Forced Public Transit

Forced Public Transit Robert Reich, who admits that he used to commute by car rather than public transit because “I’ve never been able to organize myself around their schedules,” is delighted that people are now being forced to do what he wouldn’t by high gas prices.

For years, policymakers have wondered just how high gas prices would have to go before drivers switch to public transportation. The answer has been assumed to be very high because Americans supposedly are in love with our cars. Yet now we know there’s a tipping point, and it’s not quite as high as policymakers have guessed. It’s around $4 a gallon. We know that’s the tipping piont because suddenly millions of Americans are switching to buses, trains and subways to go to work.

Rather than bemoaning this remarkable turnaround we should be celebrating it because public transit not only reduces congestion but also reduces the nation’s energy needs and cuts carbon emissions that bring on global warming.

No. This is in the category of “every cloud has a silver lining” rather than a pleasant surprise. Poorer Americans are being stripped of their freedom and leisure time by economic forces outside their control. That’s mostly a bad thing even though there are side benefits.

Reich is right, though, in the main thrust of his essay.

Even though it’s a hundred times more efficient for each of us to stop driving and use trains and buses, there’s not enough money in the public kitty for us to do so.

This is nuts. If officials need more money to cover the extra fuel costs of public transit, they can raise ticket prices a bit without reducing demand; most of us would still find public transit cheaper than driving our cars. But officials shouldn’t stop there. They should add services and expand whole systems — more buses, more trains, more light rail. If they can’t finance this by floating bonds, they should go to Congress and ensure that public transportation is a major part of the next stimulus package.

This is obviously right. Public transit is impractical in much of the country, simply because of population density. But it’s silly that it’s difficult even for many of us who live in major metropolitan areas to use the system.

Story via memeorandum. Photo: Cheat Seeking Missiles

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. But mostly because we need more public service union employees, I guess.

    Am I missing something or is this just another public policy experiment where hope overrides experience as you expect the government to do this well. If there was really a demand for these services that could be met at a cost-effective price point, why wouldn’t they be met by private enterprise, as they are for air travel, overnight packages, etc.?

  2. Brian J. says:

    What about the lost gas tax revenue?

    Oh, I guess someone in government will find a way to recoup that lost money.

  3. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    The lost gas tax revenue is a problem, and the same problem exists with other ideas like funding transit off congestion pricing. But the fact is that gas taxes only cover about 2/3rds of road and driving costs, so the idea that transit is subsidized by gas taxes is a fiction anyway. In reality, both transit and roads+driving are subsidized from general tax revenues like sales and income taxes.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Whatever became of leading by example?

    Leaving that aside, I think the reasons that more people who could don’t use public transport are a bit more complex than one might be led to believe by Dr. Reich’s post. The problem is that public transport has too many oars in the water.

    Is public transport intended as a means of employing workers, a subsidy for the poor, or an efficient means for moving masses of people around? It can’t succeed in all of those equally.

  5. Bithead says:

    All this story does is bring out the hypocracy of the whole thing. Does anyone think that the ones making the decisions are going to be giving up their Subbys and Tahoe Limos? It’s just we poor saps that are crammed into busses and trains like so much cattle. This is their brilliant solution?

    And James, the bottom line is government is the cause of the problem… both the high prices for fuel, and the bolluxed up government transport system. If you think application of more government is the answer, you’re dreaming.

  6. James Joyner says:

    the bottom line is government is the cause of the problem… both the high prices for fuel, and the bolluxed up government transport system

    Government has a role in fuel prices but it’s a relatively small one. And public infrastructure, whether roads or rail, is almost inherently a government function. It’s a matter of how to allocate resources.

  7. […] this ties directly back to the point I made in the comments to James Joyner’s post that drew my attention to former Labor Secretary Reich’s post: public transit needs to decide […]

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    every cloud has a silver lining

    also known as the “Broken Window Fallacy”.

  9. Bithead says:

    Government has a role in fuel prices but it’s a relatively small one.

    Government, at all levels, prohibiting domestic drilling, and refining are huge parts of the problem, James. THey ahve their hands into this at ever imaginable step of the way, and a few that I’ll bet neither us us can think of. How could they not be a huge part of the cause?

    And public infrastructure, whether roads or rail, is almost inherently a government function. It’s a matter of how to allocate resources.

    While it’s true that it has evolved into that, there again, the question is why. THe answer is, it ended up being so because of governmental involvement. Consider the long haul passenger rail service. The governmental regulartions imposed on the services, plus the unions (and the government backing thereof) are the direct cause of the demise of that service. And of course, once government has caused the problem, they come in with abominations like Amtrak, playing savior with a system that is by far more inefficient and even less funcional. I submit Amtrak is eblematic for the entire concept of governmental monopoly in transportation.

