Transportation as Social Welfare

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98 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    Because you didn’t build that road that your trucks use every day?Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      Exactly, right?

      Every time there’s some discussion in my city of even the most minimal, basic of bicycle infrastructure, there’s a chorus of “I’ll [ed: stop being horribly rude and/or a dangerously reckless driver] when bicyclists pay for the steets they use the way we drivers do.”

      None of these people seem to realize that it’s the folks who drive the least who are subsidizing their use of the streets, not the reverse – city streets are built with property taxes, not fuel taxes, so just like libraries, swimming pools, art galleries, parks, tennis courts, and every other piece of municipal infrastructure, everyone contributes to paying for them based on their property tax assessment, but to the wear and tear on them based on their use.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Americans got hit the car bug hard for a variety of reasons. We were also comparatively late in putting mass transit under government control. It didn’t happen until the mid-1940s for the most part. In the parts of the country where mass transit was necessary, like New York, Boston, and Chicago mass transportation survived even if it wasn’t at European levels, but failed otherwise. America had the idea that if you could afford it, you should drive to work.Report

  3. Avatar Chris says:

    San Francisco has very easy to find bus stops and light rail stops but you might not necessarily have a route that takes you from A to B easily. A trip might take two or three different buses with different wait times. The situation is more dire in places like Contra Costa and Marin counties.

    By itself, this doesn’t mean anything, and looking at the San Fran transit system, it looks like that in the city it has both good coverage and logical routes. The general rule of transit routes is the straighter the better, which means you may have to transfer if you’re going from north of town to the far east of town, but as long as the transfers are reasonably-well coordinated, that shouldn’t be a big deal.

    Of course, San Fran may be dysfunctional enough in other ways (e.g., the distribution of housing) that it becomes a problem, but like I said, having to transfer is not a design flaw.

    The long waits in the middle of the day may be, depending on how long is long. An average wait of 20 minutes sucks for a rider, but during off-peak times is pretty good for a city the size of San Francisco. An average wait of 40 minutes is unacceptable anytime except perhaps the middle of the night, but I doubt that’s what you’re talking about.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Public transportation got seen as a social welfare program because Americans could afford mass car ownership much sooner than other people could. Part of this was because of Henry Ford’s innovations designed to make cars affordable. Another part was because the economic boom of the 1920s allowed many Americans to buy cars. The car fit into the American ideal of us as a free-wheeling people who went wherever we want when we wanted to. Driving alone or with your family and friends went more with American individualism than the train or bus.

    There was much less prosperity elsewhere and cars remained for the affluent longer. By the time of the mid-20th century suburban boom, cars were the dominate form of transportation and, with the exception of a few cities, mass transit was mainly used by people too poor to use cars. Most of these people were also African-American. This turned mass transit from a transit service into a social service that government did not have to invest.

    A lot of the remaining mass transit systems did have expansion plans but could never achieve enough funding to get them. In Los Angeles, there were civil servants that argued that the ten most heavily used Pacific Electric lines should be transformed into a mass transit system but nobody believed them. San Francisco was liberal enough, dense enough and white enough that public transportation was not associated with poverty or people of color so BART got built. Besides that, it was a transit desert for a long time.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Eisenhower’s insistence that we be able to easily/efficiently move tanks all around the country also resulted in a highway system that contributed significantly to car culture.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Car culture was well-established long before Eisenhower was nominated.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        To be more specific, in Europe even solidly middle class and white collar people did not own cars and used public transportation to get around for most of the 1950s. By 1950, most Americans were commuting by car even if they were working class.Report

  5. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I suspect that once we have reliable driverless cars, this paradigm will shift.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      The sooner the better. God(ess)! I want driverless cars to be a reality so badly.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I can see driverless cars leading to more sprawl rather than less. A lot of people are still going to want to own their own driverless car so they can have it on command rather than have to wait for one to be available. When they are not using it, they are going to want to just parked their waiting for them like a regular car rather than having to order one when they need. This means that car ownership might not necessarily decrease and car oriented development would continue even if the cars are driverless. People might also choose slightly longer commutes for more space if they could sleep or dose off while driving rather than have to focus.

      A fleet of driverless cars for hire might also get more urban people out of the city and into the suburbs or exurbs if they are cheap enough. The new suburbanites will need to find a place to live but I think the market could handle this.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        Also, there’s an idea that driverless cars means higher overall fleet efficiency as everyone switches to renting Smart cars. I’d argue that it would mean the opposite–that fleet owners will standardize on SUVs, because they’re big enough to handle any renter’s trip (not to mention being easier to accommodate the needs of disabled users) and renters won’t care because hey, they don’t have to park the car or fit it in a driveway.Report

        • Avatar DavidTC says:

          I’d argue that it would mean the opposite–that fleet owners will standardize on SUVs, because they’re big enough to handle any renter’s trip (not to mention being easier to accommodate the needs of disabled users) and renters won’t care because hey, they don’t have to park the car or fit it in a driveway

          And, of course, people operating a fleet of rider-less cars wouldn’t care about the gas they’re putting in them, because, uh, magic.

          In reality, if there’s some guy with an ‘all SUV’ fleet, that guy is going to be outcompeted by the ‘all smart car’ fleet, solely because of gas. Or, even better, the guy who had 90% smart cars for cheap, and 10% SUVs for a small surcharge.

