdivisions to reserve

a mass transit corridor, not build the transit system, but

simply preserve the land so that the transit system could

be built in the future without razing existing houses

and commercial sites. I'll never forget their reply:

"We just don't do that".

Now Glendale/Tempe/Phoenix is conservative, Republican, Barry Goldwater, property-rights-are-paramount country, so I should have expected that answer, but I simply shook my head at how

they couldn't see how they are letting the auto destroy the

very thing that attracted so many people to the region

in the first place.

The experience made me very happy that we are one of the

specfic examples (a college town) that John Hood noted.

I'm the president of the John Locke Foundation and appreciate the mention here of our recent conference and the issues it addressed. I understand what some transit advocates on this thread are saying -- I've heard these arguments over and over again -- but I must say that they rarely seem to understand what transit skeptics are saying:

1. You can rail (pun intended) against low-density urban freedom (pejoratively called sprawl) all you want, but it is a reality in North Carolina. It is not the result of a conspiracy by the highway lobby, as a fair-minded reading of the history of the 20th century will reveal. It is the quite natural result of the development of technologies for automobility, utility provision, and homebuilding. While there is certainly diversity in consumer preferences, most households prefer if given the choice to purchase detached dwellings with at least some yard, to prefer price over close proximity to retail, and to travel by car, which is a far more convenient means of commuting, schlepping kids around, running errands, and recreating than is travel by bus or rail. Outside of unique situations such as college towns, shuttles to events, and, well, New York City, most transit users are not really making a choice. They would drive if they could but are prevented from doing so due to poverty, disability, etc.

2. There is an extensive free-market literature on the externalities of automobiles and highways. You can disagree with its conclusions but you can't pretend it doesn't exist. To summarize, even if there is a net subsidy to autos, it is dwarfed by the net subsidy to transit. Here's a hint: how is the energy generated to run buses and trains? And how many transit systems fail to cover even the cost of collecting fares by collecting fares?

3. That having been said, I'm all in favor of removing zoning and other restrictions that limit the ability of developers to serve whatever market there is for mixed-use, New Urbanist development. Perhaps at some point in the future, consumer preferences will change and sufficient critical mass will exist to justify an investment in fixed-route transit. That's a very, very long way off in the Triangle.

4. Transit supporters have a history of exaggerating their claims, predicting what doesn't happen, and attempting to shift attention away from past failure by initiating new ones. That's what much of last weekend's conference centered on, with specific references to costs, ridership, travel patterns, and economic effects. The "Monorail, monorail" episode of The Simpsons is surprisingly astute about the nature of the flim-flamery involved.

5. By all means, people inclined to this sort of thing should be encourage to play with their choo-choo trains. But I resent being compelled to finance their historical-reenactment hobby.

The marketers are involved now.

On the 15-501 bypass around Durham, near the Duke/Erwin

exit, there is a new billboard that advertises large-size

Nissan pickup trucks. It shows a photo of such a truck,

and labels it "Massive Transit"

Yes, it can work, and it's imperative that it does. The problem: density. Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill is ranked the least dense metropolis area in the US

It's the old sprawl thing, eh? Dear Lord--we're going to end up looking like Atlanta.

Melanie

Actually, I've heard us called "LA with seasons."

In response to Mike: the problem is not density per se. The problem (as I say ad nauseum, I know) is sprawl, which I define, not in terms of the amount of land taken up only, but mainly in terms of automobile-oriented design. As long as the supposed right of automobile drivers to get around easily (which the Critical Mass rides around the world challenge) and find a parking space is taken for granted, policy is directed toward urban design that suits the car and little else. A good example is the current plan for Carolina North. Sprawl begets automobile dependency, which begets more sprawl, and so on in a cycle. This makes transit, etc. less convenient and the cycle is not generally counteracted until density arises. But greater density is coming to the Triangle. Mike said we are not very dense (no double entendre intended) but that is changing. We are the least dense area in the country to be building a train system, but that is a good thing. We have a chance with the TTA system to begin to slow down and ultimately reverse the sprawl cycle here, and move towards transit-oriented design in which people can walk and bike easily in areas around transit stops. In other words, we have a tremendous opportunity here to move to a different kind of urban geography *before* we grow so large that we are absolutely forced to put in rail, as was the case in Atlanta and even L.A. As for trains versus buses (Matt's post) my response is that we need both. My long-term vision for the Triangle is for the rail system to connect to a series of bus hubs so that the two work well together. Trains could generally get between the hubs faster than buses. In any case, the rail system is getting underway in coming years and to reverse that now would have destructive implications politically for the whole idea of transit-oriented design. We should, in my view, support the TTA rail system *and* call for more bus service.