  10. John425 says:

    Why not privatize the “public” transportation system?

  11. od says:

    While it’s true that it has evolved into that, there again, the question is why. THe answer is, it ended up being so because of governmental involvement.

    Was there a time that roads and bridges (for just two examples of public infrastructure) didn’t have major government involvement? Toll roads and bridges are becoming more common, but are still the minority even when considering major throughfares. And most roads (like the one outside my house) are and have always been public.

    But I agree that public transportation usage is far more complex than just the price. Availability, frequency and custom for instance play a major role, as traveling in Europe shows.

  12. Derrick says:

    Why not privatize the “public” transportation system?

    Because private industry would have little incentive at this time to invest in the infrastructure and a whole lot of incentive just to jack up prices. Intuitively, one would have to believe that public transportation is an extremely “low margin” business although I can’t say that I have the facts to back that up. Except for a few cities like NY, Chicago and D.C., the real need is going to be to provide more access to a wider demographic of a people. I just can’t see privatizing that business as being a real solution to that problem as the incentives just don’t seem to be there, although I’m open to a good argument for it.

  13. Just curious, is there any public transportation system in the United States that is run without massive (i.e., at least 50% of expenses) subsidies from taxation? Maybe that would explain why they cannot easily be privatized.

    Incidentally, I am not trying to make an argument for eliminating subsidized public transportation, but only noting that extending existing public transportation systems designed for the densest populated areas or to support the needs of the poorest of our citizens to everyone is, well, a remarkably silly proposal from someone with resume of Robert Reich. Unless, of course, forcing behavior is what you are really after — will to power and all that.

    Honestly, I’d like to think that Robert Reich understands basic economics, but his words make that problematic. Maybe I’ll try raising prices a bit in my business since that won’t affect demand. Or maybe I’ll start looking for investors and developing a business plan for private public transportation since I can be off by a factor of ten in efficiency estimates and still make a fortune, given that trains and buses are a hundred times more efficient than private cars. His schadenfreude is quite revealing, to say nothing of his sense of entitlement when it comes to spending my time and ever increasing tax dollars on his grand theories.

    There’s a tremendous amount of cost shifting involved in any of these plans, regardless of how much cheaper or more efficient it may seem in aggregate. There is a certain amorality, if not immorality, in Mr. Reich’s casual valuation of other people’s time, not to mention their disposable income that is most troublesome. But, hey, there are omelettes to be made and commanding remains so much easier than convincing.

  14. Bithead says:

    Was there a time that roads and bridges (for just two examples of public infrastructure) didn’t have major government involvement? Toll roads and bridges are becoming more common, but are still the minority even when considering major throughfares. And most roads (like the one outside my house) are and have always been public.

    Of course… but they require far less in the way of time and investment, and procedureal issues to keep them running. THerein lies the difference.
    And if I’m not much mistaken, you can likely find a few people up in the Twin Cities to comment on governmental involvement in the road systems there.

  15. Bithead says:

    Unless, of course, forcing behavior is what you are really after — will to power and all that

    .

    You’ve broken the code and will need to be arested and retrained.

  16. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Bithead, airline subsidies in the form of bailouts in a single year (2002) totaled to more dollars than Amtrak has /ever/ received from the federal government. People who complain that Amtrak is subsidized have no idea what our national transportation spending looks like. Hint: you could lose Amtrak spending in the corner of a single interstate highway boondoggle.

    The passenger rail system in the USA was killed by the government, that’s for certain. But it’s not in the way you imply. Passenger rail service was killed off by the massive subsidy given to the car in the form of toll-free highways. The same thing killed of freight, of course, although the freight operators very shrewdly consolidated their holds over heavy cargo money runs like coal and hot-shot tomato trains and suchlike.

  17. anjin-san says:

    hope overrides experience as you expect the government to do this well

    I get tired of hearing this from the “America can’t get it done” crowd on the right. We have the finest military in the world, by orders of magnitude. We put a man on the moon, which no one else has managed to do in the many years since.

    Maybe if the right quit crying about how it’s too hard to have good public transportation, and rolled up their sleeves and did a little good old fashioned skull sweating and hard work, we could move forward in this country instead of looking backwards….

  18. Bithead says:

    Bithead, airline subsidies in the form of bailouts in a single year (2002) totaled to more dollars than Amtrak has /ever/ received from the federal government

    You’ll get no aruments from me on ending such crutches. Yet, the dollars involved as you mention would seem to be commensurate with the passenger load taken on by each.