          Actually, this sort assumes that everyone is still driving *gasoline* powered cars, which is kinda silly. Driverless rental cars actually remove *three* of the big problems of big problems of electric vehicle. You don’t have to worry about:
          1) …finding somewhere to charge them. They just go home
          2) …the time to charge them. You just get a *different* car.
          3) …buying a car with limited range, and/or have to haul around batteries you almost never need. You can select a car with a tiny battery and a 40 mile range 90% of the time, and then when you need to drive 100 miles, you just click on the ‘extended battery’ option and get one of those cars instead for a price bump. And if you ever guess wrong, and your car is going to run out of battery, another car can just meet you and you hop over to that one.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          If those were the dynamics, rental car fleets would look a lot different than they do. I think that’s the baseline we should use. I think driverless fleets would probably look somewhat similar, except that it would be easier to get a Smart (unlike car rentals, there won’t typically need to be room for luggage) and large vehicles (there would be more “I need something to pick up this sofa I got on Craigslist” as well as ridesharing).Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


        Perhaps, but there are ways to address that. In a previous discussion, I suggested that we could have a system by which people who owned a private driverless car would have to pay a hefty tax on it unless they released it for public use for at least part of the day, so the very well off could probably keep a private car, but most people who wanted one would release it for the workday, or during the evening when it would not be needed.

        Or we could just tax garages or on street parking. Or any number of other ways to discourage private car ownership, or at least make it work for the general good.

        As for sprawl, that is going to happen regardless. As we’ve discussed before, as much as some people enjoy high density, there are a lot of others who don’t. Forcing those people into high density is just going to make them miserable, and for what? Besides, if there is a critical mass of driverless cars, commutes get more efficient thanks to the irrationality of people being taken out of the equation. Which means suburbs can be designed differently.


        The following assumes that a few bits of technology already in existence become a bit more mature (which I suspect they will):

        1) Hydrogen Fuel cell or batteries that are much more efficient than the ones we have now.
        2) Common modular chassis design (the common chassis is already in existence, but the modularity is still being worked on).

        If I have a fleet of driverless cars, I don’t need to settle on SUVs or Smart cars, I need to have two modular chassis, big & small. The small chassis can accept a variety of small bodies (smart car, coupe, small sedan, small truck), and the large chassis, large bodies (large sedan, SUV, large truck). Changing bodies should be pretty easy, possibly even something that can be automated. So the depot, when it get’s an order for an SUV, grabs a large chassis, and slaps an SUV body on it. You set prices such that you don’t have people ordering SUVs or vans for a trip to the grocery store to get a loaf of bread.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq says:

          How do you think driverless cars will change the design of suburbs? I really see no reason why suburbs would lose their cul-de-sacs and strict zoning with driverless cars.

          Potentially, the biggest change would be that parking lots and garages in the commercial areas or in the urban areas would disappear because you could just hail a driverless car to pick you up. This would lead to the creation of new downtown areas in the form of denser edge cities rather than sprawling office park complexes and shopping centers. There are reasons to be doubtful about this.Report

        • Avatar DavidTC says:

          If I have a fleet of driverless cars, I don’t need to settle on SUVs or Smart cars, I need to have two modular chassis, big & small. The small chassis can accept a variety of small bodies (smart car, coupe, small sedan, small truck), and the large chassis, large bodies (large sedan, SUV, large truck). Changing bodies should be pretty easy, possibly even something that can be automated. So the depot, when it get’s an order for an SUV, grabs a large chassis, and slaps an SUV body on it.

          I’m having a hard time seeing this as any sort of cost effective move. Something like half of the cost of the car is *in* the body. Even if we assume this system costs *nothing* to do, it’s hard to convince me that it’s better to own 10 small chassis and 5 smart car, 5 coupe, 5 sedan, and 5 small truck bodies, which lets you rent a grand total of 10 cars at a time, vs just owning 15 frickin cars, so you can rent *15* at a time.

          And this is assume these modular system cost exactly the same as a normal car, but in pieces. They obviously won’t, nor will it be free to piece the cars together.

          Yes, some people might want a smart car and end up with a sedan…but, uh, frankly, you’re offering too much choice there to start with! One model of car, one model of SUV, one model of small truck, all built on the same general chassis so you can save on repairs. (And leave the large trucks to frickin U-Haul.)

          You want cars that are assembled on the fly, I’d suggest a system that let you swap out *batteries* on the fly, which would let the cars get back on the road faster. Maybe even a system where someone renting the car could sacrifice the trunk or part of the truck bed and get another battery added in there.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


            This is what I am thinking of.

            Can’t go too into it tonight, but the body would be a small fraction of the cost because it would be much simpler to construct.Report

            • Avatar DavidTC says:

              Can’t go too into it tonight, but the body would be a small fraction of the cost because it would be much simpler to construct.

              …*why*? Why do you think the body would be a small fraction of the price?

              I mean, hell, when you said chassis swapping out, I was thinking things like the motor, air conditioning and maybe even the steering wheel and dash being part of the chassis. Maybe even the front part of the frame.

              But this…this is talking about, basically, every single part of the car except the motor, drive train, and wheels swapping out.

