Sick Transit

by James Lileks
In the U.S. and around the world, it’s a weird fad.

Summary of a Washington Post op-ed in my local paper: “Transit use remains disappointing because driving is too cheap.”

They mean that in a bad way.

If there’s a story about “Transit,” they don’t mean cars. Cars are just solipsistic carbon-barfing capsules that move selfish people around. Transit means communal boxes, preferably on rails. When they talk about transit options, they mean buses (ick!) and bikes (yay!) and streetcars, which are romantic and sustainable and everyone takes them in Europe. Ergo: You there with the two-car garage — pony up. Do you really have to read the article to know that’s where it’s going? Slowly? Stopping at every corner?

“Drivers impose costs on society — in delay, in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads — that they don’t pay for,” say the authors, assistant professors all. Well, let’s take a look at Delay.

Once upon a time, where I lived, a street was made one-way, to make traffic flow better. Eventually the planners realized something horrible: Traffic was, in fact, flowing. People were using the street to get from downtown to locations beyond, instead of idling on the highway. Flowing traffic meant that people who lived on the street had to deal with lots of cars — a fact that no doubt surprised anyone who bought a house on a four-lane road. Traffic had to be . . . calmed.

But how? The lights could be retimed. If it’s set on “Move along, little dogies,” you can cruise the length at the posted speed and hit all the greens. If it’s set on “punishment” your milk expires on the way back from the store. There weren’t enough lights to ruin the flow, and they couldn’t install speed bumps because people would hit them at 35 mph and poorly secured children would fly through the moon-roof.

So they removed one lane and gave it to bikes.

They might as well have given it to Segways or unicorns, or unicorns on Segways. While it was no doubt a boon to bikers who wanted the safety of a dedicated lane protected by the Magical Power of a Paint Stripe, drivers who were sitting through lights long enough to complete a Tom Clancy audiobook couldn’t help noticing that the number of bikers who used the lanes could not be mistaken for the starting ceremony of the Tour de France, and the ones you did see always blew through the red lights. They are entitled to do so because they are not emitting carbon, I guess. It’s like saying you can rob a bank because you walked to the job.

At this point bikers get peeved: It’s always the red lights with you guys, isn’t it? C’mon. They want to be treated as equal citizens, but it’s really “Two wheels good, four wheels bad.” Cars, however, do not go up the sidewalk if they wish, and cars do not go through red lights just because they don’t want to break their momentum. But some bikers — the ideological sort who regard every trip as a crusade of conspicuous righteousness — feel justified in flouting the rules, because some drivers are jerks and c’mon, man, carbon.

Two points:

1. Imagine a typical city grid of streets and blocks. This next part is hard, so bear with me. Imagine a street that runs parallel to the wide high-traffic street the cars use. Imagine putting up stop signs so the cars must defer to the possibility of bikes, and letting the bikes use the side street as their thoroughfare. Wouldn’t that be better for all? Of course not. Separate but Equal.

2. We have something up here in Minneapolis called “Winter,” which tasks the determination of the most avid biker; you’ll find stories about hardy souls who bike to work in a blizzard, which is like snorkeling during a tsunami, and I guess we’re supposed to admire their commitment to fitness and the Earth, but they’re actually the exception. Most people don’t look out the window, see seven inches of new snow, and wonder: Hmm. Drive to work in a nice warm car listening to the radio, take the bus, or thrust my wonderfully toned limbs into a spandex sheath and pedal to work through drifts until I wipe out and slide under a Yukon?

There are good reasons for biking during a blizzard, including “It is the only way in a post-apocalypse society to get to the dispensary where the last supply of antibiotics is kept, if the rumors are true, so that your child may survive.” There’s also . . . no, that’s about it.

Look: In my ideal urban world, I walk out the front door, a trolley clatters up, I swing on board, the conductor touches his cap, and off we go! But this world also requires that I don’t have a child to pick up from school, an errand to run 20 miles away, groceries to fetch, soccer game after supper, and so on. I do not live in a European city in a flat the size of my college dorm room with a fridge that makes R2D2 look like Optimus Prime.

In their heyday, streetcars opened up distant neighborhoods to colonization, created commercial nodes where they paused, and knit the city together with cheap efficiency. They also blocked traffic, because they couldn’t pull over; they required an unsightly lattice-work of wires over the street; they were drafty in the winter, and went broke because the city regulated the fares and kept them cheap until all the blood drained out of the company. When the buses replaced the trolleys the people were happy: They were new and modern; they could pull over at a stop and let traffic pass. And the wires were gone. Hallelujah!

Now the wires are back up for the light rail. There’s a big push to bring back streetcars, which are just like buses, except they require iron lines in the pavement and wires overhead, and can’t be rerouted. But dang, they look fine in promotional brochures and videos. A millennial who might move here to get a job as a web designer at a nonprofit looks at those pictures and thinks: These are the signs of enlightenment. President Obama himself paid a visit to a refurbished train station in neighboring St. Paul, to praise our forward-looking transit strategy, right on the day they tested a stretch of the new line that links downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The car derailed. But hey. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single misstep.

* * *

In Amsterdam last year, we were heading back from supper to the hotel, and hailed a cab. A black BMW. Pristine and gleaming, immaculate within and without. We paused at a light while the streetcar passed and the endless stream of busted-up rusty bikes flowed past, and I asked about the enormous construction project underway on the main street.

The cabbie said it was a subway. I was surprised: You have such excellent trams, and so many bikes; why a subway?

He turned around and gave me a look of pity and sympathy: as if “why” truly matters.

A billion, he said. A. Billion. Euros.

Minneapolis will probably start work on our subway in 2040, and I’ve no doubt it will include a car to accommodate the 247 people who want to trot down the stairs carrying a bike. The light rail will go here and there, and some of the passengers may actually pay the fare. The streetcars will ply the route between the Warehouse District where the tech firms are located and the dense blocks where young, single, childless information-managers live. Buses — which serve the poor better than any other option — will remain the inglorious remnant of an era when Transit was a practical matter not yet yoked to the fate of the Earth and a city’s hip credibility. Cars will be the Gaia-strangling murder-boxes favored by the selfish and the cruel, eating up our future, coasting along on a free ride. So it will be until cars are banned, or Our Betters get their way and driving around town to live your life is as expensive as taking a Learjet to the grocery store.

If people who like the freedom a car provides want to make the case for private transit, they’d best think how to start paying their way. An annual license fee? Hardly enough. I know it goes against conservative principles, but imagine paying a tax on gasoline, with the proceeds going to roads. I know, I know: Communism! But at least we’ll have something to which we may point when the critics say cars get a free ride.

Really, it’s only fair. You’re in a car, by yourself, going where you want to go, humming along with the song on the radio, a simple and distinctly American expression of freedom and individuality.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.