My recent post on the D.C. public transit fee debate generated an unusual amount of commentary for a weekend post. Judging by the tone of some of the discussion, there’s clearly an emotional component to the discussion of which I was only vaguely aware.
Megan McArdle agreed with my analysis of the economic incentives and remarked,
The massive subsidy provided to drivers in the form of free roads is obviously producing highly inefficient outcomes, which is why DC feels like a prison from which it is impossible to escape unless one wants to spend four hours on the Beltway. We clearly need to institute comprehensive road tolls combined with a congestion pricing scheme. Plus, of course, a carbon tax to compensate for the negative externalities drivers are imposing on those of us who use primarily mass transit.
What’s interesting about this is the presumption that people who use mass transit paid for by the taxpayers are somehow more virtuous than those of us who buy our own vehicles, pay to maintain them, and pay all manner of taxes for the privilege. Indeed, this may be the only case where those who rely on government for something feel smugly superior to those who pay their own way.
To be sure, as my original post noted, the roadways are paid for by the taxpayers. While various user fees apply, there’s certainly some aspect of subsidy involved. Then again, that’s obviously true for public transit as well.* [See Update]
The vast majority of those who take subways and public buses to work make that choice, not out of altruism, but because it makes the most sense to them given their situation. Some simply can’t afford the cost of buying and maintaining a car. Most, though, are simply urban dwellers who live their lives within a very small geographic area where parking is very expensive and driving is very slow and inefficient. For most Americans, conversely, it simply makes no sense to rely on public transit. We live outside the handful of cities with excellent rail systems. Land and therefore parking is very cheap. Our home, work, shopping, and recreation are often spread out over long distances.
For young, single people working in New York, Chicago, or Washington, living downtown and relying on public transportation is not only efficient but fun. There’s a densely packed social network, lots of bars and restaurants, and so forth within minutes of you. Marriage, children, and other lifestyle changes tend to bring into sharper focus the downsides of living downtown.
My wife and I both work in different towns. When we bought our house a little over a year ago, neither of us worked in D.C. I was working for myself in a home office, so my commute was a non-factor in the decision. We found a place that was relatively affordable, in a community we liked, within less than fifteen minutes of where she worked. Now that I’m driving to D.C. four times a week, the location is somewhat less ideal but certainly not enough so to warrant moving.
A few of the commenters on Megan’s post and mine note the serenity of the subway ride vice the drive. That’s largely a function of personality, I suppose. While many people can read or zone out with their iPods, I find it very difficult to relax on the Metro, which is loud and crowded and constantly jostling. By contrast, unless traffic is especially horrendous, my drive in and out of D.C. is fairly pleasant. The weather’s been such that I can put the top down and enjoy the sun and wind and I’ve got satellite radio and other amenities to while away the time.
Another strain of comments focused on the “why would you live somewhere where it takes an hour to drive thirteen miles” angle. That, again, is a lifestyle choice. There are jobs that essentially don’t exist outside of a handful of major cities. Indeed, my wife and I now both work in fields that are very national capitol-dependent (she’s in political polling, I’m in the foreign policy business). Doing what we do more or less requires living in the D.C. Metro area.
Some point out, correctly, that by figuring only what I’m paying for gasoline and parking skews the economic calculation in favor of driving, since I’m ignoring the depreciation on my car, maintenance, and so forth. I tend to view those as essentially fixed costs, since I’m going to need a car anyway, but it’s certainly true that that should be factored into the analysis. As the gist of my post made clear, though, time and stress are the far more important variables for me; for those in different financial circumstances, though, it’s an important point.
Life’s ultimately about trade-offs. There are some serious advantages and disadvantages to living downtown in a major metropolitan area, in the suburbs, or in rural areas far from the hustle and bustle. Ultimately, each of us must make those decisions based on our aspirations, means, and opportunities. It strikes me as odd, though, to condemn those who make other choices than the ones that suit us.
UPDATE: Peter Jackson links to some DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics data which shows that, in fact, passenger car drivers actually pay more in user fees per 1000 miles driven than they receive in federal subsidies whereas mass transit gets huge subsidies. Megan argues that the data is misleading and irrelevant.