Taken for a Ride

September 3, 1996
By Peter Samuel

Taken for a Ride

Originally published in issue 7 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Sep 1996.




The transit-socialists were in full roar on PBS-TV recently in “Taken for a Ride” a hour-long piece of propaganda portraying the decline of transit and the rise of highways as the product of a mendacious conspiracy to destroy transit by General Motors, their ‘road user’ lobbyists and the highway builders. At the center of the conspiracy which was dramatized with trolley cars gathered onto burning funeral pyres was a businessman of the 1930s called Roy Fitzgerald who specialized in buying dying trolley companies, scrapping the trolleys and substituting buses made by ...you guessed it...the dread GM. And what a classic transit-socialist soundbite in the old film of network TV commentator Howard K. Smith, his voice quaking with angry indignation denouncing the Congress for blocking use of gas tax funds for transit. Transit, Smith said, was urgently needed and something “everyone wants” so it was an utter outrage that the Congress was funding highways which he said “nobody wants.” Just like “nobody wanted” the dog-eat-dog capitalism of West Germany when tens of thousands each year risked being machine-gunned at the Wall to get there from East Germany, and only the odd blown spy went the other way!

The crude ‘GM-dun-it’ stuff, a nostalgic throwback to old communist propaganda, ignores utterly the economic problems of trolley transit in the middle of the century and the fact that its riders were becoming car drivers, that housing and industry were rapidly moving outward beyond the reach of trolleys, that new trolley lines were horribly expensive to build and operate, and that the trolley companies were going broke as a result. If trolleys had been economically viable GM as a profit-driven entity would have been delighted to make and sell trolley cars. If trolleys had made financial sense PBS’ villain Roy Fitzgerald would have been unable to buy up trolley companies cheaply as he did. If trolleys had been serving the public they would have continued profitable and as a businessman Fitzgerald would have wanted to keep them, not scrap them.

In fact the only way to maintain transit service at all in most cities mid-century was (1) to have city government take them over and use taxes to subsidize them, or (2) switch to cheaper, more flexible buses. GM, Fitzgerald and the lobbyists were just being swept along in the currents of market forces, splashing around a bit, generating little local waves but they didn’t have the strength to swim against the flood.

Now the Howard K. Smiths and other transit enthusiasts in the U.S. eventually got their way in public policy in Washington. Transit was given access to the gas-tax financed highway trust funds and in the decades since federal and state governments have lavished several billion dollars yearly on transit, support that is far bigger financially than what is collected in fareboxes from real human commuters. About ten times the amount has been spent by governments per person-trip-mile on transit as has been spent per person-mile on urban roads. Yet in disregard of the planners and in spite of increased subsidized transit supply the nation’s commuters have continued to steadily desert transit for private cars. In the decade 1983 to 1993 according to USDoT data transit capacity (seat-miles) increased from 115b to 139b, a 20% increase in transit capacity. Rail transit seat-miles increased 24%, and non-rail (mostly bus) 17% [“1995 Status of the Nation’s Surface Transp. System” p66]. So those taxpayers’ billions have indeed bought extra transit capacity. The trouble is people are not using it. Passenger ridership has been bumping up and down between 36b and 38b passenger-miles a year — essentially it is stalled. So in the face of increasing capacity, the passenger/seat ratio on transit has gone from 31% in 1983 to 26% in 1993. Transit’s utilization rate declined by 16% (USDoTp72)!

The last national personal transport survey showed that the proportion of work trips involving transit continued its decades old decline. In 1990 only 5.1% of work trips in the U.S. were by transit compared to 6.2% in 1980. Signs are that the decline in mode share is continuing this decade. Work trips are declining as a proportion of total trips and in total personal trips within urban areas transit has dwindled into insignificance — 36b passenger-miles compared to about 1,250b passenger-miles by car. Transit has 2.8%. The cars on the roads provide America’s mass transportation, while transit caters to a small and diminishing minority. Taxpayers are paying for increasingly empty trains and buses for about 3% of travelers, at the same time motorists, 97%, are getting increasingly overcrowded highways.

Ah but it is all just “infatuation” with the car? “Americans fell in love with motoring machines early on and that love affair continues today... for Americans buying an automobile is still a major purchase that is driven primarily by emotion.” That was the WALL STREET JOURNAL editorializing in a special supplement on the 100th anniversary of the car earlier this year. What evidence did the JOURNAL adduce that “emotion” is the primary driver of car purchases? None. There is no evidence. It is just one of those things they say. An airhead repeating some smart talk he, or in this case she, heard somewhere. Trouble is such putdowns of ordinary folks’ car choices are used by transport-authoritarians to legitimize the trampling of people’s rights to choose their transport mode, to devise complicated policies to “manage” demand, to “support” (with other people’s money) transit, to oppose highway construction and so forth. Endlessly repeated that silly big lie about an “American love affair with the car” becomes a justification for expensive social engineering and elitist impositions, which eventually become an assault on personal freedom...

