Last week, Fran Porretto questioned a popular bit of boilerplate:

Americans' "love affair with cars" is nothing of the sort; it's a preference for autonomous mobility. Other things being equal — and in many cases, other things not being quite so equal — we vastly prefer to come and go as we please, bringing whom and what we please, according to our own schedules and priorities. There are few places in the United States where mass transit is sufficiently prompt and flexible to meet that desire — especially mass transit operated by government.

Which got me wondering: is there any American mass transit not operated by government these days? In the early part of the 20th century, almost all the streetcar companies and such were privately owned and relatively small. The last time I remember seeing a transit system in the private sector was back in Charleston in the 1960s, where the local bus system was run by South Carolina Electric and Gas Company. Now there's something called the Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority. (A similar operation exists in Columbia, also in SCE&G's territory.)

The automobile did its part to displace the streetcar, but the death blow, I suspect, came from the New Deal: in 1935 utility companies were basically ordered out of unregulated businesses, including the streetcar companies, with the idea of preventing them from earning a profit from transactions with corporate cousins. The bill which did this was finally repealed — in 2005.

There is some sense in having municipalities and counties and such operate transit systems: since the systems are open to all, they could be reasonably considered to be infrastructure. But being open to all doesn't mean they'll be used by all; the local bus system, widely deemed to be inadequate, actually runs to within a block and a half of my house and right to 42nd and Treadmill, but it takes nearly two hours for a trip I can make in my car in twenty minutes, and while a $50 monthly pass would seem to be cheaper than driving, transit systems seldom cover more than 20-25 percent of their operating costs with actual fares, and I have a certain aversion to passing a $200 bill to the taxpayers so that I can save $6. (This presumes $2 gas; at $4.50, I'd presumably save $45 or so, but the taxpayers are still on the hook for $200. Maybe more, since diesel would inevitably go up as well.) It's true that all forms of transportation require some sort of government expenditure — roads don't just appear out of nowhere — and if a lot of people in my neighborhood worked near where I do and chose to ride the bus, the effective subsidy per rider would presumably be reduced; but there's still that wasted hour and forty minutes, five days a week, and I'd prefer not to think that my time is worth nothing.

Besides, as Mr Porretto notes:

Affordable personal transportation renders a people un-herdable. Such a people cannot be compelled to concentrate in tight little zones where their masters can regiment them as they please.

Or, as P. J. O'Rourke wrote in the foreword to a collection of essays by automotive journalist David E. Davis, Jr.:

David knows what every sixteen-year-old knows, but what no elected official, self-appointed quality-of-life advocate, or double-domed social visionary seems to — that cars confer upon us the ultimate and most important of human freedoms. We can leave.

Emphasis added, and deliberately so.

The Vent

#610
  22 December
2008

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