Public transportation - the wrong antidote

By Joe Roessler
web posted March 6, 2000

"My uncle has a country place that no one knows about,
He says it used to be a farm before the motor law,
Sundays I elude the "Eyes" and hop turbine freight
To far outside the Wire, where my white haired uncle waits"

- Red Barchetta

Rush, the famed Canadian rock group, recorded the song in 1980. It was about a society that had banned automobiles and prosecuted anyone who dared to drive one. The "Red Barchetta" his uncle kept in his barn for "fifty odd years" fascinates the young man. He takes it out for a spin is chased by the police and makes it safely back to his uncle's barn. The song has a mischievous look on a future about a car-less society.

Gasoline prices are climbing to record levels but the world is not running out of oil. No one needs to be an expert to figure out that the root of the energy crises is political. Producers manipulate the market through techniques that would land any American corporation in court and it's officers in jail. But the world is not America and the ridiculous notion of suing OPEC in world court under anti-trust laws only shows denials of past misdeeds of politicians and environmentalists.

During the "energy crises" of the 70's, experts predicted the world would run out of oil by the turn of the century. Millions of dollars were spent into research and development of alternative fuels with little or no success. Shale oil mining, massive solar power plants and windmill farms were planned but never came to reality. Today, federal land grab schemes designed by politicians and environmentalists deny development of oil drilling and coal mining on public lands. The only things the Energy Department has accomplished since its inception were to create more bureaucrats and pass out public money for fruitless projects.

Whenever a crisis appears people are quick to rush to the government for solutions. Unmindful that the government is usually the initial cause of the crises. Good case in points are public transportation advocates. For years public transportation was the battering ram for anti-automobile forces as well as social engineers. Highway construction declined or came to a halt. When freeways were constructed or expanded, most went for "HOV" (High Occupancy Vehicles) lanes. Public transportation advocates and their powerful bureaucratic allies have done much to make urban driving miserable. Their illusion is for drivers to leave their cars at home and ride the bus. Have these advocates used public transportation during rush hours in places such as Tokyo?

Unfortunately many public transportation systems in America are designed for and operated with a political agenda. It is the objective of government whenever it takes on such tasks. In cities and towns passengers in buses are disguised as empty seats. Personal safety of the riding public is an issue and individual transit authorities set different schedules, fares, and routes. Bus schedules do not coincide with train schedules and vice versa. A 25-minute trip by car from Oakland to Mountain View in the Bay Area can take up to five hours using both BART and local bus systems!

In San Diego the Trolley can be looked as a success in several ways. The initial project was completed early and under budget. However it served an area of San Diego that was economically dying or dead. The first route was from downtown San Diego to the Mexican border. It benefited tourists or workers at the shipyards. Meanwhile the economy of San Diego was moving north of Interstate 8 and into North County. Transit authorities were designing a system that served areas of San Diego that were on the decline.

Many advocates point towards Europe and Japan as the forefront of public transportation. They do have an efficient, safe and clean system. However they were bombed to oblivion during the war and had to start over. What advocates in America fail to point out or purposely omit is that much of the public transportation system, when using Japan as an example, is privately owned. Transit fares reflect operating costs while quasi-government systems with lower fares are deficit ridden. The Japanese government is attempting to privatize the national railways, as much government owned lines were built as rewards for political favors. They served areas where passengers were too few to justify its existence. Private rail and bus lines also operate in areas of no profitability but keep running because they are the "feet" of the people they serve. Other transit users, not taxpayers, subsidize most of those lines. In cities such as Tokyo there is one transit authority with many agencies and companies under its umbrella. Unlike the Bay Area where each city or district has its own transit authority with schedules, routes and fares varying from one city to another.

Public transportation advocates must understand that making life miserable for motorists will not automatically force them into buses, subways or trains. In spite of Japan having one of the best public transportation systems in the world, they also have the world's worst traffic jams. Four dollars a gallon gas, triple taxation on cars with engines of two liters or more and expressways accepting credit cards at toll booths have not stopped the Japanese from using their cars.

Those who support public transportation must surrender the assumption that it will replace the automobile. They must include the private sector in planning and operations. Transit bureaucracies need to be whittled down to make them efficient and accountable. All public transportation systems must be self-sufficient where the user pays the operating cost, not the car driving or general public. And finally public transportation systems must be designed and operated for riders who will benefit and serve areas of economic activity instead of being a social development tool to revitalize dying or decayed sections of cities.

Joe Roessler is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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