              Right now, engines cost between 10%-20% of the car. Transmissions are about the same.

              I have a feeling those bodies aren’t going to be as cheap, percentage-wise as you think they are. (It’s worth pointing out, right now, two cars with identical chassis and different bodies can cost up to 4x different in price.)

              Granted, that chassis you pointed out might be more expensive because it includes the battery…but including the battery is exactly what car rental places *shouldn’t* do. If it’s built-in like that, that means you can’t just swap it out for the next customer. The *batteries* are what you have spares of and swap out for new customers, not keep the battery and swap out the rest of the car! It’s going in exactly the *wrong* direction.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Regarding the waste that is private car ownership, I heard something like there are 3 parking spots in America for every car. I don’t know if that includes street parking (especially in suburbs) and driveways, but the amount of space we devote to storing cars that aren’t being used — space itself which often isn’t being used by unused cars — is kind of scary. Now, obviously, there is a huge issue with the distribution of those spaces… NYC has too few of them, Texas has too many… but again, the idea that we have a few hundred million cars, most of which are unused for 90% of the day, and during that time they sit in a spot doing nothing, and that we have 3 times as many of those spots as cars is mind boggling in some ways.Report

  6. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    It’s a little too pat, the idea that transit sucks because Rich Republican Racists.

    I’d say that it sucks because the people designing the systems have very specific ideas about How The World Should Be, and they design transit systems that fit very nicely into those ideas (and, they hope, will encourage things to develop, the way that a gardener puts up a trellis to train a vine.)

    What ends up happening is that you get things like the Santa Clara Valley VTA Light Rail, where all the major lines go through the middle of San Jose with no grade separation, and yet it doesn’t go to the San Jose airport, and it stops at the outskirts of Mountain View instead of the parts where all the businesses are.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      Transit also sucks because of Rich Democratic Racists and Middle Class Racists of all stripes scared that those ‘types’ will have an easy way to get to the good parts of town and pillage.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I’d say that it sucks because the people designing the systems have very specific ideas about How The World Should Be, and they design transit systems that fit very nicely into those ideas (and, they hope, will encourage things to develop, the way that a gardener puts up a trellis to train a vine.)

      Spoken like someone who has no idea how transportation systems get designed.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        Neither do transportation designers.

        Well, that’s not fair, they do know how. They know that they design good systems based upon sound science & geographic & demographic data, and then those systems get into the hands of politicians who proceed to FUBAR them into uselessness.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Right. Transportation experts know quite well what an efficient, useful transportation system looks like, and they would love to build such a system in an American city, but that ain’t gonna happen.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Just to be clear, Transportation Experts are people with degrees in Civil Engineering or the like, who understand the technical details of how an urban infrastructure is assembled & interacts. They are not transportation/urbanist geeks who read some crap on Vox and now have some “Really Good Ideas” on how to build a transportation network.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              There are some very smart and knowledgeable transportation/urbanists geeks who could design better transportation systems than just about anything we have in this country now. But they’ll never get a chance.

              This isn’t to say everyone who calls him or herself an urbanist could do it, but there are a bunch who could.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Less snarkily, here’s what happens when a major transportation project is initiated:

        First, there’s a bunch of testimony about what the new major transportation should look like from a variety of experts and non-experts, some hired by the city or county (depending on what level we’re talking about), with those in particular likely to be hired at least in part for their, er, “theoretical” outlook on major transportation projects. Then a planning commission is formed, which will include said experts, token members of the community (likely to be highly invested transportation/urbanist geeks who will be thoroughly frustrated by the fact that no one on the commission listens to them), business leaders, other business leaders, along with some business leaders, and the head of the local transportation organization(s), and some business leaders. They’ll hold hearings, at which members of the community and business owners, along with other business owners, wealthy residents, as well as some business owners, will testify in favor or against various routes, and after months and months, perhaps even years of study and hearings, they’ll come up with a couple plans (call ’em A and B), each endorsed by different groups (of business leaders/owners). Sides will form, and experts brought into specifically to testify about how wonderful A is and how awful B is, or how wonderful B is and how awful A is, will give their unbiased opinions, business leaders/owners will weigh in, as will business leaders/owners, and the local government will ultimately make a decision based entirely on transportation concerns alone, to the extent that transportation concerns line up with those of business owners. In the end, a plan that is best for all stakeholders (who are business owners or wealthy residents) will either be implemented or sent to the next stage (e.g., for the public to vote on).

        When the transportation system is finished, riders and would-be riders will complain about how awful it is, but the money’s spent, and we won’t be able to afford another major transportation project for years.

        Put differently: transportation planning is not about liberal utopian dreams, it’s about pacifying a variety of wealthy, influential stakeholders, mostly businesses and wealthy residents in neighborhoods that don’t want buses or trains coming through, don’t want the disruptions of multi-year construction projects, do want trains but don’t want to have to pay more in taxes, etc. If transportation activists got to build their ideal systems, you’d see radically different public transportation systems in the U.S. (they’d look a lot more like they do in some cities in Colombia and Brazil).Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          Good post, thank you!

