site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of April 3, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

12
Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Anti-Antiplanner

A week or two ago a commenter brought up Randal O’Toole, an ex-Cato Institute researcher who was kicked out for believing that single family zoning was a valid expression of property rights (or something). While I disagree with most of his shtick, it’s hard not to have a grudging affection someone who’s such an obstinate libertarian that even the other obstinate libertarians don’t want to hang out with him

O’Toole is probably more known for his work on transit, of which his focus on suburbs is kind of a subset. Famously, he’s deeply against public transit of almost all forms and strictly pro-car. Ironically, this is despite the fact that he personally is a train enthusiast and avid cyclist who claims to have never driven a car to work. His research is generally solid and numbers are legit, you can read a good summary of his transit ideas on the charmingly titled “Transit: The Urban Parasite.”

His broad claims are that transit both costs more and is more polluting “per-passenger miler,” or per person moved around, when compared to cars, and that transit ridership continues to fall even when we raise subsidies.

These stats seem basically true, but are they a natural free market outcome, or do they specifically reflect a choice landscape that emerged from the very fact that we spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the interstate highway system and countless smaller road projects, and that single family zoning, parking minimums, and resultant sprawl have purposely built an environment where much of transit is impractical and rendered uncompetitive?

These are massively relevant questions because all O’Toole’s criticisms of trains are not inherent to their engineering, but in very large part contingent on the way the investment in car infrastructure saps away their ridership. Trains are not more expensive and polluting because they lack the capacity to move around more people but because (and this is O’Toole’s argument) most seats are unfilled lately, so a lot of energy goes into moving only a few people. But if ridership was higher the numbers would be completely reversed!

Flush train cars blow actual cars out of the water on every metric we care about: affordability, environmental damage, and efficient use of space. Ranking urban planning based on its contingent worst performance rather than its societal potential feels like bizarrely short term thinking.

Nor should we assume the present situation is irreversible. The strength of O’Toole’s argument about trains becoming obsolete rests on emphasizing a decline in ridership in the last few years, a timeframe that of course did include a global pandemic, a pretty clear reason to invest in a car and stay away from crowds. Critic Jarrett Walker notes that:

When he tells us that ridership “peaked,” he’s confessing that he’s playing the “arbitrary starting year” game. To get the biggest possible failure story, he compares current ridership to a past year that he selected because ridership was especially high then. This is a standard way of exploiting the natural volatility of ridership to create exaggerated trends. Again, the Los Angeles Times article that got O’Toole going made a big deal out of how ridership is down since 1985 and 2006, without mentioning that ridership is up since 1989 and up since 2004 and 2011. Whether ridership is up or down depends on which past year you choose, which is to say, it’s about what story the writer wants to tell.

Likewise, O’Toole’s much cited constant cost overruns and astounding costs per mile of construction on transit projects aren’t written into stone; they’re in large part due to the enormous legal, compliance and consulting costs caused by hopelessly inefficient procurement processes, environmental rules (“the wealthy DC suburb of Chevy Chase have led a decades-long crusade against the light rail project, which will benefit the entire region, by claiming that a ‘tiny transparent invertebrate’ might be at risk”), and land use regulations - government restrictions that O’Toole himself has compared to communism! Further high but unproductive expenses are maintenance backlogs (catching up for previous years of underfunding) and security staff. But O’Toole himself argues that security costs could be massively reduced simply by making turnstiles more secure.

Looking at other countries with less institutional corrosion, the costs of building transit are significantly cheaper:

On a per mile basis, America’s transit rail projects are some of the most expensive in the world. In New York, the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.6 billion per mile, in San Francisco the Central Subway cost $920 million per mile, in Los Angeles the Purple Line cost $800 million per mile.

In contrast, Copenhagen built a project at just $323 million per mile, and Paris and Madrid did their projects for $160 million and $320 million per mile, respectively. These are massive differences in cost.

Furthermore, all of the above mentioned lines are profitable (though the Paris subway did record a year of loss in 2020). Which isn’t hard to imagine; if our transit system were 1/6th to 1/8th as expensive as it is now then we’d be profitable as well. O’Toole criticizes endlessly unsustainable transit subsidies, but ignores that absent America’s uniquely high costs, well-managed transit can actually be a boon to municipal coffers.

In contrast, he touts cars’ light subsidy footprint (up to 40% of costs but supposedly as low as a penny per passenger mile) - but of course these figures are depressed by outsourcing the costs of the actual vehicles to the users. [edit: updated from Walterodim pointing out we don't know how many people own new vs used cars] Experian records the average person paying $716 a month on new car payments and $525 on used car payments. Adding data from the AAA on insurance, fuel, and maintenance brings that up to $704 - $894 a month, or $8448 - $10,278 a year. O'Toole cites the total cost of cars in 2017 (with lower numbers than these 2023 costs) as worth $1.15 trillion, or “only” 6.8% of car owner’s incomes.

This is an enormous cost for normal people, and stealth deflates the actual costs of driving infrastructure when compared with transit. In contrast, most subways tickets can be bought for about $2.50, or $1200 yearly across a twice-a-day, five-day-a-week commute - nearly one tenth of the cost borne by the car owner.

Further stealth subsidies include municipal parking minimums that landlords pass on to the public in the form of higher rents, and that also unnecessarily burden business operations: “When the US Census Bureau surveyed owners and managers of multifamily rental housing to learn which governmental regulations made their operations most difficult, parking requirements were cited more frequently than any other regulation except property taxes”. Lest this seem like nitpicking, one pricing estimate, using conservative numbers, finds the total value of parking in the US exceeds the value of even the cars themselves, roughly doubling off-sheet privatized costs.

Tl;dr: Lest this seem overly critical, I actually hold a contrarian’s fondness for O’Toole and respect his work. Still, in every instance O’Toole seems to be taking transit systems that are specifically the worst possible example of their form, out of date, mismanaged, chronically underfunded, their customers drawn away by car infrastructure and their costs artificially inflated by regulations, and then compares them to suburban roadways bolstered by restrictive zoning and generous subsidies, with their costs artificially deflated by outsourcing far higher expenses onto consumers, and then pretends the free market has demonstrated the most efficient mode of travel.

So how much is car-pooling a thing among suburban middle-class office-working normies in the US and the West in general? Probably not much if I had to guess, but I'm sure it'd solve many of these dilemmas.

EDIT: not one reply. I'll take that as 'not much'.

Coming late due to the quality contributions roundup, but https://web.archive.org/web/20170628142015/https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/highlights_of_the_2001_national_household_travel_survey/html/table_a15.html says about 1.6 people per personal vehicle trip. Since that includes things like whole-family trips, carpooling is probably not very common.

Quality post. I don't have any factual or analytical quarrels, just a different point of view based on experienced-influenced shifts in value prioritization.

