Thursday, June 25, 2009

Against those who complain about public transportation

The recent Metro train tragedy in D.C. has got me thinking. Its scary to think that what happened could happen again, or in another city. Its disturbing to think that it happened, of all places, in D.C. where the rapid-transit rail system is one of the best in the country.

But we must keep this tragedy in perspective.

Like airplane crashes, this tragedy is high profile. And for good reasons: mass transit in the U.S. is woefully underfunded and does not receive the investment that it deserves given the rising ridership, social need, and environmental imperatives justifying its superiority to the "one person one car" mentality that infects so much of the U.S.

But how many headlines focus on the deaths of pedestrians in large cities who are either injured or killed by careless drivers? Who keeps track of cyclists killed by cars on a weekly basis in the U.S.? Who actually considers that stepping into a motor vehicle of any kind represents an increased risk (versus walking or taking buses/trains (or airplanes)) that they might be killed?

So the crash in D.C. has brought to light a deficit in investment and emphasis on public transportation. Which brings me to the raison d'etre of this post.

People love to complain about public transit. It's too slow. It smells bad. It's insufficiently convenient. It's 'sketchy'. It isn't as nice as its international counterparts.

In Chicago it's something of a sport. Even people who purportedly support the idea of public transit in principle are quick to unravel a long litany of complaints and grievances about the CTA to anyone who will listen.

But at present there is immense progressive potential in resisting this tendency and becoming a staunch advocate of the transit status quo. Here's why. It is undeniably true that public transit is underfunded, undernourished, in disrepair, insufficiently comprehensive, and often prone to inconvenience riders. It's also undeniably true that it could feasibly be much, much better than it is (e.g. take a look at other systems internationally). It's also the case that in a country as rich and purportedly 'advanced' as the U.S., the state of its public transportation infrastructure is an embarassment to say the least.

Nonetheless, the most progressive thing defenders of public transit can do at the moment is resist the temptation to focus on these shortcomings. Those who would dwell on the smells, the breakdowns, the inconveniences, the express trains that wizz by you when you're in a hurry, the slow zones, the shenanigans, and so on, are priming the pumps for the cutting of services and the further deterioration of mass transit. Moreover, there is not much seperating these complainers from those who draw the inference "well, if its this bad, I guess there is nothing wrong with driving most everywhere", or "well who cares if they cut it, it wasn't that good anyway".

Unfortunately, the present is not a time to make trenchant critiques of the transportation infrastructure in the interests of totally revamping it. The present is a time to dig in one's heels and hope that it doesn't get worse.

Despite its many problems, the public transit infrastructure we have in Chicago is solid gold. It is the fruit of another era. If it were up to those in power today public transit would look something like this: a privately-operated shuttle-bus company (running buses from 9am-6pm) that is partially funded by regressive taxes, supplemented by a reduced-fare taxi-voucher program for low-income seniors. Perhaps we might even have a public taxi service to give taxi consumers another 'option on the market' and 'keep the private taxi businesses honest'. Everyone else would be too busy running over bikers and pedestrians with their SUVs to bother worry about the shabby shuttlebuses. The Republicans would probably be complaining that the legislation to create this tepid 'transit solution' was tanatamount to 'totalitarianism', and Max Baucus and Ben Nelson would probably be threatening not to vote for the bill.

If were up to those in power now, you can bet the farm that we'd have no 24-hour elevated trains in Chicago. We'd have no comprehensive bus service. The ambitious reformism which built these institutions is anathema to those in control of Government today. They, i.e. Obama and Co., can't even be bothered to simply maintain the assets of what more audacious reformers of the past produced. They're, at present, sitting by as these crucial institutions endure punishing cuts. Yet they continue to pursue new and expanded imperialist ventures abroad which show no signs of slowing down in terms of body count or increasing price tags. Many Chicagoans probably take it for granted that we have a comprehensive rail service, but if it were only a matter of how government institutions operate today then it wouldn't even be imaginable that such a massive public service could be built at all. Think here of how single-payer looks more and more like a pipe dream every day, whereas its feeble cousin Medicare is taken for granted as a neutral part of the backdrop of the status quo. If Truman would've succeeded in implementing single-payer in the 1940s, it would be unfathomable today that we could actually put up with not having universal health care. Instead, in a business-driven society which has no consciousness of history beyond the returns of last quarter, it is precisely the other way around.

If it were up to those in power today, we'd have no subway system, no elevated rails, no commuter trains. Anyone who's primary prerogative is to sound-off about the problems of mass transit ignores this crucial fact. The most progressive thing those who'd like a better public transit system can do at the present moment is to not abandon it in its moment of need. That means, first and foremost, rejecting the opportunist mentality that liscences 'giving up' on mass transit in favor of driving a car. And I'm quite aware of the fact that this injunction not to 'give up' is hardly class-neutral, but then neither is the impulse to complain and whine about the problems that CTA has. I can tell you that you won't hear this sort of whining from the swaths of people who simply couldn't afford a car (myself included) anyway and take public transit out of necessity.

CTA is going to be taking a $35 million dollar cut to its (already inadequate) funding this year. CTA operates the second-largest transit system in the entire USA. That the Federal, State and Municipal governments are allowing this to happen (although their respective indicies of responsibility are not equal) is a travesty.


EHR said...


I think we also need to revive the old adage: you get what you pay for.

Of course, it would also be nice if people recognized that taxes are an effective way of paying for something without putting too much of a financial burden on small and particular groups of people, but even "progressives" seem to have forgotten that these days.

Anonymous said...

Its a shame that those who have an efficient, viable public transit system take it for granted. Meanwhile a sickening amount of cities have only private passenger vehicles as an option.

Dave Zirin has a nice post about the DC train tragedy in relation to cities funding priorities (sports stadiums)