          Although it does also sound like a complaint that we don’t have true Scots designing our transportation systems. (And that’s a good thing because who wants a train that only goes to the golf course and has a piper instead of a horn?)Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            If that sounds like a no true Scotsman argument to you, perhaps we should go over what a no true Scotsman argument means.

            I’m quite sure that there are a bunch of liberals with utopian dreams who work on transportation planning projects for cities across the country. I know a few who’ve worked on them here. It’s just not their utopian dreams that determine what the project looks like, because they are not the only, and are certainly not the most powerful stakeholders involved.Report

    • Avatar LWA says:

      Actually I have witnessed both ideas in action.

      When the subject of transportation is raised, it becomes a battle of interests competing for money and power.
      No one, repeat absolutely no one, outside of some isolated theorists, thinks the government should do nothing.
      Everyone agrees that there should be publicly created roads, trains, subways, buses and such, to go somewhere.

      So the type of transit chosen, its route, the financing, and operation depends entirely on the local political makeup.Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy says:

    This feels like a giant question-beg… Are we sure that transportation is seen as social welfare? In NYC (the system I’m most familiar with), everyone utilizes the subway. There does seem to be a bit of a divide about bus use, but if anything this screws the people unwilling to use it. At times, the cross town busses are the best way to travel between the east and west sides. If you limit yourself to the subway, you’re likely making multiple transfers. If you don’t want to do that, you’re walking or paying for a cab.

    I certainly see public transportation as a public good but I have never, ever thought of it as social welfare and have never heard anyone seriously discuss it as such.

    ETA: And the system certainly seems to cater to wealthier interests. More service in Manhattan, especially downtown and in midtown. The 2nd Avenue line has been revived not to help the denizens of Spanish Harlem but because the 4-5-6 on the UES was too crowded/too far. And everyone knows that rents increase as you get closer to subway stations, sometimes absurdly so. If the NYC transportation system is designed to be social welfare, they’re not doing a good job of it. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t still offer quality service to middle- and lower-income folks; just that it clearly isn’t designed with their needs and interests prioritized.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I think it is better to divide American transportation systems between the pre-World War II systems and the post-World War II systems. New York’s system was started and built in large part before World War I ended even though a good chunk of it was also built during the 1920s and 1930s. When New York City started to build the subway, the car was still for the wealthy rather than for everybody. It was designed to take people to and from Manhattan because one of it’s purposes was to decrease Manhattan’s population and increase that of the outer boroughs, particularly the Bronx and Queens, which were still rural when they became part of New York.

      After World War II, New York kept the subway because it was necessary but had a difficult time expanding it because New York State and the Federal government were mainly interested in building highways. So was the very powerful Robert Moses who hated mass transit and thought the car was the way of the future. The Second Avenue subway was not built not because of racism, it is going to serve a lot of wealthy areas to, but because New York City could never get the necessary funding to build it from New York State or the Federal government. The same was true for the other planned extensions. People still use the system because New York would be a nightmare if you had to drive everywhere but it suffered from pro-car/anti-transit politics.

      The newer cities that bloomed after the Second World War treated mass transit as a social services issues. Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Charlotte, and many other cities are basically sprawling suburbs under one government. Residential density was low and most of the transportation spending was on roads and the car. Public transportation was an after thought and sop to the poor. It was definitely seen as a social service, so the poor could have some mobility, rather as a way to get people around and reduce congestion on the roads. The new booming cities of the South and West dealt with traffic by building more highways and roads rather than trying to get people to use transit more. It was assumed that people would drive alone if they could.

      Atlanta only built MARTA because they were basically forced to by the federal government to reduce the horrible levels of air pollution caused by the cars and freeways. Many suburban counties opted entirely out because they didn’t want easy access from poor, read African-American people, from Atlanta. The racist joke is that MARTA stands for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta shows what White people in Atlanta tend to think about MARTA.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Fair points. But you made a very subtle shift there… from social welfare to social service. Transportation is and should be seen as a social service. But I’m not sure the case has been made that it is perceived (or functions as) social welfare.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq says:

          Transportation is a social service in the same way that all government services are social services because they are for the people. What transportation should not be seen as is something for the poor. Transportation should be about moving people and good in an efficient manners.

          I think it is pretty clear that even in a low density, sprawl development can have bad traffic if everybody has to drive everywhere if there are enough people to put hundreds of thousands or millions of cars on the road. It is also bad for the environment big time. We can’t have everybody on the road and in a car alone. Mass transit in the form of buses, trains, and trams are necessary to move people and goods more efficiently.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:


            Who is it that you think sees public transportation as social welfare for poor people? And, more importantly, why is this problematic?

            Because I bet dollars to donuts that if the powers-that-be said, “Let’s only run subways and busses to the nice parts of town,” you’d object.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq says:

              In most parts of the country, public transportation is seen as a social service for people who can not afford cars. Go to City Labs and look up a thread about transit or suburbs. The comments section will always include at least one poster arguing that the suburbs are for the self-sufficient people who can afford cars and that those that can’t afford them should stick to the cities.