I once had a 90 minute each way commute for about a year. That's 3 hours in the car Monday to Friday. I hated it. Traffic is a stress machine; you have to be vigilant constantly in what is a boring situation with high stakes (even a fender bender has long term impact on your insurance premiums, what if the other guy doesn't have insurance, wear and tear on your car compounds, etc.) Especially on the drive home, I would get back feeling far more drained than I anticipated and this would sap my energy and motivation to do much more than sloppily prepare a Bro Dude dinner and veg out in front of the T.V.

For most of my career after that (even pre-COVID) I had either sub 30-minute public transit commutes, or a healthy mix of WFH mixed with 1 - 2 times weekly sub-30 minute driving commutes.

Without an ounce of doubt, the public transit experience was worse than every other mode including 3 hours daily. This is because it makes you tired and weary of people.

In any major American urban city with public transit, for going on close to a decade, daily riders are confronted with antisocial behaviors ranging from the mild yet still inexplicably annoying (those folks who play music on speaker instead of using headphones) to the low level criminal (open drug use or exchange ... panhandling) to the worrisome (erratic enough behavior that you must become vigilant in anticipation of potential threat) to the just .... disheartening (fare evasion by someone who obviously could pay it but understands "hey, no one is going to stop me" is now a policy in many cities). The compounding effect is that you have a constant availability bias. I can remind myself all I want about bad mental models and cognitive biases, but if I saw another homeless dude taking a shit on the platfrom this morning, I'm probably tipping a little lighter, I'm probably scoffing a little harder at a "therapy instead of jail" article in the Atlantic.

The "public space" is only public insofar as there's an understood order and general preservation of the space by the public. Otherwise ... it's a No Man's Land with a random free-ride-machine punching through it. There has to be some sort of collective respect and even pride in the thing itself. Public transit should be more than a competitor to private cars, more than a utilitarian cost-per-mile exercise. A ride should be considered part of the experience of that locale, that city, that city's culture. But ... if the current lowest comment denominator of that city's culture is open air drug market / improvisational lavatory / au-plain-aire insane asylum / literal free rider problem Illustrated ... then that public space and that public good (the transit system) is no longer what I would call capital P Public. It's a state run shitty service through Thomas Hobbes' human ant farm.

I'll let the wonderful Mottizens debate specific policy, but I'll die on the hill of this larger point - public spaces without genuine daily public support (in the form of prosocial behavior) and an understood order of things become lawless lands. It is the job of Government to reasonably encourage the prosocial behaviors (posters and the like) ... and decisively enforce actual law breaking. I do not understand how any public servant, especially elected ones, can look at fare evasion and go "oh well. It's not like they're killing anyone!" No, I suppose they aren't stabbing Cash App cofounders to death (oh wait .... sorry, too soon?). The suicide of citizen cohesion is done in slow motion and one cut at a time.

Thanks, and interesting - I've had pretty similarish experiences both of long car commutes (though not that bad) and chaotic transit commutes and ultimately I still preferred the latter. Part of it is probably going to be personal preference but that constant boredum-plus-hypervigilance as you put it just drove me crazy. At the end of a long day of work I can at least read Wikipedia or whatever on the subway.

I agree completely that something needs to be done about criminals and crazy people on trains and buses. Part of my support for transit is that I think it's actually pretty easy to address those things. We have all the tools - stricter entrance/exit security plus law enforcement onboard - we just lack political will. This might still sound like a tall order, but still seems actually solvable in a way that the unpleasant part of driving just don't.

No, I suppose they aren't stabbing Cash App cofounders to death (oh wait .... sorry, too soon?)

What? I think I may have heard of this, but this is still new to me.

Bob Lee was stabbed to death in SF a day or two ago.

Yeah, just saw this article confirming that.

I feel like I was thinking of a different, older incident involving a techie.

This is a good comment, and again illustrates the divide between those who have experienced clean, safe, decent public transportation, and those who have experienced the reverse.

I don't like to drive, and now have a 30 minute commute so that I can have a yard with children and chickens and fresh eggs, but previously relied on public transportation in several different cities. Busses in the Southwest were mostly civil, but I had to sit out in the brutal heat for up to an hour to get them. I eventually got a car when my plan became to take a bus in the morning to the first part of my job, then a ride from my family member at lunch, another ride from a co-worker or walk through an air force base, another walk back, then another bus ride, so I was spending probably three hours on this daily, and involving multiple different people with cars as well. This only worked for a month, and wouldn't have worked at all if I weren't single with no other obligations.

Chicago was interesting. For the most part, I actively enjoyed their public transportation. Even though there are some panhandlers and some smelly homeless, they're kept in line, and middle class businessmen still ride the trains. Also, the CTA was built in the brief window of knowing how to build impressive stacked roadways, elevated trains, underground garages with parks on top of them and so on, and before everyone decided not to do that, and that it was too much work. So the multi-level train rides were both civil and actually interesting in their own right. But there were certain stops I was warned away from (maybe this was unfounded prejudice -- I didn't test them to find out). My commute there also involved driving to the metra, walking between the metra and CTA line or a 40 minute walk, and took over an hour each way, but it was an hour I enjoyed, which made all the difference. Also, I didn't have any kids or really hobbies, and still needed the car anyway. If LA could become more like Chicago that might be worth doing, but it doesn't seem possible, the city simply isn't designed that way as far as I can tell.

there were certain stops I was warned away from (maybe this was unfounded prejudice -- I didn't test them to find out)

The first relevant map I could find shows jumps in violent crime rate of as much as 5x between adjacent Chicago neighborhoods.

I've seen similar astonishingly sharp gradients in other cities... but I admit the idea of seeing a sharp gradient along a commuter train route is particularly shocking, and there seem to be a few of those here - Armour Square to Fuller Park?

The idea of "many criminals strike near home because they're too poor to have a car" always seemed a little bit odd to me, and they surely can't also be too poor to jump a turnstile, right? Is the real explanation a vicious/virtuous cycle of policing, where a criminal expects to be caught if preying on a "safe neighborhood", so they stay in the "unsafe neighborhood", which makes the job of the police on the "safe neighborhood" beat easier and makes them more likely to catch criminals who don't stay out?

Maybe there's some prosaic explanation, like "crime rates are normalized by residential population but people are being victimized in commercial areas that they commute to, so the numbers on that map have the wrong denominator".

The idea of "many criminals strike near home because they're too poor to have a car" always seemed a little bit odd to me, and they surely can't also be too poor to jump a turnstile, right? Is the real explanation a vicious/virtuous cycle of policing, where a criminal expects to be caught if preying on a "safe neighborhood", so they stay in the "unsafe neighborhood", which makes the job of the police on the "safe neighborhood" beat easier and makes them more likely to catch criminals who don't stay out?

This seems plausible. Among the South Side neighborhoods, there was the city worker neighborhood, where cops lived and were comfortable raising children and setting off (ostensibly illegal) fireworks on holidays, and repelled an attempted BLM protest. The cops were standing on the side of the street handing out recruitment fliers to people in their cars last I visited. And there are the other neighborhoods, where they're always investigating the last shooting, and there's barbed wire and metal detectors installed in the high schools. Presumably in the city worker neighborhood, if a person (especially a person who looked a certain way) were standing in a parking lot breaking into a car, someone would notice, call the cops, and those cops would come right away. In the other neighborhood they would not.