My husband would have used a train system when he worked otu in RTP--he carpooled for quite awhile. Now he works from an office inour home.

My kids both use the bus system--ETENSIVELY--and I am pleased. (Welll, the older one uses it when he ishome form college.) When we went to NYC (Spring of 2001) we went everywhere by train or subway--the kids were seriously impressed.

So mass transit CAN work.

Melanie

FS: 1996 GMC Yukon 4x4, AC, PS, ATV, BS, FU, DOA... Serious inquires only. $376 O.B.O. (burns a *little* oil too) It's in my front yard if you'd like to check it out.

I wish that SUV drivers would realise that you can burn just as much gas in a sports car, and not hold up traffic as you drop down to 20 so you doesn't tip over as you go round anything resembling a curve.

And they Drove with pride. In a used

car lot on the edge of town a liberal guy and liberal gal bought a yugo....

Anyone want to talk about transit?

I like trains as much or more than the next person, but I don't think a train system here would have half the benefits of spending an equivalent amount of money on expanding bus service. Increasing the number and frequency of buses, adding express routes, widening service areas -- these would make bus transit much more competitive with individual auto usage, as would subsidizing fares (as CH has done) or improving facilities for transit users (covered shelters, actual bus terminals with amenities, etc.). Pouring massive amounts of money into fixed-rail projects might pay off in decades, if growth increases or remains constant, but investing in buses would have immediate benefits.

John Locke and others of the conservative stripe often present good points, but just as often make arguments that categorically exclude economic externalities, things not reflected in costs. Things like environmental degradation and adverse health effects of increased fossil fuel combustion, things that the price of a car or a gallon of gas doesn't have to include.

Also if we don't like "robbing Peter to pay Paul" there are much better examples to get worked up over than a driver shouldering a small share of the funding burden for transit through tax dollars. It's perhaps more profitable to see how tax money is directly handed to corporations to entice them to move into an area, or to give them tax breaks because they have the power to influence legislation. That's more like robbing the peasant to pay the king...

Ruby,

FYI . . . I once heard our State Senator Ellie Kinnaird state that the John Locke Foundation provides good info even though she, of course, does not agree with their world view.

Other Democrats also view them as credible and use them as a resource (even though they also might not agree with their philosophy). It might be a mistake to automatically dismiss them as lacking credibility.

It is one thing for the government to provide the basic

necessities of life to the 'truly needy,' a group that would

include the poor, the sick, and the disabled. It is another

thing for government to take resources from one middle-class

family and give them to another middle-class family. This happens

when, for example, the government builds a mass transit system:

People who prefer to drive cars must pay for the transportation

preferences of people who prefer to take the subway. A similar

redistribution is under way when the government funds the National

Endowment for the Arts: Everybody has to subsidize the recreation

of those Americans who want to listen to Papuan folk music, or view

photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's portraits of his own genitals.

I do not deny that many government programs aimed at the middle

class enjoy considerable political support. As George Bernard

Shaw put it, 'A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always

count on Paul's support'.

Actually it is the entire community that is paying for the roads so SUVs can tear up our air and send us into code red again. Roads cost less tan transit when you consider the actual cost to the entire community. It goes well beyond the (government subsidized !) price of a gallon of gas.

I don't consider the John Locke Foundation to be particularly credible, so I don't really feel compelled to answer their claims. They probably think poor people are at fault for the crappy economy, am I to explain why that's not true either?

The Surface Transportation Policy Project ( http://www.transact.org ) is a good resource for information about the costs and impacts or various modes of transportation. Folks might be espcially interested in this 1995 report called "Is Rail Transit Right For Your Community?" ( http://www.transact.org/report.asp?id=1 )

 

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