Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cars versus Alternative Transportation

In my previous post, I ranted against Alan S. Blinder’s foolish ideas about giving up old cars. But I didn’t talk about his casual suggestion that people would simply choose other forms of transportation. Now I want to address that, because he ought to know better. His idea is nonsense.

People don’t drive beat up old cars for the fun of it. They drive them because they need transportation. A TV news show I just watched claimed that 50% of us live outside the cities. In the countryside and suburbia, where buses don’t run. As for trains, nearly every new commuter rail proposal gets fought to a standstill for years on end, while existing rail is often at capacity. Our governments don’t want us to use public transportation. If they did, they’d provide very cheap and very convenient transportation everywhere. There still is no public transportation within five miles of the house I bought 20 years ago in Maryland, and there is absolutely no plan to provide any, even though more and more homes have been built up to and in that neighborhood. The government runs the zoning, and could have forbidden the construction of those homes. But it did not. By area, most of the US is not densely populated cities. Some people believe we all should live in cities, and that would solve the transportation problem. But the fact is that some of us don’t want to, and aren’t going to.

I just visited Denver, where the city runs free buses on one mile of a downtown street. The buses are always packed. But that was only on one street, on a pedestrian mall, downtown. The light rail system hardly serves the poorer parts of the city, where people could use a fast, pleasant, and clean alternative to noisy, stinky buses. Or to driving old clunkers. There was plenty of car traffic in the city. The light rail only serves the richer suburbs. People who live there could park in the rail garages and lots, and go into downtown Denver and see a baseball game at Coors Field without having to drive in and park. They could easily attend a concert or other downtown function. This is good. But why does the light rail only serve the fancier suburbs? Because if it served the poorer ones first, the more affluent people would never use this means of transportation? I have a sinking feeling that is the ugly truth. Thinking back on it, I realize that WMATA built the Washington, DC Metro system using the same method: It built the system to the most affluent suburbs first, and only now is finally getting around to hooking up the people most likely to be desperate for public transportation, who otherwise would have to drive old clunkers or take three buses to get anywhere. Or walk.

Walking to work is overrated. It’s fine in a nice, safe city neighborhood in the daytime. It’s not so much fun at night in a creepy neighborhood. Or where there aren’t any sidewalks. Or when the weather is bad. Or when you have to walk for miles because there are no alternatives, not even a taxi. And it takes a lot of time to walk, and few Americans have an extra two hours every day to give to walking.

What about bicycling to work? Most of us don’t want to bicycle in the rain, nor do we have the ability to ride a bicycle on an icy road. Maybe Lance Armstrong can, but he’s got a bicycle that costs more than a car. In some cities, buses are becoming more welcoming to people who want to board with a bicycle. But buses aren’t set up to handle more than a few bikes at a time, if that. And lots of businesses don’t look kindly on employees who show up with bikes. And let’s be candid. Working up a sweat on a bicycle out in the open can make people stink, get them dirty, and even stress their immune systems. Not to mention get them killed by trucks or buses.

Compare this with India, where the burgeoning, computer-assisted outsourcing business has led employers to make rational decisions. They employ many men and women who cannot afford cars. They want these employees to show up on time. And they certainly don’t want the women to be attacked on their way to or from work because they’re CSRs doing the night shift to mirror our daytime. The answer? The company provides free, safe, transportation. Indian companies run company buses that loop through to where all the employees live. Even better, by creating these bus schedules, the company has to promise not to overwork employees. Workers have to be let go to take their company buses home. It’s a win-win situation. Absenteeism is low, overwork is kept to a limit, and hundreds of potential commuters aren’t driving to work and jamming the already overcrowded roads.

But this is America, and we insist that workers find their own way to work—and also that they stay longer and longer hours, which is another reason why public transportation wouldn’t be convenient even if it existed. If employees are forced to stay and stay at the office, then bus and train schedules can’t be limited to classic commuting hours. Which makes the system more costly and inefficient to run. Carpooling can’t happen under these circumstances, either, because it depends on workers who share a ride leaving at the same time. Maybe the traders on the stock market floor actually get to go home at a regular hour once the market closes. And government workers often are allowed to keep regular hours, but not always. With less factory work in this country, fewer and fewer workers leave their jobs at the same time.

Even in New York City, the one city in the US whose public transportation system works, plenty of people own cars. The subways run all night. There are buses and express buses. There are commuter trains. There are taxis and car services. Still, many people have cars. It’s expensive to garage them and inconvenient to move them constantly for street cleaning or risk a fine or a tow. And lots of cars get stolen. But people have cars anyway. They own cars because the automobile is the best invention ever for getting people where they want to go, at their convenience, in comfort, safely, and regardless of their physical abilities. We’re not giving up our cars.

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