The idea of "many criminals strike near home because they're too poor to have a car" always seemed a little bit odd to me, and they surely can't also be too poor to jump a turnstile, right? Is the real explanation a vicious/virtuous cycle of policing, where a criminal expects to be caught if preying on a "safe neighborhood", so they stay in the "unsafe neighborhood", which makes the job of the police on the "safe neighborhood" beat easier and makes them more likely to catch criminals who don't stay out?

There's some of that, but there's also a huge factor of "most criminals are lazy and stupid". You hear more about those who are less so, but robbing one's neighbors is just a lot easier than striking out across town and robbing someone there.

it’s hard not to have a grudging affection someone who’s such an obstinate libertarian that even the other obstinate libertarians don’t want to hang out with him

I am on O'Toole's side about suburbs and cars, but I'm not sure it makes sense to call support for single family zoning more libertarian than opposing this. It seems clearly to be a measure of social control.

I guess you could make a case that in a consequentialist sense, single family zoning will result in more actual personal autonomy given the assumptions that relaxed zoning leads to density and density leads to a certain political climate. But at the end of the day I suspect almost everyone has some kind of story for how their proposed laws or regulations ultimately lead to more freedom.

the average person paying $716 a month on new car payments

Doing a bit of googling to confirm this: that's for a five year loan. A new car lasts a few times as long as that. Google says the average age of a modern vehicle is 11.4 years. So pay $716 for 5 years and then get a paid off car for a hell of a lot longer. And most Americans buy used anyways. I guess my point is this crushing financial burden falls on relatively few people and only strictly by choice if they frequently buy new cars.

The average person isn't paying that much for a car. The average person who recently purchased a new car is, but they are a minority.

“Transit: The Urban Parasite"

I nominate O'Toole King of the Libertarians.

But more seriously: I can't find it now, but I saw a Federal agency's list of per passenger mile fuel consumption for various means of transportation and public busses were shocking bad. Worse than a single person driving a big truck. A full bus is very fuel efficient per passenger mile. But most city busses are mostly empty most of the day, so they are horribly inefficient uses of fuel on average. Anecdotally I've seen almost empty public busses driving around all the towns I've lived in my entire life. Maybe O'Toole is on to something here.

Flush train cars blow actual cars out of the water on every metric we care about

The things you care about.

Doing a bit of googling to confirm this: that's for a five year loan. A new car lasts a few times as long as that. Google says the average age of a modern vehicle is 11.4 years. So pay $716 for 5 years and then get a paid off car for a hell of a lot longer.

Thanks for crunching that out, others have also pointed out my table napkin math was (predictably) off, so I switched to O’Toole’s Bureau of Economic Administration stat that in 2017 drivers spent $1.15 trillion on cars.

I saw a Federal agency's list of per passenger mile fuel consumption for various means of transportation and public busses were shocking bad. Worse than a single person driving a big truck. A full bus is very fuel efficient per passenger mile. But most city busses are mostly empty most of the day, so they are horribly inefficient uses of fuel on average.

You’ve described the long and the short of it really: transit is much more effective than cars when full, but less efficient when empty, which raises the question if we should keep pushing policies that distort the market away from the most efficient form of transit, like single family zoning, municipal parking minimums, and diverting sales and property tax to road infrastructure.

The things you care about.

Affordability, efficiency, pollution, and use of public space are things that people on all sides of this debate are comparing, from Randal O’Toole to the most militant /r/fuckcars poster.

transit is much more effective than cars when full, but less efficient when empty

Surely one can find reports of fuel expenditures by transit systems and divide by passenger miles. That would give a ballpark idea.

But most city busses are mostly empty most of the day, so they are horribly inefficient uses of fuel on average.

Correct. But you have to run them (or at least some of them, and it's not always obvious which ones), or people drop out of the system entirely and you lose ridership from the more-utilized buses.

Which is why you have to calculate efficiency based on typical ridership rather than assuming everything is going to be at full capacity all the time. One of those urbanist YouTube channels ran a video a while back complaining about Chicago's transit system, particularly one suburban spot on the Metra that had trains running at intervals so infrequent that if you missed the train you'd be stuck there for two hours before the next one came. Yeah, obviously it's an argument against taking the train if there's a possibility you get stuck at work late and are SOL. But while running trains at fifteen minute intervals on every line, and having enough lines to reach most of the in-demand places may increase ridership, you're also going to be running a lot of empty or near-empty trains.

I’d need to see the workings out here. If the carbon usage of a bus is as bad as ten times the normal car, it starts to come better than a car at ten passengers. Or slightly more since not all car journeys are single passenger (although most are). Whatever about US cities that would be rare in most countries for city or regional buses to be that empty - think a London double decker off peak.

There's a point when the quantitative change in the schedule becomes a qualitative one. These near-empty trains greatly increase ridership at other hours, because more people are willing to use a service they can rely on.

No argument from me there; I'm just saying that these empty trains need to be factored into efficiency calculations.

Flush train cars blow actual cars out of the water on every metric we care about: affordability, environmental damage, and efficient use of space.

Consensus building. You might care about these things, but the market disagrees. Most people care about having open space for their kids that is free of drug addicts.

Experian records the average person paying $716 a month on car payments. Adding data from the AAA on insurance, fuel, and maintenance brings it up to $894 a month, or $10,278 a year. Multiplied by 275,924,442 registered vehicles shows $2.84 trillion worth of road spending handled privately.

Wrong again. Experian's data only shows cars that have payments on them, which are usually the first or second owners and are 10 years old or newer, in the first half of their service life. The median registered vehicle is 12 years old, and there's an enormously long tail of second and third cars that were paid off a long time ago and used irregularly. The median new car buyer is 50 years old and well off, and most people drive used cars at a significantly lower price.

Still, in every instance O’Toole seems to be taking transit systems that are specifically the worst possible example of their form, out of date, mismanaged, chronically underfunded

He's highlighting the failure mode of transit systems. All systems in the US, except perhaps New York, are out of date, overpriced, and dangerous. Every transit system in America becomes a target for massive graft and corruption, and the American inability to police cities ensures that they will not only be corrupt, but violent.

Unless you have Japanese levels of public behavior and honesty, you're going to keep getting violence, filth, and corruption.

Unless you have Japanese levels of public behavior and honesty, you're going to keep getting violence, filth, and corruption.

I've used public transport systems across European cities for long periods of time (i.e. natives are <75% of the local population) and have generally had pleasant experiences in all of them, so I don't know that this statement holds up.

Unless you have Japanese levels of public behavior and honesty, you're going to keep getting violence, filth, and corruption.

I think with secure turnstiles and cops that actually enforce quality of life rules we could have clean and safe public trains. It's merely a matter of will. Unfortunately major American cities are moving hard in the opposite direction and reducing policing and enforcement of quality of life issues.

