Mass Transit Hysteria

Take the plunge, ride the transit and save the planet, writes satirist P.J. O'Rouke

Published: 22-Mar-2005

The new transportation bill, currently working its way through Congress, will provide more than $52 billion for mass transit. Mass transit is a wonderful thing, all right-thinking people agree. It stops pollution "in its tracks" (a little ecology-conscious light-rail advocacy joke). Mass transit doesn't burn climate-warming, Iraq-war-causing hydrocarbons. Mass transit can operate with nonpolluting sustainable energy sources such as electricity. Electricity can be produced by solar panels, and geothermal generators. Electricity can be produced by right-thinking people themselves, if they talk about it enough near wind farms.

Mass transit helps preserve nature in places like Yellowstone Park, the Everglades and the Arctic wilderness, because mass transit doesn't go there. Mass transit curtails urban sprawl. When you get to the end of the trolley tracks, you may want to move farther out into the suburbs, but you're going to need a lot of rails and ties and Irishmen with pickaxes. Plus there's something romantic about mass transit. Think Tony Bennett singing "Where little cable cars / Climb halfway to the stars." (And people say mass transit doesn't provide flexibility in travel plans!) Or the Kingston Trio and their impassioned protest of the five-cent Boston "T" fare increase, "The Man Who Never Returned." No doubt some lovely songs will be written about the Washington County, Ore., Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line to be funded by the new transportation bill.

There are just two problems with mass transit. Nobody uses it, and it costs like hell. Only 4% of Americans take public transportation to work. Even in cities they don't do it. Less than 25% of commuters in the New York metropolitan area use public transportation. Elsewhere it's far less--9.5% in San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, 1.8% in Dallas-Fort Worth. As for total travel in urban parts of America--all the comings and goings for work, school, shopping, etc.--1.7 % of those trips are made on mass transit.

Then there is the cost, which is--obviously--$52 billion. Less obviously, there's all the money spent locally keeping local mass transit systems operating. The Heritage Foundation says, "There isn't a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by the passengers cover the cost of their own rides." Heritage cites the Minneapolis "Hiawatha" light rail line, soon to be completed with $107 million from the transportation bill. Heritage estimates that the total expense for each ride on the Hiawatha will be $19. Commuting to work will cost $8,550 a year. If the commuter is earning minimum wage, this leaves about $1,000 a year for food, shelter and clothing. Or, if the city picks up the tab, it could have leased a BMW X-5 SUV for the commuter at about the same price.

We don't want minimum-wage workers driving BMW X-5s. That's unfair. They're already poor, and now they're enemies of the environment? So we must find a way to save mass transit--get people to ride it, be eager to pay for it, no matter what the cold-blooded free-market types at Heritage say. We must do it for the sake of future generations, for our children.

That's it! The children. The solution to the problems of mass transit is staring us in the face. Or, in the case of my rather short children, staring us in the sternum. All over America men and women, at the behest of their children, are getting on board various light-rail systems that don't even go anywhere. And these trips--if you factor in the price of cotton candy, snow cones and trademarked plush toys--cost considerably more than $19. Yet we're willing to stand in line for ages to utilize this type of mass transit. All we have to do is equip Hiawatha with a slow climb, a steep, sudden plunge, several sharply banked curves, and maybe a loop-the-loop over by St. Paul.

The new mass transit can harness clean, renewable resources. "Unplug the Prius, honey! I'm taking the waterslide to work!" And it need not be expensive. In fact, we might be able to make certain advantageous cuts in transportation spending. A few reductions in Amtrak's already minimal maintenance budget would turn the evening Metroliner into a reeling, lurching journey through the pitch dark equal to anything Space Mountain has to offer. And here is a perfect opportunity for public/private partnership. The Disney Co. is looking for new profit centers. The New York subway can become a hair-raising thrill ride by means of a simple return to NYPD 1970s policing practices.

Not all of the new mass transit has to be frenetic. Bringing groceries home on the tilt-o-whirl presents difficulties. We can take a cue from the lucrative cruise ship industry--every commute a mini-luxury vacation. Perhaps this wouldn't be suitable in areas without navigable water. But don't be too sure. Many "riverboat casinos" are completely stationary, and a lot of commuters don't want to go to work anyway. Slot machines could be put on all forms of mass transit. Put slot machines on city buses and people will abandon their cars, or abandon their car payments, which comes to the same thing.

This is a revolutionary approach to mass transit. It can save the planet. And it can save me from taking the kids to Orlando. Now I can stay home in D.C. and send them for a ride on Washington's new, improved Metro of Horrors, where scary things jump out at your from nowhere--things like $52 billion appropriations for mass transit.

Mr. O'Rourke is the author, most recently, of "Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004).

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