A new light on the transit debate

By Eric Miller
web posted March 27, 2000

Looking at the skyline of New York, or any other city at the dawn of the 20th Century, it would seem that little, if anything could be powerful enough to distort the tall pillars of capitalism and the dense urban environment it created.

But by mid-century, the Interstate Highway System, the largest public works project ever, had begun to remold the urban form in cities and small towns across the United States. Today, for some odd reason, urban sprawl - the result of the huge wasteful government programs- is credited to capitalism.

In fact, conservatives and free-market advocates routinely side with the automobile in the public vs. private transportation debate.

But exactly what constitutes public and private transit at the beginning of the 21st Century isn't any clearer than the auto-induced smog hovering over Los Angeles.

What a difference a century makes.

During the first few decades of the 20th Century, a complete efficient, affordable and private system of electric street cars made travel to the store, the office and home made accessible to most everyone.

For a nickel, residents of America's cities could travel to work, live in a street-car suburb, visit an urban park, take in the thrills of an amusement park and with some extra fare, even travel between cities. The private system of street cars made sure homes were near stores, people were not far from their work, and everything was near reliable transportation.

In contrast, today residents of a sprawling suburb live isolated from almost anything- save acres of lawn that is in need of constant care.

An unacceptable percentage of a working family's income goes to the purchase, fueling, maintenance, licensing, insuring and parking of one or more automobiles.

Further, using automobiles as a primary means of transportation means the public must finance the infrastructure once provided by private industry.

The cost of spreading out also places a burden on other public services. Counties must maintain and plow the roads, stretch sewer lines and other infrastructure over far greater distances and state and local law enforcement personnel must patrol an ever increasing expanse of roadways.

The acres of land needed to accommodate up to eight lanes of cars is also much greater than the space needed for mass transit. Likewise, the fuel cost per passenger is also many times that of mass transit, not to mention the greater cost of the vehicles.

Similarly, the acres of parking lots needed at shopping strips near exit ramps causes visual blight, drainage problems, environmental degradation and occupies valuable land that could be used for farming.

Building the expanse of highways also helped to concentrate wealth. Instead of the many local and regional retailers who ran the stores in America's downtown's and on main streets, corporate chains and inter-national conglomerates operate the stores in malls and strip-plazas. Local business, in many cases, is even discouraged by mall-owners, instead favoring chains that can fill many stores in numerous locations.

And while the highways made millionaires of those often politically connected who owned land near highway exits and on ramps, the value was stolen from property-owners in cities. Urban residents lost property, memories and lives through the uncaring government hand using a sickle of eminent domain, which amounts to nothing more than the confiscation of private property for a public purpose, with or without the consent of the property owner.

Then the sometimes publicly financed dismantling of private street car systems, combined with the urban scars, noise and traffic created by highways and automobiles robbed urban home and business owners of their property's value.

Before the highways were built, sales of automobiles were limited for the most part to farmers, loggers and others whose work necessitated they live out of the reach of private street car systems. In order to sell cars in large numbers, competition needed to be eliminated and cities rebuilt so that motorization was practical to the residents of urban areas. In order to buy a car, you had to have a place to park it.

While urban property lost value, and street car companies lost business, the interstate highway system made mountains of small companies like Chrysler and General Motors, and paved the path for mass restaraunteurs and retailers like K-Mart and McDonald's.

The remolding of America's cities was publicly financed as well.

Through mass-clearance, urban-renewal programs, the construction of parking facilities, tax incentives and even publicly financed commercial development, the federal government set out to wipe away the walking city.

Only because public programs had enabled the creation of suburbia did cities need to be rebuilt through public means in order to compete with it. In order to buy a car you needed to have a place to drive to.

But at the same time, other programs gave suburbia even more help. Home loan programs lured millions of urban residents to new auto subdivisions being built on the countryside, increasing the desperation and need for still additional programs to cure the new ills of urban America. The private transit systems the public programs rendered useless would be propped up by still more government money.

Today it would be a staggering task to come up for a total cost for this inefficient and wasteful system. While Americans may have embraced the automobile, they never had to pay its full cost.
And yet, despite the visible guiding hand of the government, free-market advocates cling to the image of the automobile as the creation of the market, and repeat consistently that public-transit systems are an inefficient and wasteful government program that should be eliminated.

If Uncle Sam would have purchased a video disk player in the 1980s for every man, woman and child in the country, the vhs tape would have gone the way of the Edsel long before the DVD came along to take its place.

But through the limitless construction of highways and the deep pockets of other programs, government visionaries, pushed along by the political entrepreneurs at auto, oil and rubber companies, were able to change the way Americans lived and the way our communities looked by financing an alternative.

Whether you like the automobile or not, the auto-city isn't the creation of the free market, and the high cost and mass inefficiency could come no other way but through the guiding hand of big government.

Eric Miller writes frequently on urban issues and is the web master of http://home.earthlink.net/~urbancentury. He recently contributed an essay to a new book about famous authors and the places they knew, writing about Ayn Rand and New York. Literary Trips: Following In The Footsteps of Fame, is published by Greatest Escapes and available at http://www.literarytrips.com.

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