I think with secure turnstiles and cops that actually enforce quality of life rules we could have clean and safe public trains.

And if grandma had balls, we'd call her grandpa.

American cities are culturally incapable of excluding non-payers or punishing people who destroy public spaces. As a result, America shall not have urban public spaces.

cops that actually enforce quality of life rules

Yes, but you're not going to get this with modern racial and class politics, so it's not useful discussing it as a realistic option.

Modern racial and class politics are not some constant of the universe. What was created by man can be undone by man. Better public transit isn't even the most compelling reason to do so, but are you so willing to abandon our cities to being shitholes unworthy of the third world?

I don't want to abandon major cities to property crime and urban blight. But the people in charge don't seem to agree with me. I don't want to sound like some hyperbolic suburbanite, but the urban blight is pretty bad. And recent policy choices are moving hard in the wrong direction. It seems hopeless to me. So I live in a nice suburban neighborhood a significant drive from the urban core.

but are you so willing to abandon our cities to being shitholes unworthy of the third world?

At this point, it's been over 50 years of failure and decline. I think it's time to seriously entertain the idea that many cities should simply be abandoned and new, better ones built from scratch.

I would be in favor of this solution as well, but I don’t know if it's possible in the current regulatory environment. There's also the fact that most of the best locations are already taken, though I suppose that doesn’t preclude some dedicated group of citizens or one ambitious billionaire trying to buy out and convert some rust belt Byzantion into the next Constantinople.

I wanted OCP to actually build Delta City in the ruins of old Detroit.

Interested in seeing more of your demographic employed in law enforcement are we now, robot?

Consensus building. You might care about these things, but the market disagrees. Most people care about having open space for their kids that is free of drug addicts.

Much of my post was about demonstrating that transportation isn't a free market, it's massively distorted by government intervention and regulation. I too care about open space, which is why I advocate for more space efficient transit, and also about drug fee zones, which is why I endorsed O'Toole's idea of building secure turnstiles that cannot be easily hopped.

Experian's data only shows cars that have payments on them, which are usually the first or second owners and are 10 years old or newer, in the first half of their service life

I updated the piece about Experian after Walterodim pointed out we don't know what percent of cars are new or old, and instead took my numbers for the total private costs of car ownership from O'Toole, who estimated $1.15 trillion in 2017, and got his numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

He's highlighting the failure mode of transit systems. All systems in the US, except perhaps New York, are out of date, overpriced, and dangerous. Every transit system in America becomes a target for massive graft and corruption, and the American inability to police cities ensures that they will not only be corrupt, but violent.

This is much what I said - O'Toole is making criticisms of mismanagement rather than of engineering. Problems of mismanagement can be solved by better management, as they are in most of the developed world, not just Japan.

This is much what I said - O'Toole is making criticisms of mismanagement rather than of engineering. Problems of mismanagement can be solved by better management, as they are in most of the developed world, not just Japan.

If the problem was "management", we would have outliers. We do not, and public transit in the United States is universally filthy, violent, dangerous, and corrupt. Every single system, from majority white Portland to majority black Baltimore, from frozen Chicago to boiling Houston, from wealthy San Fransisco to impoverished St. Louis, is a graft-ridden cash grab that shovels billions to the politically connected while providing nothing but rolling asylums for the insane to shit in climate control.

You cannot have public transit without public-minded people.

Most people care about having open space for their kids that is free of drug addicts.

This is a local political choice that is orthogonal to quality of local public transportation. I'm sure we can all think of dense locales with excellent train systems and a dearth of junkies in parks. Likewise, I've been to places with no meaningful public transportation, but junkies abound. That this is any correlation at all in the United States is a product of urban areas having incompetent leadership and lack of will.

I'm sure we can all think of dense locales with excellent train systems and a dearth of junkies in parks

Can you list 10 in North America?

No, which is the point - American cities are making the choice to allow crazy people and junkies to ruin cities, but they need not do so, as seen in places that don't allow this behavior.

Name ten liberal democracies in Africa!

Seriously, just because the US and Canada sabotaged their rail infrastructure and refuse to deal with their drug problems, it doesn't mean that it's impossible to do those things. You really can just send the drug addicted violent layabouts to prison, or shoot them if you want to be cheap. The US is supposedly a global superpower, supposedly capable of simultaneously suppressing China and Russia. If your country can't control its own core urban heartlands and protect taxpaying citizens from idiotic, barely organized drug addicts, how can you show your faces on the world stage, what do you have to offer in terms of moral leadership or strength?

Russia has excuses for its massive drug problem. Outside Moscow, the country is fairly poor. Russia has the world's longest land borders, so it's hard to police. They're right next to Central Asia where the drugs are produced. State capacity is fairly low, there's a great deal of corruption. The effects of the disaster in the 1990s are still being felt.

What excuse does the US have? The US is rich and fairly stable. Their borders are small and easily policeable. They had decades of complete freedom of action on the world stage to invade countries and wage undeclared wars as they see fit. They completely squandered every advantage. For example, the US military occupied the world's biggest opiate producer and opiate production doubled under their shambolic rule!

Poorly enforced restrictions in the 1990s were a prelude to a full and very effective ban on religious grounds in 2000. The Afghan war in 2001 meant that the ban was only briefly effective.[10] The opium trade spiked in 2006 after the Taliban lost control of local warlords. Despite having previously banned opium, the Taliban used opium money to fuel their two-decade campaign to retake Afghanistan. The then Afghan government also outlawed production, but despite help from coalition military forces to tamp down on drug trafficking, the ban did little to stop production. After the Fall of Kabul in 2021, the opium trade boomed, and most farmers planted at least some opium for harvest in spring 2022. The Taliban outlawed production again in April 2022, during the poppy harvest.

US drug policy is so catastrophically bad, it's unbelievable. They declare a 'war on drugs', do nothing correctly and assist the enemy in Afghanistan (or fail so abjectly and laughably that they might as well be working with the poppy merchants). All the US needs to do is switch tracks from 'wreck their own country and the rest of the world with insanely bad policy' to 'improve the situation'.

/images/16807471307621756.webp

The US is supposedly a global superpower, supposedly capable of simultaneously suppressing China and Russia. If your country can't control its own core urban heartlands and protect taxpaying citizens from idiotic, barely organized drug addicts, how can you show your faces on the world stage, what do you have to offer in terms of moral leadership or strength?

Maybe this is the exact strategy? I'm reminded of something written around the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's/60's, how poor Whites were supposedly made to feel as though they were still above the Black man despite their crushing poverty. Perhaps a hypothetical Based-American-Exceptionlism-Yes-Chad would indeed say that even the richest Chinese or Russian oligarch is worth less than even the most pathetic American drug addict who has one foot in the grave.

But uh, to get away from the crazy ideas for a bit: maybe drug enforcement is just legitimately harder than we realize/appreciate. Sure, you can just jail or shoot any addicts and dealers you can get your hands on, but that's an ongoing effort and cost. Stopping things at the source would be more effective, but you're fighting a full-on cold war at that point, as the enemy will be an organized and motivated force that can employ subterfuge and guerrilla tactics to stay out of your reach. It took the mobilization of an elite military unit to finally bring down Pablo Escobar back in the 80's/90's.

