Our Socialistic, Government-Run Roads and Highways

by Will on September 10, 2010

Today I took the cable car to and from a dentist appointment in San Francisco. Yesterday I spent probably one-and-a-half hours sitting in my unpleasantly hot car, stewing over the backed-up traffic. Sitting on the cable car today and enjoying the breeze and the pleasant sights of California Avenue, I reflected on the fact that it was Abner Doubleday — the man famous for something he had absolutely nothing to do with, the invention of baseball — who first introduced the cable car to the city, shortly after the Civil War. Doubleday and his associates ran the cable car company as a private business. It was profitable until other private businessmen started running streetcars, which proved much much more efficient and soon led to the cable car’s decline. The streetcars were then run as a private enterprise until the earthquake of 1906 destroyed most of their infrastructure and left the streetcar company bankrupt. It was at this point that the city took over provision of transit services. But in the East Bay, the privately owned Key System company continued operating a fleet of streetcars privately until 1960, at which point it had become unprofitable and was sold to municipal governments.

What happened between the period when streetcars could run a profit, and 1960? Well, the automobile became popular. At first it was very expensive: its only buyers would have been wealthy status-seekers and businesses who could use it for profitable transport. When enough of these people had cars, it began to bother them that dirt roads were so inconvenient to drive on, and that long distances took a long time to traverse. So they started pressing their representatives to put in some better roads, at public expense. As cars became more affordable and more people had them, officials bowed to the pressure, putting in paved roads to facilitate local driving, and highways to facilitate long-distance driving.

This amounts to a huge public subsidy to everyone who drives a car or uses roads for shipping. Because nobody expects the roads and highways to turn a profit or break even, they have a huge competitive advantage vis-a-vis mass transit. The average driver is likely to think of one car trip as basically free or very low-cost, and to choose to drive rather than take a bus or streetcar with it’s fare of two or more dollars. It feels cheaper to drive. I suspect that if we added in the cost of gas, depreciation and damage to the car, environmental damage from fuel emissions that will be costly to deal with, and taxation necessary to fund the roads, the car trip would actually often be more costly than the public transit fare. Because of pressure on public transit to break even, meanwhile, it tends to set fares higher than what many are willing to pay, and also to limit its services so that its customers pay the additional cost of a long wait: its competitive disadvantage makes it an even less attractive option vis-a-vis driving.

Some people like to snarl about how public transit is a big waste of time and money, and we should just let people drive everywhere all the time, because that’s what people want, dog-gone-it. These people also tend to profess a huge faith in the virtue and wisdom of the free market, and to sneer at any proposed government intervention or provision of free services. I would ask these people whether it is really the free market that is behind our nation’s car culture, and whether they think we ought to sell the roads to private interest who will see to it that they are profitable.

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