              Its problematic to see public transportation as social welfare for poor people because it leads to public transportation being poorly designed, not well-funded, and generally ignored like most other specifically for poor people programs. If public transportation was seen as for everybody regardless of income and just another way to get around than funding would be better because it would lack or at least have fewer class and race markers.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:


                So let me ask, since my familiarity with public transportation is limited to Boston, NYC, and DC, all of which seem to be outliers: In these other cities, is the public transportation actually designed for poor folks? That is to say, does it run through the poorer parts of town? Run with relatively high frequency during “off-peak” hours to accommodate folks with non-standard hours? Or is it designed for middle- and upper-income folks in those areas but then funded like the red-headed step child of the system?Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Kazzy: Are we sure that transportation is seen as social welfare? In NYC (the system I’m most familiar with), everyone utilizes the subway.

        Having been to a number of metropolitan cities, I would say a lot of people see buses as used primarily by poor people who don’t have cars and subways as middle-class transport.

        And low and behold, whenever I go to a city, I almost always use the subway everywhere and almost never use a bus.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:


          It is interesting, because I grew up in a part of NJ that wasn’t really serviced by the train but was serviced by the bus and was really the only form of public transportation into Manhattan (for both commuters and people just looking to go). So I grew up riding the bus. And it wasn’t just to the city… we’d ride the bus to the mall or to another town’s main street if we were so inclined. So when I encountered the mindset that, “Well, you just don’t ride the bus,” it seemed foreign to me and I had no interest in adopting it. Of course, it was expressed to me by my fairly hoity girlfriend who grew up in the Bay Area suburbs and then a ritzy subdevelopment in San Antonio (she constantly reminded me that Tim Duncan was her neighbor). So as both an out-of-towner and someone with a fairly narrow worldview, I didn’t take her mindset to be representative. Apparently, it is.

          The thing is, I don’t know how you make bus service much better. Dedicated lanes? NYC has many of those during rush hour but I’m not sure how well it is enforced (with enforcement probably exacerbating traffic). A very real downside — and something which I think makes bus travel objectively inferior at least from the rider’s perspective — is that it needs to compete with other street traffic. But NYC’s bus service — at least the ones I’ve ridden — seem to more or less work as well as they can in a traffic ensnarled city more than a century old. So the extent to which people legitimately object — “It’s slow!” “It sits in traffic!” — seems both accurate and inherent to that particular mode of transportation. Of course, it has it’s benefits. You’ll never get stuck on a bus; if shit goes wrong, they can let you off just about anywhere. Compare that to being stuck around in the subway. As currently constructed, the bus routes go to many places the subway doesn’t, including across town in Manhattan and to LaGuardia airport. And if needs shift, you can change a bus route with the stroke of a pen; try doing that with a subway.

          I guess what I’m saying is that the bus system in NYC is not without it’s faults but those seem pretty inherent to bus systems in major cities. It also has benefits that people unwilling to ride the bus miss out on. And while I’m less familiar with DC and Boston’s systems, I have ridden the busses in both those places and would say the experience is more or less similar.

          And, as it so happens, I obviously have no issue riding the bus. Even in cities I’m unfamiliar with. In Austin, I believe the bus from the airport is like $2… why would I pay 10x that for a taxi? Idiots.Report

          • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

            @kazzy ,
            I should clarify that *I* am not anti-bus. I used one heavily for my first job out of college to get into town. The advantages you list over subways are valid, and buses for most cities are far more cost effective than subways on a per-rider basis. I am merely stating the perception among many people that subways are totally normal and somewhat hip to use while buses are not so considered.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC says:

      NYC’s treatment of the subway is the exception that proves the rule. In cities where the middle class think nothing of hoping on the subway…the subway is well funded.

      And in America, those cities are…New York. (And, the article claims, DC.)

      In cities where only the poor ride the subway, aka, every other city…the subway is considered a social welfare service.

      And the article has a good point about how this view *not only* pits conservatives against it, but stops needed fare increases. ‘We can’t charge the poor that much!’, people gasp…so the rats stay the same, and no one is willing to spend tax dollars on it. So it just slowly crumbles.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Compare Philadelphia’s subway to the NYC subway or DC metro. In Philadelphia, the subway is more heavily associated with the poor than it is in New York City or DC and is much less well maintained.Report

      • Avatar nevermoor says:

        Too simplistic.

        In SF, for example, there are a bunch of systems.

        BART is regional light rail and, in my view, is generally used by upper and middle class East Bay folks to get into SF during rush hour (where it can easily save you 30 minutes each way vs. driving). Certainly not the exclusive use, of course.

        MUNI Trains are in-city rail (part above and part under ground). The system is far less functional than BART, and is a touch cheaper for stops it serves. It too, however, is primarily used to get upper and middle class folks to work downtown (be that financial district, SOMA, or whatever)

        MUNI buses serve a huge number of routes in dramatically different ways, and their ridership reflects that. Some lines (say, the 1 line’s express buses) are almost all rich folks getting to work while others serve almost exclusively as affordable transit for the city’s poor (say, the non-express 1 line, or the 38).

        Other regional systems have their own ridership profiles (the bus I take, GGT, basically serves like BART-without-skipping-traffic for those of us in the North Bay who don’t get BART and is a small time tradeoff for a huge dollar savings).

        I suspect a problem with this conversation is that everyone thinks their personal experience generalizes, so we are all talking past each other. Transit is too complicated for any one-size-fits-all solution (except, perhaps, driverless cars)Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        @nevermoor has it right. SF is pretty complicated and lots of people who would be considered middle class and above use the busses and light rail because it is easier if you live in the city and work downtown. They might not use it on the weekend though but it depends. I’d be interested to see if MUNI’s rideship went down for nightlife activities.