Perhaps a hypothetical Based-American-Exceptionlism-Yes-Chad would indeed say that even the richest Chinese or Russian oligarch is worth less than even the most pathetic American drug addict who has one foot in the grave.

Well at least Russian and Chinese oligarchs are made to disappear by their superiors in the security forces, that's normal and reasonable. US oligarchs get murdered by randoms on the street! Just today Bob Lee got stabbed to death on the streets of San Francisco - the guy made a product worth $40 billion, Cash App. Anyway, my point is that while it would be impressive if drug addicts in the US are treated better than Chinese oligarchs, it's actually that drug addicts are privileged above the American middle and upper class!

maybe drug enforcement is just legitimately harder than we realize/appreciate.

The Taliban seemed to do a good job of it in 2000-2001 and they have roughly a thousandth of the resources the US can wield. Is there some secret knowledge hidden in the Koran that gives +10,000% to reducing drug production? Or is the US just very incompetent? I've always maintained that if drug-addled idiots can find a dealer, professionalized, organized bureaucracies can as well. Furthermore, there are open-air drug markets in many US cities, they're clearly not trying to shut down the drug trade.

As for getting rid of drugs at the source - organize military coups and get the locals to do all the work. Back in the Cold War the US faced a far stronger opponent than a few drug cartels, with a much more powerful ideology. The US didn't want to get bogged down in every third-world country, so they arranged for anti-communist coups. They provided arms, funds, legitimacy and training to generals in Indonesia: Sukarno the communist sympathizer went out and Suharto the military dictator was in. 500,000 to a million dead in the purges but it was all Indonesians killing eachother. This is a much better solution than fighting directly. The US propped up dictators in the Phillipines, launched coups all across South America. Just use the media to whitewash everything and decry any dissent as fake news. The US somehow managed to sweep the rampant pedophilia and grotesque corruption in the Afghan army under the rug for decades.

Coups are cheap and easy, wars are hard and expensive. Wars only need to be fought against strong opponents with great power backers (Vietnam had the Soviets and China behind them). But there is no great power backing drugs and no great power capable of intervening in Central or South America.

The same thing could be done today. If Mexico or whatever country isn't sufficiently anti-drug, then it's time for regime change. Find a puppet leader, one who'll be totally reliant on the US for funding and legitimacy and rule through him. Rig the elections, launch coups and then accuse the other side of rigging elections and launching coups. Then have the puppet use their own troops to suppress the drug trade. They take on all the costs and complaints and death toll, while their leaders are paid off by the US.

Bukele is basically doing this right now but he's an enemy of the US, the US has been (ineffectually) trying to suppress and undermine him! The real problem is that the US on the wrong side, they are choosing not to tackle the problem.

oligarchs get murdered by randoms on the street! Just today Bob Lee got stabbed to death on the streets of San Francisco - the guy made a product worth $40 billion, Cash App.

Was that really random? He was involved in crypto and the government has clearly been making moves against crypto lately. SFs street crime provides plausible deniability.

This is an extreme claim. I don't think the USGov needs to resort to murder and black-bag tactics to torpedo crypto. Hell, it does that on its own anyways (see the claim that Musk changed Twitter's icon to the Doge meme to cover up him being potentially on the hook for over 200B in a lawsuit over him hawking Dogecoin).

In many safe transit systems not filled with scary homeless people, travellers talk to friends if they're travelling in a group, they read books, they watch TV on their phones, they play games, they read the news, they check their emails, they take a nap.

Realistically speaking, even if bums / smelly or mentally ill people / druggies / criminals etc. magically aren't present, you can only do these things if you find a free seat. Which is a huge limiting factor if public transport is ran efficiently i.e. by packing passengers with maximum efficiency.

Driving is labor

I have no idea why you don't think public transit is labor by this same standard. Yes, people can talk to each other. They can also talk to each other at their actual jobs. Since you admit that people use public transport for a goal, but you don't think that their failure to use it as an end in itself makes it labor, I can get no coherent, definition of "labor" out of this post. By my standards, I would say that both driving and public transport are labor. The person with the 45 minute commute by train is also donating 90 minutes of unpaid labor.

He could however translate that into paid labour if his company accepted that he was at work on the train.

This is also true if you replace "train" with "car".

Hard to work while driving.

The condition was "if his company accepted that..." The company is perfectly capable of "accepting that" driving to work is something he should be paid for doing.

Driving is necessary for him to do his job. Unless this is a minimum wage job, the company is going to have to pay a salary that is subject to market forces, and those will be affected by the relative desirability of the job. So on the average, the company will pay him for driving to work in his car, even if driving isn't a separate line item on his paycheck.

I am talking about people actually working on trains - writing emails, using their laptops, attending meetings, writing code etc. very common on many commuter trains in Europe.

Rrmember, the argument is that driving is labor. You're now trying to argue the reverse of the OP.

Just because you can't use your laptop when driving, that doesn't mean that driving isn't 1) labor and 2) labor that you're getting paid for.

(Also, the kind of job that it is possible to do on a train is pretty limited, and if you can do it on a train, you can do it without commuting at all.)

More comments

Well, post-COVID, those people don't even really need trains--or travel in general--to do those things as much anymore.

It's not any easier on the train.

Er….ok.

I remember looking into this for stockholm and it's a similar picture. The subway and a part of the bus network is profitable but a substantial minority of the bus network is so poorly used that it makes the entire system unprofitable, even when it's both subsidised and pretty expensive post subsidy.

There is little to no discussion about this for some reason. It can't an equality issue because the poor areas are generally serviced by the subway or light rail and a measure to cut the really poorly performing lines could enable cutting rates for those that are profitable and thus actually helping the financially disadvantaged. The people living in the areas that aren't profitable generally use cars anyway so I dont understand why we're doing this. I believe a goal is that you should be able to take public transit anywhere but I think this is a bit stupid since ride sharing makes the occasional shorter taxi ride comparable or even cheaper than post subsidy PT if you're two passengers.

To be clear, the current situation is pretty good but there seems like there is low having fruit not being picked.

Part of the value of cars is that cars may be used for the long tail of rare, unusual, trips. In order for public transport to replace cars, it has to run routes in rarely used locations and at rarely used times, or it just can't replace cars. Saying "these rarely used lines make the system unprofitable" is really just another way to say "making public transit as useful as cars makes it unprofitable".

Sure, but most transit advocates don't actually want trains to replace cars, they just don't want cars to replace trains (in the areas trains are viable, AKA cities)

Sure, but if the cost of a cab ride approaches the cost of a ride on tax subsidised PT then the system is clearly out of balance.

There's a psychic cost that urbanists miss: namely, that public transit replaces the labor of driving with a lack of agency. Aside from the obvious downside of longer trips: whether you get there or not is out of your control. The wariness of being in a public space, of watching your possessions, of keeping your eye out for the urban lumpenproletariat - it's stressful in its own way.

