I do not share the enthusiasm and certainty of many good friends who believe mass transit is a necessary and vital part of our future cities. Rather, I suggest we improve operations of current systems but invest heavily in the future of moving people.
Private automobiles are the finest mass-transit system yet devised. They offer comfort, privacy, security and convenience, unmatched by other modes of travel. In many cases, they are more efficient when the value of passengers’ time is considered.
Advocates for mass transit are quick and correct to point out current private autos pollute and congest our cities. In addition, they note, one can’t (shouldn’t) read, text nor sleep while driving.
Improvements in private autos are happening quickly. More automatic safety features are showing up in cars. Lighter vehicles are now in use that pollute less and take less room on the road and in parking areas.
Appropriate taxes or fees could hasten this transit transformation. Cars could be charged for parking by the footprint they occupy and charged for road usage according to weight, speed and contribution to congestion.
Mass-transit systems rely on high population and economic densities, which we do not have in most cities. Typically, mass transit requires a supplemental distribution system as simple as sidewalks, which have been absent in new residential and industrial areas for the past six decades. Mass transit rarely provides protection from the weather, often is unreliable and fails to keep customers well-informed about service and delays.
Yes, these factors can be overcome with time and/or with new technology and significant investments.
However, the proponents of mass transit fail to recognize the most effective ways to serve those most in need of transportation is not with new trolley cars, express buses or heavy rail routes.
Many people can (should) not drive. They include persons of all ages.
Future autos will offer computer-controlled door-to-door service. Just as the self-service elevator or tram without a “driver” was feared in the past, tomorrow’s auto will be suspect until it proves itself in everyday use.
In the meantime, let’s put more small transit vehicles on the road with competent drivers, intensifying the model now used sparingly in many urban and rural settings. Remember, most unemployed youths can drive. This may require innovations by regulatory agencies, the insurance industry and the transit unions.
There is no question transit benefits the poor. Then let’s help the poor — and the unemployed who require transportation — get vehicles to drive.
If you fear misuse of these vehicles, the cars can be monitored so they stay within defined areas and used as intended.
This is not the time to spend heavily on new rail lines in Lake County when old rail lines desperately need upgrading. This is not the time to expend gross amounts on an express busway for the wealthy of Hamilton County.
This is the time to act where needed in the present.
Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to email@example.com.