    Passenger rail service was killed off by the massive subsidy given to the car in the form of toll-free highways

    Well, that’s not the sole reason, and ou know it, or you should. Given a choice between private automobiles, and being able to go where you want, when you want instead of scheduling everything to transporation you can’t control… well, which do you think is going to win out?

    I get tired of hearing this from the “America can’t get it done” crowd on the right

    .

    Once again, Anjin, you seem confised. This is not “America can’t get it done” hihs is “Government can’t get it done. THere’s a major difference, and I think it about time the difference was taught you.

  19. anjin-san says:

    “Government can’t get it done.

    Why then do we have the world’s finest military? Last time I checked, the military was part of the US government…

  20. anjin-san says:

    “Government can’t get it done.

    And while we are on the subject, why are you disrespecting the cops and firefighters who put their lives on the line every day when they go to work?

  21. John425 says:

    derrick notes: I just can’t see privatizing that business as being a real solution to that problem as the incentives just don’t seem to be there, although I’m open to a good argument for it.”

    See: http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/penn-turnpike-is-sold-for-128-billion/index.html?hp

    Penn. Turnpike Is Sold for $12.8 Billion May 19, 2008, A consortium led by Citigroup and Spain’s Abertis Infraestructuras won the bidding war to run the Pennsylvania Turnpike with a $12.8 billion offer, Gov. Edward Rendell said on Monday. The group, which includes Australia’s Babcock & Brown, beat out a rival group that includes Goldman Sachs and Transurban Group. The deal is the largest ever privatization of a toll road in the United States, as infrastructure investments… [read more]

  22. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Pilot do you understand what liberty is? I think not. Government is supposed to have certain responsiblities as outlined in the U.S. Consititution. Beyond that it is on you dude. If you are not capable of handling freedom move to a place where it does not exist. Hugo Chavez has a spot for you already picked out. Cheap gas there also.
    Construction projects paid for by tax payers are forever being held up by union labor, which overmans projects raising costs beyond what should be legal.
    Someone much wiser than anyone who ever wrote on this site said “that which governs best, governs least” Is spite of what you marxist think, you do not know what is best for me.

  23. Who said we wanted to get this inefficient utopian thing done to begin with? Besides Robert Reich? And Anjin-san?

    And what the hell does the fact that we can build a great military have to do with providing public transportation? Why not cure cancer, abolish world hunger, prevent schoolyard bullies, obliterate bad breath, and make rivers of chocolate flow through Iraq while we’re at it? Or does the non-right wing crowd hate America because we can’t do all these things by close of business tomorrow? Hey, this ludicrous strawman stuff is easier than I thought.

  24. anjin-san says:

    which overmans projects raising costs beyond what should be legal.

    So you are calling for government regulation of wages in the middle of your rant about the virtues of limited government… it would be funny if it were not so stupefyingly stupid.

  25. teqjack says:

    Limousine liberals.

    Many years ago, I watched a gathering in Boston calling for fewer cars, more public transport. I noted that despite a bus stop outside the venue and a subway stop a block away every participant came by car which was valet-parked either at the garage in the basement for the few ultra-well-off or two blocks away at the public garage. Some of the attendees lived about five blocks from the hotel.

  26. Bithead says:

    Why then do we have the world’s finest military? Last time I checked, the military was part of the US government…

    No.
    They serve at the pleasure of the government.There’s a difference.

    James, given your military background, I’m a little surprised you didn’t jump to that one.

    Who said we wanted to get this inefficient utopian thing done to begin with? Besides Robert Reich? And Anjin-san?

    Well, exactly. Oh, Al Gore of course.

    So you are calling for government regulation of wages in the middle of your rant about the virtues of limited government… it would be funny if it were not so stupefyingly stupid

    Well, there’s a point you’re missing, as is your Wont, Anjin… He’s talking about Government paid-for projects. Not private ones. Do you understand why that’s different, both legally, and morally?

    No, I don’t suppose you do.

  27. anjin-san says:

    No.
    They serve at the pleasure of the government.There’s a difference.

    From http://www.milnet.com

    The U.S. Military central organization is the U.S. Department of Defense.

    There are three main departments within the Department of Defense, which is a cabinet level Departments within the U.S. Government, overseen by the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF)..

    Hmmm, sounds like the military is like the other cabinet level branches of government. Has a Sec who is the boss and reports to the president.

    Everyone in the president’s reporting chain serves at his pleasure, and he is the head of the government. Our military is a fine example of how our government is able to do something better than it has ever been done before.

    I have a close relative who is severely disabled. She lives in a wonderful apartment complex that is all disabled folks. The apartments are all fitted for chairs, and so on. She is able to have her own home and live among people she can relate to. It’s a government program. Tell me Bit, would you feel better if those folks were living in a cardboard box under the freeway?

