Reclaiming the street for Real Americans

Some things are central to being a Real American, things that make us the best country; others are not.  In the first category, as any RBC reader will agree, are driving alone anywhere I want;  with light traffic, few stoplights, and no tolls, pedestrians, or bicycles; parking free when I get there; and two-dollar gasoline.  The way things were for a few years in Southern California, back in the day. Now that that’s established, the bad news: ugly facts are undermining our core values:
(1) Roads are free and a basic human right, but even patriotic politicians like Sam Brownback can’t figure out how to get them without (trigger alert, I know this is a family blog) taxes.
(2) Even if we pay for them, it seems we can’t lane-mile our way back to the golden age; every beautiful new freeway or widening is immediately congested to the pre-existing crawl.  And people are less and less willing to have neighborhoods bulldozed for highways.
What to do?  Many cities are looking at ways to get some large undeserving classes of people out of cars, leaving room for us Real Americans on the road.  I’m thinking about the ungrateful hipsters who are refusing to be their kids’ chauffeurs for  twenty years, leaving their cars behind in the Pleasantvilles where they grew up and flocking with bicycles to places like Boston and San Francisco and Brooklyn and Portland. Also poor people. A lot of these folks vote Democratic, by the way, so prima facie don’t deserve the freedom to sit alone in traffic listening to the radio.
An obvious way to do this is (another trigger alert) public transit, and not just buses stuck in traffic with the cars.  What we had all over every big city when we fought and won World War II, built Hoover Dam and the TVA, had free public universities people were proud of, and all that Commie stuff.  One form is surface light rail,  which doesn’t require tunnels, and runs in the street.  Because we trashed so much of this and lost our expertise over a half-century (especially how to build it), we are learning old lessons and reinventing wheels.
Halfway down the story, we learn that

Unlike in Europe, the United States lacks uniform standards for the basic features of a streetcar. That means customers might ask for longer, wider or faster vehicles or those that can handle different loads or ride on different suspensions. “You’re essentially designing a new vehicle. [It’s] very expensive to set up a manufacturing line and only build three or five of a particular product type,” said Yraguen, the Oregon Iron Works president.

Way back in the ’30s, the most successful streetcar in history, fairly described as the DC-3 of  urban transport, was designed by a committee of street railway company representatives and made by different companies all over the world.  About 5000   were built, and the PCC cars, as they are called, are still operating, in the US and elsewhere.
Maybe the federal government could create more value by coordination than by just sending checks?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “Reclaiming the street for Real Americans”

  1. But they said that if you liked your streetcar you would be able to keep it…

    I expect that for some of the companies involved in this (especially the consultants and integrators) having to design a new vehicle every time is a feature rather than a bug.

  2. Look, streetcars are nice. But people need to be careful with all this "Smart Growth" planning talk, since from what I can see, it is mostly used as a big con. (Though I'm sure whoever came up with it meant well.) F.e., here in LA such talk is cover for shoving higher density into places that can't handle it, which is mostly the whole city. Most of MTA is buses, with growing light rail, and a couple of subway lines. The subways run fast enough to commute on, but hardly go anywhere. The buses sit in traffic and mostly poor people use them (sorry but it's true — actually that's kind of true overall as well… but I think that's because of the time factor, not that richer folk wouldn't take transit if it got them there in a reasonable time — here, it does not.) The light rail is great for an outing but takes forever too, so I don't see it solving our traffic problems. Another issue of course is that LA has no real job center. About 1% of people commute on bikes — maybe, I have my doubts about that figure — and they make a lot of noise and are horribly annoying as a group, though I do feel a little sorry for them. (But I also think they shouldn't be on main roads with cars, where they will get killed.) Our political leaders are feckless and prone to happytalk, but don't seem to do much of anything around real job creation. They love developers though. But construction jobs are temp jobs. I begin to think the entire lightrail system was really meant as a stimulus project and real estate scam from the beginning. For the money we've spent, I doubt we'll end up with many more riders than if we'd put that money into improving the bus system. Moreover, I see no evidence this was ever discussed, though maybe it was just a long time ago. (Now, the commuter rail system — the one to the burbs? — that one could maybe get us somewhere.) Oh, and they don't build much parking at any of these new stations, either light rail or metro. It's not fashionable.