Once again we return to the revealed preference of most people: when given the choice between the public commons and paying money and labor for a private space, they elect for the latter.

We clearly have very different points of view on driving: I think "lack of agency" is not a terrible summary of why I so strongly dislike driving. It's hard to imagine a more intense instance of lack of agency in everyday life than being surrounded by dozens to hundreds of people any one of whom has a non-trivial chance at any moment to make a mistake that will kill or maim me. Sure, driving a car as opposed to riding in one increases the agency there, but most of the danger is other people.

I would argue that it would be nice if we could live in walkable cities: but I'd rather be in the multi-ton steel behemoth than not, if the world is dangerous as you say.

Driving on an open highway obviously makes you feel more free than waiting for a train, but I don’t think driving in a city where you have to stop every block for stoplights or pedestrians and then spend half an hour looking for parking (and then can't drive yourself home from a bar if you've had a few drinks) compares all that favorably to taking the subway in terms of agency.

One of the problems here is trying to apply one-size-fits-all transit solutions. Being so pro-train that you want high-speed rail from California to New York is just as silly as being so pro-car that you bulldoze apartments to build an interstate through downtown Manhattan. The difference is that the former is the sole province of internet meme groups, while the latter is quite close to actual policies in the tristate area under Robert Moses.

There's a psychic cost that urbanists miss: namely, that public transit replaces the labor of driving with a lack of agency.

I think in some instances this is probably true, but I feel deeply “managed” and stripped of my agency when waiting at a red light or stuck in traffic.

A car is not just a means of transport: it is a private space in the public space, so to speak. You can store a great deal of things without watching them, you will always have a chair, a radio, a air conditioner. You can eat and even sleep in your car! These are not qualities that are commonly associated with public transit.

I went on a trip recently and I have never felt the desire to have a car to get around places, not just for travelling, but for its restful quality and comfort.

We stray ever further into our personal experiences but this is another case where I’m sure what you say is true for you, but I just feel the exact opposite. The fact that a car is a private place in a public place is one of my least favorite things about it! It means my most valuable possession, and whatever possessions I might want to store in it, are outside of my house where I can’t keep an eye of them. Instead they sit on the street with the weirdos, and any time I want to go somewhere I have to hope none of the people passing by are gonna mess with it despite the fact that I hear about more car break-ins every week.

I don’t find cars very comfortable either, but in fairness I haven’t had nice cars.

Of course YMMV.

Driving is labor

Public transit is a labor-saving tool.

You and I have fundamentally irreconcilable differences in how we feel what costs us effort and what is comfortable relaxation.

My drive to drop my kid off at school and then to my work is a pleasant 20 minutes with my thoughts or a news radio show. It's comfortable. I've had much longer commutes in bad traffic and that was labor. But anything under 30 minutes is "free" in terms of expending my energy and mood.

I've ridden busses and trains in America. Those are very much not comfortable and free in terms of my energy and mood. But maybe if I lived in some European city I'd have a different feeling about it.

I would describe the difference as being the amount of situational awareness that is required. In a walkable city with good transit (e.g. most cities in East Asia), I don't need to pay attention to where I am going or who is around me. I could stumble drunk from one end of town to the other at 3 in the morning and never be mugged or otherwise accosted. I can relax on the subway and read a book or listen to music, confident that none of the other passengers is going to start a fight or spill something on the seats. If I drop my wallet on the street, it will either be left exactly where it fell or some random person who passed it will find me to return it.

When contrasted with that type of city, driving a car feels about like walking in a bad neighborhood i.e. I need to pay attention to everyone around me at all times or someone could get hurt. Of course, if the only kind of transit you have ever ridden is the sort where you also need to watch everyone on board for potential risks, then it is strictly inferior to driving outside of places as congested as New York. Many of the differences of opinion on this issue seem to stem from people who have only experienced one of these systems not comprehending the other.

Yes, the question of whether people will use public transport when it's offered, even if it's significantly cheaper than a car, varies a lot by city, and even by parts of the city.

When I was taking public transport in Chicago, which is quite good by American standards, people would advise me on what lines or stops to avoid, or where my car would be stolen from the park and ride lot. There's a local train I'd like to take, but everyone says to avoid it because I have to drive to the station and cars are stolen from the lot frequently. There's a lot of inconvenience people will put up with to avoid gambling on losing an object worth half a year's pay.

Interesting point. I do wonder what a comprehensive analysis of how you should value transit time and driving time for commuters would show. I wonder if there clean data on relative like/dislike of driving vs various quality metro systems.

I also don't think that even on safe and non-crowded trains you should value the time at full billable hour rate. Or that you should value the car time as total waste. Commuting by train requires walking time on either end that does not allow for reading, so on equal total commute time basis you don't yield the full time for semi-productive pursuits. Of the possible activities mentioned I think the closest analogs in a car are: talking with friends you are carpooling with, listing to audio books, listening to music, podcasts, or the news. I would concede there aren't close analogs to playing games or checking emails; though you might be able to take a call in a car but not on a train. I'm also unsure how much is lost from reading on the train vs audio book. Personally, the motion, sound from other commuters, and having to listen for the station call negate most of the advantages of reading over audio books for me.

So the 'cost per mile' metric alone doesn't account for the fact that someone with a 45 minute commute donates 90 minutes a day of unpaid labor for the privilege of driving themselves to and from work.

This is exactly what often gets missed in these conversations. So many pro-car folks can't seem to wrap their head around the fact that many people don't like driving, and in fact it's a negative. Even for people that like driving, if they could be doing productive work/relaxing/enjoying themselves instead, that would be a much better outcome IMO.

Transit is a means to an end. If self-driving cars connected to a traffic AI that can solve congestion by micro-adjusting speeds and pacing across the entire network can allow everyone in, say, Manhattan to travel quickly and safely (and at low cost) by Uber, then by all means demolish the subway.

Self-driving is something I'm also cautiously optimistic for, but the failure of previous promises to materialize is making me wary. There are some early rollouts in Phoenix and SF that look pretty good, but I'm convinced the regulatory environment will kill them out at the behest of one or another vested interest, until the tech gets so good it's implausible to argue against it.

This seems like a reasonably fair summary to me.

While I find many of the Urbanist arguments appealing — and have at times commuted by transit, bike, and foot — for me there are two big weaknesses. First, that we should prioritize possible efficiencies at full capacity over observed performance. Second, is the strength of irreversibly of the situation. It seems quite possible that pure car-oriented and pure transit-oriented transportation are relative equilibrium states, but the transition state is not equilibrium.

I think the two objections are related. Ranking trains over cars in efficiency in long-term thinking requires some optimism about actual ridership. If ridership is expected to remain low over the long term in the US, it is by definition not short-term thinking to deprioritize it.