    Oh, and the next time you need a cop or a fireman, be sure to tell him what you think of government workers. And if you need emergency care and the county hospital is right up the street, make sure you refuse to go there for treatment. And by all means, stay off of those roads the government builds and maintains. A rugged individualist like you does not need any of that government cheese, right?

  28. M1EK says:

    The road system looks better than it really is because of the subsidies mentioned, but also because of a massive subsidy from urban drivers to suburban and rural drivers — because urban roads are far less likely to be funded by the gas tax, yet, of course, you pay the gas tax whenever your car burns some fuel.

  29. Bithead says:

    Hmmm, sounds like the military is like the other cabinet level branches of government. Has a Sec who is the boss and reports to the president

    That relationship is still far less than direct.

    I have a close relative who is severely disabled. She lives in a wonderful apartment complex that is all disabled folks. The apartments are all fitted for chairs, and so on. She is able to have her own home and live among people she can relate to. It’s a government program. Tell me Bit, would you feel better if those folks were living in a cardboard box under the freeway?

    Nice emotional plea to support big government, but it’s all emotion and no fact. (Gee, what a shock)

    For one thing, it’s a non Sequitur. Because I want to keep a chockehold on the tool that is government does not of itself mean what you suggest.

  30. James Joyner says:

    Bit: The military is a government bureaucracy, just like Transportation, Homeland Security, Treasury, HHS, Education, etc. There’s no fundamental distinction in how they operate or their relationship to elected representatives.

    I do think the military — like the foreign service, the intel community, the FBI, and others who can attract the best of the best — is more professional than the average federal bureaucracy. But they’re certainly part of the government.

  31. Bithead says:

    Well, look, I don’t fully disagree, but I say again, the connection is historically(And I think correctly) less than direct. I take my point from the founders on this one, who apparently recognized soldiers as citizens, who rose in support of the government, and who were no more a part of the government than was any other citizen, insofar as this is in Lincoln’s words, a government of the people. Of course then, too, such solders in those days and up to the Civil war, and somewhat beyond were more attacted to the individual states, more than the federal government.

  32. od says:

    I think you have to play around with words to not include fire, police and the military as part of the gov’t. They’re paid for out of taxes rather than generating their own revenue. I note in passing that all three would be highly profitable (probably especially the military) if run privately – I recall a story about a Roman general who would arrive at a fire with fire fighting equipment (such as they had) and negotiate for his services …

  33. anjin-san says:

    No.
    They serve at the pleasure of the government.There’s a difference

    That relationship is still far less than direct.

    >Well, look, I don’t fully disagree

    Bit, don’t try and weasel away from your own words, just put on the dunce cap and go stand in the corner for a while.

  34. Bithead says:

    I think you have to play around with words to not include fire, police and the military as part of the gov’t.

    I suppose that to depend on what government you’re talking about. Certainly, not the federal government.

    Bit, don’t try and weasel away from your own words, just put on the dunce cap and go stand in the corner for a while.

    Nice try, Anjin. You’d best hope nobody reads the rest of my response, there.

  35. anjin-san says:

    You’d best hope nobody reads the rest of my response, there.

    Hey, broadcast the rest of your response on Fox with the rest of the nonsense. The military is part of the government. The funds that support it come from the treasury. Military personnel get socialized government medical care. Your attempt to read the minds of the founding fathers changes none of this.

    As for,

    I suppose that to depend on what government you’re talking about. Certainly, not the federal government.

    You have been railing about “government” to quote you:

    hihs is “Government can’t get it done

    You drew no distinction between federal/state/local in your remarks, so don’t try and inject one after the fact to prop up your failed argument.

  36. Bithead says:

    So, you were not specifiying the military as being part of the federal government?
    How unsurpisingly weak.

  37. anjin-san says:

    So, you were not specifying the military as being part of the federal government?
    How unsurpisingly weak.

    Lame Bit, even by your standards. From my earlier post:

    The U.S. Military central organization is the U.S. Department of Defense.

    There are three main departments within the Department of Defense, which is a cabinet level Departments within the U.S. Government, overseen by the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF)..

    Look Bit, your argument was so pathetic that when you called on James to support it, he stepped in and pulled you up short. Your probably embarrassed, as well you should be. But by all means, keep digging…

  38. Bithead says:

    The police and fire most certainly are not part of the federal government.

    As for he military, they WERE not, until post civil war days, and even now that ‘s a rather iffy posposition. But, pelase do keep ingnoring the histirical and constitutional perspectives.