        Lots of cities also have commuter rail during peak hours. NAPA and Marin are developing their own rail line for commuting,

        But the US is big and there are plenty of places like Seattle where the lack of transit or less than great transit seems to be a big issue. DJW at LGM frequently talks about Seattle’s bad transit. I know people use the T in Boston-Metro for work and other purposes but it also gets horrible reviews and eneds more of an update than the NYC subway.Report

        • Seattle traffic makes Bay Area traffic look light. Which can be nice at times. On my last trip there, I really got to know a co-worker during out one-hour drive from the office (in Seattle) to the ballpark (also in Seattle.)Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        Hey, guys, I was just repeating what the article says. Having never been to SF, I’ve no idea of how mass transit works there.

        I suspect the general principle holds, though.

        Because, in the US, the policy preferences of the poor are almost completely ignored, and obvious failures they know about will be ignored also. So if there is a transit system that is mostly used by the poor, *it* will be almost completely ignored and have really stupid failings.

        This is almost prima facie obvious, not even needing evidence. But the evidence says it’s true.

        Meanwhile, transit systems that are used by the middle class will be mostly functional. See: The roads. Also, the NY subways. If that is who is riding the buses and trains in SF, than *they* will be functional also.

        And, of course, forms of transit used by the upper class will be as near perfect as we can make them. (For example, making private jets passengers exempt from security.)

        Side note: I was trying to remember the mass transit systems I knew about, and I remembered the oddest mass transit system ever: The Vegas monorail. The damn thing serves no purpose at all, it’s basically ‘Hey, would you like to ride behind all the hotels on the strip?’ It doesn’t even go to the damn airport. It’s basically a theme park ride that’s pretending to be a mass transit system.Report

        • Avatar nevermoor says:

          If that is who is riding the buses and trains in SF, than *they* will be functional also.

          Again, doesn’t follow. If you’ve been stuck in the daily MUNI traffic jam (underground, no less!) for 15 minutes you wouldn’t assume it’s well run. It also isn’t definitionally true that lines used by the poor are undervalued. The 38 (and the Van Ness) lines both qualify, and service is quite solid. And we built light rail on third street at a time when that would exclusively serve lower income areas.

          I’m not saying other systems can’t fit your description, just that it’s a lot more complicated when you get past the platitude level.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      ” If the NYC transportation system is designed to be social welfare, they’re not doing a good job of it.”

      That’s the joke. The point of the article is “Americans see public transport as social welfare and because America is racist and hates poor people, they make public transport awful on purpose“.Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    GreaterGreaterWashington promoted this Vox story earlier in the week. But today, even they reached a breaking point and pinned the blame not on society, or economics, or racism, or Republicans, but attrocious managementReport

    • Avatar Chris says:

      This remains the problem in Austin, even after poor management cost the city many tens of millions in the mid-to-late Aughts. The reason is clear, too: transit system managers are hired by local politicians who prize willingness to play ball over management ability.Report

      • Avatar Joe Sal says:

        The kick backs typically travel from the contractors to the cosultants most of the time, so its not about better design, its the one the contractor can maximize the most profit from.

        Of course most of this occurs in cities which are the gravity wells of rent seek of the modern world. If you want 200 people to work in a layer of your production but don’t want them to pass the transportation costs on to your company, you will need public transportation to cut that cost for you.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Here the process was pretty clear: the city developed a fairly abstract plan based on what certain moneyed interests wanted, and then hired experts who’d build and defend such a plan, despite its obvious inadequacy. The result was a pretty big defeat in last November’s elections, because the only people who liked it were the people who lived on the proposed route (a pretty small group, considering most of its route was in areas without much housing) and the powerful folks who pushed for that route.

          The sad thing about Austin’s situation is that everyone knows where the best place to put a train was, including the politicians and planners who chose not to put the proposed train anywhere near there.Report

  9. Avatar Damon says:

    Even when it’s “good” it’s often times “not good”.

    You know, ’cause they can’t seem to hire folks that know how to do their job.

    I fail to see why I should take mass transit and spend twice the amount of time commuting” AND spending more money than driving myself–and that’s with the cost of parking considered.

    And it’s not flexible. Lots of folks commute suburb to suburb, not “into town” and back out. But I will agree on the “rural” senators impact.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      It would cost you more to take public transportation than to drive? Damn.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        That math is really hard to figure.

        Taking the most direct route into Manhattan costs me $5.50 in tolls round trip (this is a discount for using EZPass). Depending on where I’m going and the traffic at that time, I could use between 1 and 3 gallons of gas (my car isn’t all that great on gas mileage). So I could get in and out for as little as $8.50 or upwards of $20. Then there is parking which can cost you an arm and a leg or can be had for free depending on a variety of factors.

        Taking public transportation can range in costs between $6 and $25 if you aren’t taking advantage of any bulk discounts.

        But the former numbers don’t take into account things like the cost of the car, insurance, maintenance, wear and tear, and the like. But those are hard to factor in because I’d own the car regardless and pay pretty much the same insurance rates regardless. But that isn’t true for all people.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          ” the former numbers don’t take into account things like the cost of the car, insurance, maintenance, wear and tear, and the like.”