If all that has to be done to make transit superior is (1) Convince people to abandon existing driving infrastructure. (2) Figure out how to contain the high costs of projects in the US. (3) Improve the strength of our institutions and management (4) Move forward transit spending to update all outdated systems. Then there is NOT a small potential barrier to cross from the O’Toole analysis world to the idealist Urbanist paradise world.

Three small side notes to round things out. I generally thought the DC metro system was one of the more pleasant metro experiences in the US, but even that wasn't free from people involved seemingly actively trying to make it worse (sorry for the source but you can check the twitter thread if you're skeptical of the slant). I also can't say there were never uncomfortable situations on the DC metro. Second, it is fair to consider the impact of transit on infectious disease. Some transit analyses try to discount the recent drop in ridership, but unless you think there will never be another infectious disease again it seems silly to call for relying on a transportation method that will either not be there when you need it or be a vector for the disease to spread. Third, I'm unwilling to defend minimum parking requirements, but in terms of reveled preference I do think it's quite possible American really do prefer car-centric neighborhoods. And those that do rightfully bear (at least part) of the cost of the preference.

Another thing that seems to be missing from all those analyses, that I think about more and more as my parents get older, is the effect of forcing an aging population that relies on cars to use mass transit for all their daily needs. Eliminate the cars, and you're suddenly trapping millions of reasonably active older people in "deserts" of various kinds, because it's one thing to take the subway to see a play or the bus to go to a park on the weekend, and quite another to have to lug around bags of groceries (or a pathetic little cart) on mass transit day in and day out to meet your basic needs.

For the old and disabled, a system with zero cars clearly doesn't work. Those too old/disabled to use transit probably (although not always) shouldn't be driving their own cars either, so taxis of some kind are needed. Paratransit does exist in some places, and it's really bad (as in, 2-4 hours extra waiting/travel time over using a car); as that Wikipedia article mentions, some places are subsidizing taxis (sorry, "ride-hailing services") instead which makes sense (assuming you've worked out the issues of whether your old users can use a smartphone needed to access ride-hailing services).

While I'm very pro-transit, there are definitely edge cases where cars are necessary, so literally zero cars is not a reasonable goal, and any pro-transit person arguing for such is either confused or being misunderstood.


Rereading your comment, I see

quite another to have to lug around bags of groceries (or a pathetic little cart) on mass transit day in and day out to meet your basic needs.

Trying to discourage car usage in an area so not-dense that people can't walk to a grocery store is nonsense. No one would ever take transit to do their grocery shopping if they had another option (except for maybe occasional trips of a specialty store of some kind); that sounds awful. Work on improving density first.

Urbanists may want to discourage people from living in single-family-home suburbs in favor of denser areas; they certainly don't want to leave suburbs exactly as they are except deleting all the cars and putting in buses and trains.

they certainly don't want to leave suburbs exactly as they are except deleting all the cars and putting in buses and trains.

Okay, but:

The California Air Resources Board on Thursday signed off on a sweeping plan requiring that by 2035, all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the state be electric vehicles or other emissions-free models.

Given that we lack the raw materials to replace ICE cars with electric cars, I think they sort of are. They can't make riding the LA public transportation system attractive. But they can effectively ban most private ownership of vehicles. Degrading quality of life of people in the suburbs is surprisingly popular among some political factions.

I've been hearing "the new emissions standards are impossible to achieve affordably" all my life. Somehow they always manage to figure it out, either by changing the cars or changing the standards.

Are new cars not less affordable now? I mean a new car in 2022 averaged $48,080. A new car in 1980 was something like $8,025 or $23,920 in inflation adjusted dollars. Part of this is consumer behavior and non-emissions or efficiency improvements. "CPI: New Vehicles" already "corrects" for quality improvements including emissions or efficiency improvements, so shouldn't be used to compare affordability.

That is an interesting point. Not sure how to properly control for cars lasting longer, making new cars even more of a luxury item as used cars are not as bad, but that certainly suggests that cars really are getting less affordable. Also not sure how to judge how much of the cost increases are specifically due to emissions or efficiency improvements as opposed to other improvements like safety and convenience features. Maybe trying to compare the prices of the cheapest new cars over time instead of the average? Required safety features would still get priced in, but I guess they should be considered in the question of whether cars are being legislated out of affordability.

There's no reason to buy a cheap new car today, you can buy a used car instead.

My wife, my parents, my sister, my brother in law, and myself all make six figures. The newest car in the group is a 2018. The average is roughly 2013. And I don't feel deprived in any way.

Cars used to break down at 100k miles. And features used to vastly improve every ten years. Now we all drive ten year old cars and they have Bluetooth and abs and airbags.

New cars are more comfortable, with no degradation of the frame or suspension, and there is no question about maintenance or accident history. Used cars are also rarely as good a deal as people think they are. People still want $15k for their 10-year-old basic options sedans because “they changed the oil regularly.”

It is objectively false that there is no reason to buy a new car over a used one. Both choices have their advantages.

Now we all drive ten year old cars

This has been true for quite some time; the average car in 2010 was 10 years old as well (it's crept up to 11-12 years since then).

Cars used to break down at 100k miles.

Unfortunately for us, manufacturers have figured out that they can just stop updating the software for the screens (and in Tesla's case, accidentally burn the hardware out by writing so much telemetry data to the integrated flash storage). The car still works fine; the radio not so much.

When I was car shopping last year, this was very much not the case, due to the supply chain issues. We ended up buying new and waiting several months, despite preferring something a bit older and less expensive, because used cars cost about the same as new ones. Some used cars cost more than used ones last summer, because there wasn't a waiting list.

The situation may have started to clear up by now, though.

More comments

But to be clear: the EU and California are completely banning new ICE cars starting 2035. Electric cars require large batteries and the raw materials needed to make those batteries in sufficient quantities do not exist.

So yeah: maybe these standards will be pushed back as we approach them or some sci-fi battery technology will be invented soon. Or new cars will be de facto banned in much of the developed world.

These claims are hyperbolic, do you really think people will outright ban cars? The goal is to make public transit reasonable or possible for people to use, not destroy all the roads and cars people have.

This type of disingenuous argument about older folks is why I get so frustrated about density conversations.

you really think people will outright ban cars?

They'll ban new internal combustion engine vehicles and then crank up taxes on people who drive. They don't need to "outright ban" all cars. They will merely state that Pavlovian taxes [Edit: Pigouvian tax, the dangers of phone posting] are a good thing and due to global climate change ICE vehicles need to be phased out.

The European Union agreed to end the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars and SUVs by 2035

The California Air Resources Board on Thursday signed off on a sweeping plan requiring that by 2035, all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the state be electric vehicles or other emissions-free models.

Given the limited quantities of relevant minerals, unless there is a world changing revolution in battery technology, electric cars are simply not going to replace ICE cars.

I'm sure that rich people will still be allowed to drive. So in some picky technical sense it will not be a outright ban. In a more relevant practical sense it will feel like a ban to the median person.

Thanks for backing up the concerns with sources, I agree these bans on ICE vehicles are pretty awful. I had no idea the environmental lobby had gotten so ridiculous.

