The blog 2nd Ave. Sagas has written something that I think sums up pretty well transit advocates’ poor knowledge of private mass transit history:
Of course, public transit is vital to the city’s well being. Because Manhattan is an island, it can’t handle the traffic. It’s a commercial hub in a geographically isolated area that needs the subway — and requires people to travel for a while — to thrive. That our city’s forefathers had the foresight to build a vast public transit system is a minor miracle, and it’s sort of silly that we have such a love-hate relationship with the subway and the public transit system. Without it, New York City as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.
The biggest problem here is the conflation of “public transit” with “mass transit.” When New York’s rail lines were first built, they were private enterprises, not public ones. And Benjamin Kabak doesn’t explicitly say it, but when people talk about a city’s “forefathers,” they’re almost always talking about lawmakers. And in the late 19th and early 20th century, when New York’s massive transit networks were being built, lawmakers did pretty much everything they could to stifle the budding transit market – the idea that any of them had any “forethought” is absurd.
But secondly, Benjamin Kabak’s reverence for New York City’s subway system ignores the far more important contributions to the city made by streetcar and elevated train lines. As I’m learning in Robert Fogelson’s Downtown, NYC’s publicly-built subways paled in comparison to the privately-constructed elevated trains and streetcar networks that crisscrossed the five boroughs.
Even today, NYC buses, which mainly run along the old streetcar routes, have twice the ridership of the Subway.
And although the Subway was heavily subsidized by the government, the truth is that it was a very expensive and ineffective replacement for elevated trains, which are just as fast as subways, and far cheaper to build. The els were quite profitable and transit companies were eager to build them, but the NIMBY interests didn’t like the noise they made and the city resented the limited role that it had in the lines. In fact, it was the city holding out for a subway and the massive spending binge it took to finally build it that contributed to mass transit’s insolvency – a trend which continues unabated today. If the city hadn’t insisted on the unsustainable luxury of forcing all rapid transit underground (a theme I hope to explore more deeply in the future), then Second Avenue, and a whole bunch of other streets, would have gotten rapid transit a century ago. (And I won’t even get into the fact that much of the NYC “Subway” is actually repurposed old private elevated lines.)
So, in sum, there are very good reasons for even the staunchest transit advocates to have a “love-hate relationship with [...] public transit.” Back around the turn-of-the-century, during transit’s heyday, it was widely acknowledged that municipal ownership would be a disaster. Now that these predictions have panned out, it’s time for liberals to acknowledge the truth: public transportation sucks, and the only reason it’s still halfway decent today is because of the investments made by private companies a century ago.