Today I stumbled upon a blog that’s gotta be the best one I’ve found in a while. It’s about US transportation policy by a blogger who seems to be based somewhere in the Bay Area, and it’s called, fittingly, Systemic Failure.
The post that first got my attention was this one about London’s bike sharing system likely being profitable in the future, which made me realize that this would be a great first government transportation program to privatize, especially considering that the government is keeping the price extremely low (it’s free for trips under 30 minutes) and the system is struggling to keep up with demand. I assume the reason that private companies didn’t try this earlier was that city governments have no framework for renting out small parcels of public space for use as bike racks – this despite having a vast infrastructure in place for renting similar parcels to drivers on a short-term basis (i.e., on-street parking!).
But beyond that, (s?)he does a great job covering a range of transit issues, from the misguided attempts at federalization of transit safety by Obama after the WMATA Red Line crash in 2009 (1, 2, 3, 4) to the inanity of helmet laws (1, 2). The “Drunk Engineer” also offers blistering critiques of American protectionism in transit procurement, including one in which he describes the horrible inefficiency of Buy America provisions, which wreaked havoc on a Houston streetcar project and caused a Bay Area transit authority to have two completed Japanese pilot cars disassembled and shipped to the US where they would then be reassembled to conform with the law (another example here).
Another interesting post that I found was this one about Senator Barbara Boxer’s insistence that Metrolink trains have two conductors onboard for safety reasons, despite the lack of empirical evidence that this actually improves safety. This all sounds eerily similar to arguments made by labor unions a century ago, which ultimately succeeded in both furthering the unions’ short-term interests and guaranteeing transit’s long-term decline. In keeping with what I presume to be the author’s residence, there are quite a few posts about other examples of transportation incompetence in the Bay Area (1, 2, 3), including a few posts on everyone’s favorite boondoggle, the Oakland Airport Connector (1, 2, 3, 4). The Drunk Engineer hasn’t been updating the blog more than a few times a month, but there’s a few pages of archives if anyone’s interested in digging through them. Again, the blog: http://systemicfailure.wordpress.com.
Reading about all of these failures in mass transit planning reminded me of why I don’t put much stock in the fact that transit is subsidized at a higher rate than private cars on the road (something that new commenter Jim654 has repeatedly reminded us of): the government is, simply put, worse at provisioning it. Whereas two-thirds of the automobile system is already in private hands (the vehicles and the labor to operate them) with only one-third (road/highway construction) being entrusted to the government, the state gets to fuck up three all three aspects of mass transit – the tracks, the vehicles, and the labor. American drivers are free to buy Japanese cars, but American mass transit users are forced to ride in American-built vehicles. While I’m sure there’s plenty of fat in highway and road construction that could be trimmed if road construction and maintenance were privatized, this probably pales in comparison to the amount of waste that could be eliminated if transit procurement and operation were liberalized. I’m not going to pretend that transit subsidies are entirely due to waste – I’m sure much of the subsidies are required due to the simple fact that the density necessary to support a profitable mass transit network is simply illegal in America. But it would also be naïve to claim that transit’s subsidies are due entirely to either unsuitable land use or the inherent inferiority to the road/car system. Much of it is just rank government incompetence.