          If you’re going to roll these into the calculation then you also need to factor in the value of your time. If I take the bus and it takes a half-hour extra over my commute, then that’s an hour I can’t get overtime pay*.

          * I recognize that this doesn’t apply to everyone who commutes, but if we’re considering everything then we have to consider everythingReport

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        My commute to work is 7 miles. My car gets about 17 MPG (Subaru Tribeca). So I spend, in gas, about $3/day driving to work. Factor in insurance, wear & tear, etc, and it’s a bit more than $3/day.

        The bus, one way, is $2.75.

        Now, I went into Seattle & got my disabled pass, and now the bus is $1.00, no matter what. With that, at least 3 days a week, I take the bus (the other two I have to take bug to swim lessons).Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        This site takes a pretty comprehensive, if somewhat Vancouver, BC-centric, view of costs and benefits of different modes of transportation.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:


          I save a great deal of money by taking the bus, but I don’t just use it for my commute, I use it for everything, so I have no car payments, no insurance payments, no fuel costs, no maintenance costs. Plus I walk everywhere that’s close enough to walk, which does cost me a bit in shoes, but is great for body and mind.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:


            How do you manage the boy sans car? I’d ditch mine and go Zip if I didnt have my guys. But I have two wee ones so it’s different.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              The teenager has been riding since he was a toddler, when I used to take the university shuttles. He rides by himself now. The only problem I ever had when he was younger was keeping him occupied while we waited for buses.

              His little brother loves riding buses and begs me to take him on them. Until recently, he was free, too.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                So you and he both live on pubtrans? Baller.

                Mayo is easy to travel with. A diaper bag (or just some diapers and wipes in a bag) is usually sufficient. But, oy, Little Marcus Allen — and the two of them together! –practically require a caravan. And I pack light! You should see Zazzy… She can’t manage without a tank-sized double stroller.

                Mayo loves the train. I’ll post some videos.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                She lives in a suburb and drives. We initially meet on the southernmost route, which just happens to be a straight shot to my north Austin place. We ride, and the 7-year old thinks it’s the best day ever.Report

    • Avatar LWA says:

      Then you shouldn’t take mass transit, if it doesn’t work for you.

      This is where I part ways with some of my liberal brethren, in that things like mass transit and environmentalism become personal virtues.
      There have been a few articles recently, I believe in Jacobin or Baffler, asserting that it is, in the end, counterproductive to position riding the bus or recycling as a moral virtue, since that allows it to be removed from the world of public decisions and choices. It allows us to imagine that the government is a neutral actor when in fact it is always a partial force in one direction or another.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        @lwa @chris

        Not only in Dollar cost but in time spent, was mass transit more.

        Now, in my current job, it’s almost impossible to take mass transit. I go suburb to suburb, so taking transit would require that I drive to a station, go south into the hub, then back north to near my office, then a buss to near the office and then walk. I figure it’d take 2 hours easy vs a 45 min drive.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Man, bus/train prices must be outrageous where you are.

          Though if you go suburb to suburb, the transportation system probably isn’t for you.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            According to Google Maps, if I were to take public transit for my (<15 minute car drive, sans traffic; 45 minutes – 1 hr, with) office commute, it would take 2 hours.

            I suspect that is a best-case scenario, where all the stars line up, and in reality it’d be closer to 3 hours most of the time, though it looks like if I worked evenings I could sometimes make it in 90 minutes – though I’d have no way home, since they don’t run all night.Report

            • Avatar nevermoor says:

              Wheareas my public transit system adds about 10 minutes per direction and saves me $30/day vs. driving.

              If we’re using anecdotes to make points, I think I just proved transit is awesome!Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              I imagine you’re in a situation similar to Damon’s, then, where on a bus/train you’d be going out of your way to catch another bus to get to where you need to go.

              Except perhaps in a city like NY, where traffic is itself a nightmare, public transportation almost always takes longer than driving, but a jump from 45 minutes to 2-3 hours is insane, and suggests either living on the outskirts of the service area or having an absolutely terrible public transportation system.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                As with what @lwa is saying above, the thing to remember is this; even when properly designed, public transit, as we currently do it, is meant to move the move people in the most popular directions. So if the majority volume of commuter traffic is into the city in the morning, and out again in the evening, that is exactly how the bulk of the busses & trains should work.

                Demanding a system that gets everyone to anywhere they want to go whenever they want, and in a timely fashion will require driverless cars or a complete overhaul of our transit infrastructure.Report

              • Avatar Damon says:

                The other thing to remember is that transit is designed to move people from certain areas to other specific areas (those popular ones you mentioned). Take DC’s metro. There are lots of metro stops in Montgomery County that one can use to get into DC or other places, but if live farther out, then you’re only recourse is to drive to a metro stop and park your car there and take the metro. Also, since metro is essentially a hub and spoke, if I wanted to go to Dulles, I’d have to go into Union Station switch trains and then head out vs driving around the capital beltway. Given times, that might be cheaper or faster. Depends. But the metro is not set up to go from, say Prince Georges county to Montgomery county quickly.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                However, just comparing time to time isn’t the only metric to consider. The idea of jumping on the train and reading for an hour (and drinking for part of that because, hey, you can drink on Metro North!) versus fighting through traffic and circling to park — even if the latter saves me time — can change the calculus… depending on your personal preferences. Which is why saying one-size-fits-all in terms of perspective on public transportation is silly.