    And I didn’t call for help Najin… I was expressing some suprise that he’d not chimed in, is all. I’m not convinced, for example that I’d want to rely on your own military understanding.

  39. James Joyner says:

    As for he military, they WERE not, until post civil war days, and even now that ‘s a rather iffy posposition.

    We had a federal military for all but our very earliest history but it was a small one. But you’re right that most of our military forces were state controlled for generations. The Militia Act of 1903, better known as the Dick Act, federalized the various state militia and put us on the road to the current understanding.

    That was, I hasten to point out, more than a century ago.

  40. anjin-san says:

    The police and fire most certainly are not part of the federal government.

    Who said they were? Not me. Typical bit stuff. Your argument got shredded, so now you are making crap up to try to cloud the issue.

    To quote Bit himself:

    Government can’t get it done

    You said government can’t get it done. You did not specify which level. Are you now saying state and local governments rock?

    Clearly, we have a lot of fine police and fire departments in this country. Local governments, getting the job done, working hard to keep us safe. Hard working prosecuters going after criminals and corruption.

    The county hospital here is keeping one of my relatives alive. In many ways, I think they do a better job than the local hospital I use thru my insurance. And this is a hospital in a very wealthy community, with a standard of care much higher than average. Yet our county hospital is superior in several areas.

    even now that ‘s a rather iffy posposition

    No, its not. If you think it is, you need to get a firmer grip on reality.

  41. anjin-san says:

    The Militia Act of 1903

    This is interesting, and leads to the observation that the true ascent of the US armed forces took place AFTER federalization.

  42. od says:

    I suppose that to depend on what government you’re talking about. Certainly, not the federal government.

    Well, the conversation seemed to be about gov’t in general, not specifically federal government. Public transit generally isn’t federal …

  43. Bithead says:

    We had a federal military for all but our very earliest history but it was a small one. But you’re right that most of our military forces were state controlled for generations. The Militia Act of 1903, better known as the Dick Act, federalized the various state militia and put us on the road to the current understanding.

    That was, I hasten to point out, more than a century ago.

    The point I have been less than direct about making, here is that is the traditional and constitutional role of the military. The founders never intended a large standing army, and we as a nation got around that problem to a large degree by the states maintaining them.

    It is now an iffy proposition from a constitutional standpoint because so fa r as I’m aware, the 1903 act has never been tested.

    You said government can’t get it done. You did not specify which level

    Well, you keep dancing on that pin, there, Anjin. Meantime, let’s break this out;

    We have the finest military in the world, by orders of magnitude. We put a man on the moon, which no one else has managed to do in the many years since.

    Your claim is that the military is the federal government. And who is it that runs the military by your lights? Who ruins NASA, Anjin? Therefore, what were we talking about? Clearly, the topic was the Federal government.

    And isn’t it interesting that such an avid defense of the military being under the wing of the federal government and how great our federal government is, should be coming from someone on record as spending the last couple years on this site, telling us all what a bunch of screwups those reps of the federal government are?

    Hard working prosecuters going after criminals and corruption.

    Nifong!! (Sniffle) “scuse me.

    Public transit generally isn’t federal ..

    That’s an interesting point, actually, but I suppose that to depend on how you measure it. For example, how much of the operational funds for the local government bus system comes form the federal government? The local light rail?

  44. Grewgills says:

    That’s an interesting point, actually, but I suppose that to depend on how you measure it. For example, how much of the operational funds for the local government bus system comes form the federal government?

    So, this is your measure now? Well then let me ask you how much of the operational funds for the US military comes from the federal government?
    Spin, spin, spin.

  45. anjin-san says:

    how great our federal government is,

    When did I say the federal, or any other level of our government is “great”? nowhere. My point is simply that there are ample cases that show that government, can, and does, get it right. Your argument that the government “can’t get it done” is obvious nonsense.

    During the Iraq war, there has been a lot of talk about the amazing advances in battlefield medicine, how we can now save men who would not have had a chance before. Socialized medicine provided by the US government. Your contempt for the doctors who treat wounded combat troops under difficult conditions is noted.

    coming from someone on record as spending the last couple years on this site, telling us all what a bunch of screwups those reps of the federal government are?

    The federal government is a large, complex institution. The screwups I have been talking about are the incopetent hacks in the Bush administration. The fact that they are clowns does not mean that no one in the government can do a good job. Even a few of Bush’s men are top notch, such as Gates and Paulsen.

  46. […] Robert Reich celebrates Poor Americans Being Forced Into Mass Transit (Hat Tip: Outside the Beltway.) […]

  47. […] Robert Reich celebrates Poor Americans Being Forced Into Mass Transit (Hat Tip: Outside the Beltway.) […]