    What I think will make a difference eventually would be smaller cars, banning SUVs, and doing some of that datacrunching that might lead to banning left turns and what-not. We also shouldn't be building much housing, at least not until the unemployment rate goes down. Maybe more traffic enforcement too – people routinely run red lights here and I think that's just wrong. I think people would be happy enough with just some tinkering. Like if someone could figure out why the 101 is always miserable even when there's no accident, that would be great.

    1. On the other hand, light rail is working very well here in the Twin Cities. And it sounds to me as if the problem in LA isn't the idea of light rail; it's the execution. It can't be just that LA is decentralized, because Minneapolis/St. Paul is, too.

      As for your dreams of solving all problems by changing the composition of cars, no one who advocates that should be accusing anyone else of pipe dreams.

  3. What we have seen in my area is that the people who move near subway stations still own cars and don't necessarily use the transit that they live on top of. That is my main beef with all this density talk — it is just theory. I get very tired of people talking about LA as if it weren't already what it is — a car city. We should be putting that energy into greening cars and roads. But like I said — that isn't trendy anymore.

  4. I grew up in Indianapolis in the 1950s/1960s; worked there (well, here–I'm back) from 1976-1980. At the time, I found the bus system to be extremely effective and accessible.

    Then something happened. And the "something" also happened in any number of cities–the population relocated. As recently as 1980 (whoops…35 years ago), the population of the city was mostly concentrated in about 25% of the core county of the metro area–the central part of Marion County. Now, that core accounts for something around 15% to 20% of the metro area population, rather than around 30%. Commutes, instead of being fairly heavily from periphery to core are now much more widely distributed. From a bus system that operated largely in the urban core–with sidewalks, making it easy and relatively safe for people to await busses–the bus system now has to be county wide–even metro-area-wide–including many places with no sidewalks, no curbs, no relatively safe waiting places. The commuting patterns are on average longer and more complicated for fixed-route systems.

    Indianapolis has tried, I think. Smaller busses, attempts at more detailed routing and system planning. But nothing has done much to increase use. Sprawl–or de-concentration, call it what you will–is not god for public transit. Those who lose the most from this are the usuals–lower-income people less able to afford reliable private transportation (a/k/a cars) and thus more dependent of public transit. But they, too, have decentralized.

    If I could come up with a good answer to these problems, I'd be famous (not rich–no transportation analyst to my knowledge ever got rich without taking bribes). But maybe someone smarter than I has–or will-or can do it.

  5. Ever since houses stop being a place to live and started being an investment, the rest of us can’t afford to live in the city centers. Studies have shown that most of the new roadways are the roads in subdivisions. Traffic numbers have actually gone down in many urban centers, I know for a fact in Vancouver BC. Although freeways do take up a fair amount of space, they can handle large volumes of all kinds of traffic and they do relieve pressure on surface streets for slower traffic like bicycles. Well-designed commuter bus routes can use them as well.

  6. There is a perfectly good, highly effective, and no-tax solution to traffic jams. (Conservative politicians prick up their ears.) It's congestion pricing. (They faint.) In Singapore the politics are understandable, as it's a Benthamite Confucian one-party state, where Government Knows Best, and often does. The success in London is more problematic. Ex-Trotskyist Old Labourite drunk Ken Livingstone, who brought it in as Mayor, and Boris Johnson, self-publicising Tory philanderer and overweight cyclist, who kept it on as his successor, are eccentrics even by British standards. They would have been at home in the eighteenth century exchanging barbed witticisms with John Wilkes; not exactly risk-averse. But London congestion pricing works, and is accepted. Note: you have to start with a decent public transport option for all the people you are price-nudging off their cars.

    1. Hi James!

      I am pretty much against congestion pricing on principle — I do not agree that we should value rich people's time more than poor people's. I understand that that is how the economy more or less works, much of the time. But I do not think it should be public policy. F.e., after 9/11, when the powers-that-be decided to have a big fund and dole out more money to the families of big-deal financiers than to those of dishwashers, I really think we lost something as a society. I think it's wrong.

      But on a more practical level, another reason I am against it is just this – in LA, we *don't* have a decent public transit system. And it will be decades, if we ever get there.

      Joel Kotkin is almost as cranky as me, but this is a good article he co-wrote that can explain a lot about LA: http://citywatchla.com/lead-stories-hidden/7981-l

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