Sunday, June 29, 2008

Second Best (by Phila)

Samuel Staley of the Reason Foundation has some advice for mass-transit advocates:
Transit’s long-term viability will depend on its ability to provide a reliable, superior alternative to its competition, not a “second best” alternative that consumers choose when they can’t afford their first choice (e.g., the automobile).
This strikes me as odd reasoning. If people increasingly can't afford to drive, being perceived as the second-best transportation option doesn't seem like such a bad thing, from a business perspective. Staley assumes that consumer preference will have a stronger long-term effect on transportation choices than the affordability of owning and operating a car; you don't have to be an "alarmist" to wonder whether this is really the case. (Nor do you have to be a communist to wonder whether Staley has any real interest in people for whom riding mass transit is not a choice, but a necessity.)

I'm old-fashioned enough to subscribe, more or less, to Guy Debord's view that the car is not "essentially a means of transportation," so much as "the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness." To the extent that this is accurate, comparing a car to a bus or a train is somewhat misleading; much of what a car offers consumers is symbolic or otherwise nonessential, and much of this "value" may evaporate as gas prices rise (cf. the recent decline of cruising, which Atrios brings up).

That's a relatively theoretical objection, though. My real disagreement with Staley is a bit more concrete:
What transit cannot do is depend on high gas prices to make us worse off financially in order to push us out of our cars and onto buses and trains. Nor should transit advocates use public policy to purposely degrade the quality of transportation alternatives such as the car to tip the scales unfairly in transit’s favor.
Of course, public policy routinely degrades the quality of mass transit to tip the scales in favor of cars, and has for decades. Indeed, that's one of the reasons Staley can describe mass transit in generally negative terms. But this type of planning doesn't bother Staley, it seems; it's simply the natural order of things, and so obvious as to be invisible. (Elsewhere, Staley complains that "transit lost its way more than four decades ago when it largely ignored the needs and desires of a wealthier and more mobile middle class." For some reason, I'm picturing segregated, bulletproof buses that offer door-to-door service.)

Anyway, mass transit needs to improve to be viable...but that improvement apparently can't inconvenience drivers, or be justified by reference to higher gas prices. It's almost as though the cards are stacked in favor of auto dependency. To quote Debord again, "those who believe that the particulars of the problem are permanent want in fact to believe in the permanence of the present society."