Monday, December 09, 2013

Salon writer: Why can't we all travel by bus and subway?

New York City is not the United States, except to New Yorkers. Americans just don't like density! They don't like queueing at bus stops or waiting as self-loading cargo for a subway train to haul them. What the hell is the matter with them?

"Mass transit is doomed in America," says Alex Pareene in Salon, the online think tank for the refined class of modern Bolsheviks. But he doesn't mean a limited system of mass transit for those who cannot afford cars or cannot drive. He wants mass mass transit. He has a dream where we all get to work or the grocery standing in the aisle of a municipal cattle car with as many other unfortunates as can possibly be squeezed into the vehicle.
In New York state, as in the country as a whole, more resources continue to be spent on drivers and roads than buses and trains. One transit blogger has calculated that, according to how Albany allocates transportation money, “every driver is worth as much as 4.5 transit riders.” And while Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has a generally very good record on transit, there’s always been a strange tension between Bloomberg’s pedestrian and bicycle-friendly Department of Transportation and his NYPD, which has a bizarrely antagonistic relationship with bicyclists and which rarely — as in almost never — prosecutes reckless driving, speeding, or accidents leading to the death of pedestrians.
Let's agree that New York City, especially Manhattan, is not built for the automobile. Gridlock is rarely more than one or two additional cars away. Subways and buses serve a useful function, despite being a cruel and unusual punishment for their riders. What to do? Pareene likes the idea of "congestion pricing for Manhattan's inner core." Where exactly is that? The island is nothing but one large inner core. For that matter, so is a lot of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and even Queens (three of the four "outer boroughs"). So, in addition to high gasoline prices and already-high bridge and tunnel tolls, Pareene wants to hang another anchor around the necks of the supposedly rich and privileged who believe they must drive into the central city.

What does he think -- that people drive into Manhattan because they enjoy it? The thrill of the open road as they inch past building walls of concrete and aluminum, swerve around construction sites? Alex, old son, I'll let you in on a secret -- a secret to you, that is. They do it because considering all the possibilities, driving is less dreadful than the madman's nightmare of bus and subway. Or perhaps they don't fancy walking to the bus stop or subway along streets full of vibrancy when they get out of the office at 7 p.m. Or any number of other reasons that they count as rational.
In 2008, Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing for Manhattan’s inner core, proposing an $8 charge for most passenger cars, to be charged only once a day. The money would’ve gone to the MTA, to fix up subway stations, improve bus and subway service, and help pay for extensions to the system. 
Fix up subway stations? A new coat of paint maybe? Face it, the subways were built long ago for many fewer riders, with pure engineering taking precedence over comfort. Nothing can "fix up" the roar and banshee screeching as the trains decelerate or bypass the station on a central track. The multi-level platforms and stairs that twist around like an M.C. Escher engraving will stay. You'd have to rebuild the whole system from the ground down. The way they do things in New York, it would take about 30 years, with a 500 percent cost overrun, and congestion-charge dollars burrowing into the bank accounts of politicians, construction companies, and unions.

But it must be done because cars are elitist.
This should be the most transit-friendly government in the country. A majority of New York citizens rely on public transit for their livelihoods. The city and state are run by Democrats, many of them among the most liberal in the nation. Our incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, ran as a left-wing populist. But incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio is a driver. Andrew Cuomo has been a driver, or had drivers, his entire life. There are certain richer Manhattanites, accustomed to walking, for whom anti-car policies improve their quality of life, but for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car. 
Certain "richer" Manhattanites are accustomed to walking? How far? From Greenwich Village to West 89th Street? It may surprise Alex to learn this, but almost all of us (including non-New Yorkers) who are not "differently abled" walk places from time to time. Not as much as we ideally should, perhaps, but when it is practical and we have time. However, we don't compete to set long-distance records.

How about encouraging travel by bicycle? That makes sense for many, although not generally in huge metropolitan areas. (Amsterdam is a rather compact city much smaller than New York.) But like so many good ideas, it becomes a matter of fanaticism to those who take communion at the Church of Green. The Virginia burb I live in has put up signs that announce it is a "bicycle-friendly community." The signs partly block the view of the tree-lined streets and serve no purpose except bragging, which we look down on when individuals do it. The city fathers and mothers have had bike lanes painted, with wide white cross-hatched stripes, everywhere they can think of -- more distraction and ugliness. Some so-called bike lanes are half a block long and then disappear, I kid you not.

People like Alex Pareene and James Howard Kunstler see the answer to our transportation problems in a national program of densitization. Move everybody into the city and stack 'em up in high rises. As production-consumption units, what do they need open space and yards for? Our new God is Efficiency. Quality of life? What's that?

Your blogger, on the other hand, thinks we ought to (a) discourage population growth, particularly by stopping immigration, and (b) build more and better suburbs, not starve them. Improving suburbia may not be easy, but it's infinitely more practical than rebuilding a mass transit system so it's fit for human beings. Then again, maybe humanity is obsolete.


Rusty Mason said...

Thank you, those are helpful observations. They confirm my impressions from movies and books I've seen. I have never been to NY and have no desire to go. Just the thought of the place gives me the creeps. And claustrophobia.

Kunstler doesn't really care about this country, of course. He can never say enough vile things about us on his blog and in his interviews. He is one of those people who hates America passionately, especially white Americans (he is Jewish), and salivates at the prospect of it all totally destructing and the non-whites taking over. He sees us as animals to be controlled and directed like hamsters in a cage or cattle in cattle cars. He really is a disgusting person. You can see that there is something seriously crooked with his soul in his paintings.

He does have one unusual and pleasing characteristic for a man of his ilk: He can spot ugly architecture and ridicule it properly. I visit his otherwise ridiculous site to see his "Eyesore of the Month."

dan g. said...

This is one area where I differ from most conservatives, having lived for a long time in a major European city (Berlin) where public transportation works wonderfully well. Subways and buses get you anywhere you need to go in the city at all hours. And bike lanes are great there too. They run alongside the sidewalk - NOT on the street - thus promoting a healthier way to get around for those who are so inclined. And of course people walk too - even taking public transport involves a not insignificant amount of walking. Americans' attachment to cars is part of the reason they are fat and socially atomized and we would do well to improve and expand public transportation in our cities. Of course I'm speaking from L.A., where this is more needed than in probably any other place in the U.S.

Rick Darby said...

Dan g.,

Thanks for your comment.

Public transportation has a role to play. Society should do its best to enable people who, for whatever reason, can't or don't want to travel by automobile to get around. Based on what I've seen, though, I don't believe it is feasible as the major source of transit except in central cities.

I guess I've been soured by spending too much of my lifetime standing at bus stops and on grim metro platforms, dependent on municipal union duds to make the system work after a fashion. Everywhere I've been in the U.S. and Europe, public transportation is much the same: packed and unpleasant at rush hours, slow and inconvenient other times, frequently subject to delays.

Maybe it's different in Berlin because its metro system was rebuilt and modernized after the war. Maybe local behavioral norms help. If Berliners can make it work, more power to them. But I distrust the idea that buses and subways can be tolerably civil and efficient anywhere and everywhere if we throw more money at them.

YIH said...

Why are people reluctant to take mass transit?
Atlanta's MARTA System, with a 74 percent Black Ridership, Spending $1.1 Million to Install "Urine Detection Devices".
Gee, I dunno.