Alan E. Pisarski in his recent compendious report “Commuting in America II” [Eno Transportation Foundation 703 729 7200] tackled the love affair cliche neatly: “Americans love their automobiles about as much as they love their microwave ovens. They have them, and they use them, because they are very efficient tools. They are time-saving devices.”

The collapse of carpooling

Anyone who has ever tried carpooling knows that it also is time-consuming — to arrange, and to pick up the poolers. And poolers have to live by a constraining schedule each day that single occupant vehicle commuters avoid. Carpoolers have to be disciplined to meet up without overmuch tedious waiting for one another. By contrast solo drivers are free spirits. They go when they’re ready, stop off where they want to. And they go direct, door to door. It is Economics 101 to predict that increasing incomes and vehicle availablility will reduce carpooling. Increased dispersal of workplaces and increasingly informal approaches to working hours and freer form working arrangements will also make carpooling with its set schedules and daily routines less attractive.

Pisarski’s Eno publication reports what he calls an “extraordinary decline” in carpooling, a one third loss of mode share in the last decade, from 20% to 13% of commuters. And the loss is greatest in the real carpools. About 4/5 of the 15.4m regular ‘carpools’ in the U.S. are just two people, people who’d probably travel together regardless of HOV lanes or other preferential devices. On this someone once quipped: “A date is not a carpool.”

But if we think of HOV3 (3 or more persons in a vehicle) as a real carpool, then real carpooling is in a deep dive in spite of the opening of HOV lanes, publicity in favor of HOV and many government and corporate programs to promote and organize HOV. HOV3 commuting declined from 5.8m to 3.3m (down 43%), mode share down from 6.0% to 2.9%, 1980 to 1990.

In yet another King Canutian gesture the transport planners in Washington DC want to put an increasing number of American commuters in carpools. Under current legislation and regulations federal money is difficult to get for any expansion of urban highway capacity except for special carpool or HOV lanes — authoritarian socialist command-economy thinking dominant in Washington DC wants to make congestion in general traffic lanes so unbearable people will pool. This is a socialist policy what Thomas Sowell called the “Vision of the Annointed” attempting to remake the world in defiance of people’s wishes as revealed in market forces.

Alan Pisarski writes in his report: “Decisions regarding household location and (transport) mode to work are not made frivolously. People have sound reasons for their choices.” He notes that American commuters are resilient and innovative and simply won’t be organized by planners to do things that are unreasonable to them. He writes that policies aimed at making private auto use more expensive hurt “those on the margin of the ability to own and operate a vehicle.” These people will often react to higher car costs not by curbing car use as the planners want but by moving to an area cheaper to live, in the process aggravating the sprawl that the planners lament and claim to be against. Efforts to modify commuting behavior he says have “proven dramatically ineffective, at best” while often producing directly the opposite result of what was intended.

Like transit many new HOV lanes look as though they are going to be embarrassingly empty. The good news is their conversion to more productive uses will be relatively cheap. The HOV lanes will be able to be converted to express toll lanes, to automated highway lanes, or simply turned back into general purpose lanes. Investments in misguided transit is more difficult to recover.

Update on Caltrans Williams & TRB

Last issue we led with the sensational story of a senior California state transportation official who had written a call for a re-evaluation of the HOV-lane concept. Carl B. Williams submitted the article questioning HOV to TR NEWS, the monthly publication of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) in Washington DC six months ago. If the TRB had an interest in serious debate of transport policy in America they would have made this interesting, substantial, important, and newsworthy contribution the lead story in the next issue, editorialized that it was an important piece, and invited responses. By now we could have had an interesting and productive debate. But six months has passed and Williams is fuming over a long obscurely expressed letter he has just received from the TRB querying his article on a score of minor points and demanding explanations, justifications, reworks etc etc. TRB clearly has a policy agenda and any questioning of existing transit/HOV policies will only be published by its current staff with the greatest reluctance. There’s a double standard at TRB. Those who toe the party line (pro-collectivist transport, anti-auto) can get anything in, easily and quickly, while those who question the party line are put to slow-motion semantic combat with pedants. They are not rejected outright. That would be too blatant an exercise of censorship. Rather they are subjected to a process of editorial exhaustion — months of delays, pseudo-scientism, picky editorial questions, play peer review. Two out of three reviewers at TRB, we understand, suggested Williams piece be published as submitted, but disgracefully staff used one review with questions to block it. Williams says he cannot be bothered anymore with the TRB and will get the piece published somewhere else, so look for it some place like ENGINEERING NEWS-RECORD. Incidentally Williams is now Deputy Secretary of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency that oversees Caltrans.

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