The trouble with transit? Automobiles

  • Article by: D.J. TICE
  • Updated: April 7, 2014 - 9:36 AM

They’re just too darn convenient. And at least some urban advocates know it.

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The No. 6 Metro Transit bus on a morning in March.

English journalist G.K. Chesterton was no reflexive admirer of newfangled things. But in 1925 he detected some virtue in the transportation revolution of his day.

“The Ford car,” Chesterton wrote, “… is a complete contradiction to the fatalistic talk about inevitable combination and concentration. The railway is fading before our eyes … and the railway really was a communal … mode of travel like that in a Utopia of the Socialists. The free and solitary traveller is returning before our very eyes … having recovered to some extent the freedom of the King’s highway in the manner of Merry England … The Ford destroys … all the theories about the collective thing as a thing of the future and the individual thing as a thing of the past.”

The theories didn’t stay destroyed. Today, the “collective thing” — transit, rail and otherwise — is growing anew, to fashionable acclaim, while the “free and solitary” motorist is a villain of the age.

Even so, “transit is in trouble,” according to academic transit advocates who wrote an intriguing Washington Post commentary reprinted on these pages March 22. David King, Michael Manville and Michael Smart confronted a reality that transit advocates often seem eager to deny. It’s the reality that the automobile remains what it was in Chesterton’s time, a liberating form of transportation against which transit is hard-pressed to compete.

King and company sought to derail predictable celebration among transit devotees over new statistics showing transit use at an all-time high. Adjusted for population and total travel, they demurred, transit use in fact is going nowhere and remains “a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.”

The authors dismissed a widespread claim that we are seeing “a fundamental change in American travel behavior: a nation moving away from driving.” Yet they long to see exactly that. They just think their fellow transit promoters need to recognize that achieving this vision will require them not just to build transit systems but to undermine the attractiveness of the car by raising the cost of driving, through higher fuel taxes, tolls for road use and more.

Eliminating all the “subsidies” they believe cars receive will be “hard work, politically,” they concede.

That staggering understatement aside, the professors embraced an aggressive anti-auto agenda more forthrightly than most New Urbanists care to.

It is easier to build transit lines and hope for spontaneous “fundamental change” than to declare war on America’s car culture. But here in the Twin Cities, transit advocates are lately discovering just how hard the political toil can become merely to win approval for a transit line — in the tortuous journey of the Southwest light-rail corridor.

With the Met Council poised to approve its “shallow tunnel” route for the long-planned Southwest line through the Minneapolis Kenilworth corridor, a collision looms with fierce opposition from neighbors and bike trail users in that lake-bejeweled part of town, who happen to include some DFL movers and shakers.

What’s fascinating is to recall how the nearly completed Central Corridor light-rail line along University Avenue overcame resistance from mighty institutions like the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio. A more uncompromising political obstacle, it turns out, are the protests of a fortunate and well-connected few — at least when the politicians involved fail to demand compromise.

However the Southwest struggle ends, it appears that local transit advocates plan soon to steer in a new direction, away from major rail line additions and toward alternatives such as urban streetcars and various enhancements of bus service. If so, the shift may allow for some basic contemplation of the strengths of the competition — the individual thing, the car — and for focusing transit development on matching those strengths where it can.

We are often told that today’s young people are eager to jettison auto-dependent lifestyles, and that many elderly find driving difficult or impossible. Maybe. But young people frequently get older and have children, which could change their preferences. And many of the already old may find the standing, walking and jostling inherent in transit use out of the question long before they’re forced to give up driving. That’s part of the reason why we have handicapped parking spaces near the entrances of public buildings, and why drive-thru pharmacies are ever easier to find.

The automobile’s great advantage is that it offers point-to-point transport, for cargo and passengers, on demand. It takes you exactly where you want to go, whenever you’re ready to go there, and makes it easy to take kids and stuff along.

Transit is never going to be ideal for parents pushing a stroller or with toddlers in hand, nor for hauling home the cleaning and groceries and whatnot from a Saturday afternoon’s errands. But higher-frequency service, over more hours of the day and night, on a finer network of routes might be feasible — if the emphasis were placed on a transformed bus system.

Various forms of on-demand transit — car sharing and jitney networks and so on — might also help reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. But that can happen only if such market innovations are welcomed, not impeded as seems to have been the reflexive Minneapolis response in the recent arrival of the Lyft ride-sharing service.

As for the professors’ crusade against cheap driving, the political pileup this promises will be colossal. But there is much to be said for getting prices right. Mileage- and congestion-based fees to link the cost of building and maintaining roads more precisely to where and when and how much people drive should by rights find some sympathy among conservatives who believe rational free market choices are the best way to allocate resources.

But transit really will be in trouble if its champions go on underestimating their task in persuading people to again surrender the freedom of the King’s highway.

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