Lileks explores transit trends

James Lileks explains for National Review Online why the political class’s faith in transit makes little sense.

Summary of a Washington Post op-ed in my local paper: “Transit use remains disappointing because driving is too cheap.”

They mean that in a bad way.

If there’s a story about “Transit,” they don’t mean cars. Cars are just solipsistic carbon-barfing capsules that move selfish people around. Transit means communal boxes, preferably on rails. When they talk about transit options, they mean buses (ick!) and bikes (yay!) and streetcars, which are romantic and sustainable and everyone takes them in Europe. Ergo: You there with the two-car garage — pony up. Do you really have to read the article to know that’s where it’s going? Slowly? Stopping at every corner?

“Drivers impose costs on society — in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads — that they don’t pay for,” say the authors, assistant professors all. …

… Look: In my ideal urban world, I walk out the front door, a trolley clatters up, I swing on board, the conductor touches his cap, and off we go! But this world also requires that I don’t have a child to pick up from school, an errand to run 20 miles away, groceries to fetch, soccer game after supper, and so on. I do not live in a European city in a flat the size of my college dorm room with a fridge that makes R2D2 look like Optimus Prime.

In their heyday, streetcars opened up distant neighborhoods to colonization, created commercial nodes where they paused, and knit the city together with cheap efficiency. They also blocked traffic, because they couldn’t pull over; they required an unsightly lattice-work of wires over the street; they were drafty in the winter, and went broke because the city regulated the fares and kept them cheap until all the blood drained out of the company. When the buses replaced the trolleys the people were happy: They were new and modern; they could pull over at a stop and let traffic pass. And the wires were gone. Hallelujah!

Now the wires are back up for the light rail. There’s a big push to bring back streetcars, which are just like buses, except they require iron lines in the pavement and wires overhead, and can’t be rerouted. But dang, they look fine in promotional brochures and videos. A millennial who might move here to get a job as a web designer at a nonprofit looks at those pictures and thinks: These are the signs of enlightenment. President Obama himself paid a visit to a refurbished train station in neighboring St. Paul, to praise our forward-looking transit strategy, right on the day they tested a stretch of the new line that links downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The car derailed. But hey. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single misstep.

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