                Before moving and changing jobs, I had a 20 minute commute door-to-door with zero traffic and parking lots at work (yay, the sticks!). Now I’ll have about an hour commute on two trains (one light rail, one subway) each way. So I technically am “losing” 80 minutes a day. But I see it as gaining two hours during which I can read, do work, etc. I’d still *probably* take my old commute over my new one (all things being equal), but if we were comparing, say, 90 minutes roundtrip to 40, I would not prefer the drive.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            DC has one of the most expensive heavy rail systems in the US, exacerbated by the fact that the outer stations should really be light rail/commuter rail. But, as DC wasn’t really populated until the car age, there’s much less legacy rail stock to piggyback off of like they do in the rest of the NE corridor.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        It allows us to imagine that the government is a neutral actor when in fact it is always a partial force in one direction or another.

        (I had a really long comment in response to this, that I clicked away and lost. I will try to re-create it now, but if this comment is stupid, then I will just say that the comment that was lost was the GREATEST COMMENT OF ALL TIME, and never shall we see its like again.)

        This is a theme you return to a lot on a lot of policy questions, that government is not neutral, and so why pretend that it is?

        (And your harping on this theme has prompted a lot of thought on my part, so thanks, seriously!)

        While I agree that no ideal can ever be met in reality (after all, that is why they are called “ideals” and not “for reals”), I disagree that it necessarily follows that we should quickly discount or disregard that ideal.

        I think government ought to strive to follow a sort of “Hippocratic Oath”; just as with “First, do no harm”, there will be times when the principle cannot be followed, by error or by choice (to prevent or correct a worse harm).

        But just like you want your doctor keeping that “non-harm” principle in the forefront of his mind at all times to guide all subsequent decisions, I think we’d want a government that is shooting for neutrality at all times, even if it does not always get there; and in fact at certain times needs to contravene “neutrality” actively – say, with something like Affirmative Action.

        But such measures should be hopefully rare, and hopefully temporary, and hopefully of last resort.

        And if they are exceptions to the normal setup, then we should also be wary of later utilizing them as precedents for other actions.Report

        • Avatar LWA says:

          Oh absolutely we want the government to be as neutral as possible.

          Just don’t imagine that there is some bright shining line that eliminates our personal, and cultural biases.

          For instance, we can assert that the government should be neutral and not favor one religion over another. Fine.


          The courts rule on what is, or is not, a bona fide religion. (Catholicism? FSM? Yesterdayism?)
          What is, or is not, covered religious freedom. (Male circumcision? Female circumcision? Sacrificing my son Isaac?).

          And so on and so forth. All of these court rulings are the result of societal norms, which is to say, the agglomeration of our personal and cultural intuitions and biases.

          This is something that I learned from civil rights and feminism, that there are structural biases even in ostensibly neutral and objective rules.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          So this is not the greatest comment ever written, this is just a tribute?Report

    • Avatar DavidTC says:

      Meanwhile, my ‘taking’ mass transit to Atlanta (Or, rather, driving 45 minutes and then taking a train for the last 30) is slightly slower unless it’s rush hour, but it’s cheaper. A round trip on MARTA is $5, with free parking, whereas parking in Atlanta is, at best, $8, usually closer to $15. (Plus whatever gas I save.)

      This is, of course, presuming I’m going somewhere without free parking, which is true of me, because I’m going to a theatre or a con or some event, but it’s probably not true of the people who *work* in Atlanta.

      So, basically, it all depends.Report

  10. Avatar Stillwater says:

    The question remains about how transportation got seen as a social welfare program above a social welfare service instead of as a transportation service

    I don’t know about the origins except to note that in contemporary times the opposition’s logic comes down to dollars and sense: people who need those services are precisely the ones who aren’t gonna fund them (ie, pay their fare (heh) share), and America HATES people getting something for nothin. Bootstraps and all that.

    and whether this pattern can be stopped.

    No, I don’t think it can, actually. I mean, it’s possible, just incredibly unlikely. And not even necessarily for political reasons. Economics really comes into play on this stuff, seems to me.Report

  11. Avatar D Clarity says:

    “London charges more per a fare but cities have ways of keeping costs low per a ride for lower income people”

    “The question remains about how transportation got seen as a social welfare program”

    Umm….can’t help you.Report

  12. DensityDuck: I’d say that it sucks because the people designing the systems have very specific ideas about How The World Should Be

    It’s more because the pots of money aren’t big enough to splat down a lot of lines all at the same time and the people designing the systems end up needing to find ways to coax as much bang for the buck as possible out of a single line. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that well (I am amazed that San Jose is still plugging along trying to expand their system) but that’s more the exception than the rule.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      San Jose hasn’t expanded their light rail system in quite a while. They *are* expanding BART down from Fremont and connecting it to light rail in the northern part of the city (and the original plan was to take it all the way to the middle of downtown, but then 2008 happened and nobody had any money anymore.)Report