I like to think these regulations will be made more realistic before actually being implemented, but I’ve been wrong before. We’ll have to see I suppose.

I am sold on electric being a better type of car, but I agree with you that this could be a tool for tyranny.

I'm sure that rich people will still be allowed to drive. So in some picky technical sense it will not be a outright ban

It's even a little more nuanced than that, as with electric vehicles you have to pay more for more range.

The masses will go on buses. Managers may be able to buy a car that fits their commute, but the range and charging limitations mean it's only good for the commute, you can't do anything else besides. So you've bought a more comfortable commute, but no freedom.

Upper management can get 50km range on top of that. A little freedom. And so on, and for the real rich we'll keep ICE vehicles that can just go wherever, whenever.

Given the limited quantities of relevant minerals, unless there is a world changing revolution in battery technology, electric cars are simply not going to replace ICE cars.

If a hundred ICE cars are replaced by one electric car, then I think many environmentalists will consider that an ideological victory. You've already quoted the EU's policy here. And that policy is why I take the EU to be a force of destruction in Europe - they will annihilate the German economy, and everything that depends on it, for the sake of wishful thinking. And by the time that is through, we can consider ourselves happy to keep one car in a hundred running.

I do hope to be wrong.

They will merely state that Pavlovian taxes are a good thing and due to global climate change ICE vehicles need to be phased out.

[emphasis mine -- Nybbler]

LOL, I think you mean "Pigouvian", but fair enough since the proposed taxes aren't that either, since the externality figures are just made up.

Given the limited quantities of relevant minerals, unless there is a world changing revolution in battery technology, electric cars are simply not going to replace ICE cars.

It's not just the minerals, it's the electricity. If you're not building fossil plants and you're not building nuclear and you're not building hydro, then no, you aren't going to be able to run your current grid plus the load from cars on renewables. What I expect will happen is ICE cars will be banned but there will be an exception for public transit vehicles, so effectively most people will be forced onto fuel-burning buses.

I’m not advocating for getting rid of cars entirely, I think anyone who wants to do so in the US is deranged. I’d be curious to read any arguments you can point to that call for that drastic of a move.

do you really think people will outright ban cars

Yes.

The goal is to make public transit reasonable or possible for people to use, not destroy all the roads and cars people have.

The goal is to make public transit better with respect to cars. Mostly this means making cars worse; you suggested increasing taxes to cover "externalities", which is one such way. There are many others.

I do think this is a major drawback, with a very sudden drop-off in independence. At one time I was hopeful that self-driving cars would help relieve this issue, though now I wonder how much cheaper it would really be than an Uber. For those that can afford it, I do think that an Uber offers a better experience for those with limited mobility over even very good transit systems.

There does seem to be demand for walk-able communities with a variety of amenities like the "age-restricted communities" such as the The Villages. I suppose that a charitable interpretation for their popping up over choosing to move to an existing dense urban core, is that the amenities are more tailored to older people's interests?

Sure, I don't disagree with any of that. Though I'm personally not a fan of driving I do think there's a place for both cars and trains in society and that each accomplish better efficiency in different areas. Among new urbanists this is the much maligned "cars- and- trains" take but I don't really see how anything else would work for America. All I want is for both to better serve customers . Insofar as transit's contingent lack of success is used by folks like O'Toole to argue for cuts to productive funding, that's all I'm personally against.

If all that has to be done to make transit superior is (1) Convince people to abandon existing driving infrastructure. (2) Figure out how to contain the high costs of projects in the US. (3) Improve the strength of our institutions and management (4) Move forward transit spending to update all outdated systems. Then there is NOT a small potential barrier to cross from the O’Toole analysis world to the idealist Urbanist paradise world.

All true, but while there are public policy situations that are genuinely so daunting they might as well be imaginary, I don't think this should include systems that we see a bunch of peer countries having solved. In truth these countries haven't built paradise either - they all deal with project delays and cost overruns as well - but they have managed to make things function well enough that transit can turn a profit, and that's the really important question for me.

(1) Convince people to abandon existing driving infrastructure.

Extremely simple, just increase taxes on cars to capture their externalities.

(2) Figure out how to contain the high costs of projects in the US.

This is the hardest one, but is not limited to transit. If we solve this one we solve a ton of our other problems. I'm convinced that the lack of pay/prestige in public service is the issue - we should have less jobs that are much more highly paid.

(3) Improve the strength of our institutions and management

Not sure how this is related?

(4) Move forward transit spending to update all outdated systems.

Even with current systems, if people use public transit it's massively beneficial and efficient compared to cars.

in terms of reveled preference I do think it's quite possible American really do prefer car-centric neighborhoods. And those that do rightfully bear (at least part) of the cost of the preference.

People also like smoking cigarettes, and we took that away too. Seatbelts etc etc.

I'd argue that car owners bear very little of the cost of the preference, as it hits the urban poor who can't afford a good car the hardest. You get into a poverty trap where you can't afford a good car, have to spend money on repairs constantly, lose jobs, and generally have a bad life.

This is the hardest one, but is not limited to transit. If we solve this one we solve a ton of our other problems. I'm convinced that the lack of pay/prestige in public service is the issue - we should have less jobs that are much more highly paid.

We have accomplished this, it's called privatization and it works well. The people who manage renewable energy projects in the United States are efficient and well paid because they are competitively bidding on these projects in a market with several other players. Offer enough tax credits for an impossible project to be completed and you will be amazed as the impossible becomes possible.

Yeah at this point I’m on board with a platform to just shop out most government functions to the private sector. It already happens through consulting/tech firms constantly, but it’s horribly inefficient.

In appraisal districts in the US for instance a lot of districts have 3-5 full time employees, but they literally just ship the entire job out to an appraisal firm. These peoples entire job is to find a firm once every four years, and they almost always just continue to use the same one. Yet they get full time pay and benefits. It’s absurd when you really get a look at what’s going on.

(2) Figure out how to contain the high costs of projects in the US.

This is the hardest one, but is not limited to transit. If we solve this one we solve a ton of our other problems. I'm convinced that the lack of pay/prestige in public service is the issue - we should have less jobs that are much more highly paid.

Agreed, while cutting project costs is definitely the most challenging battle, it's also one that encompasses so many things beyond trains - our inability to build housing, energy infrastructure, etc, to meet Americans needs and decrease costs. It should definitely be one of the top public policy priorities. And it's not like it's a mystery where to start; there's a lot of low hanging fruit from streamlining environmental review, permitting, and procurement processes.

The same groups which want public transit want strong environmental review and lots of veto points ("community input") in permitting.

It seems that environmental groups and regulations are losing their hallowed status in the left intelligentsia as others have mentioned. Exciting times to be alive.

I think this was true for a while but nowadays the yimbyist-transit crowd have developed a growing consensus around opposing things like zoning and environmental road blocks to construction. The mouthpiece for this crowd are people like Noah Smith, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein who talk about "supply-side progressivism" and fighting veto-points.

Yimby's are like libertarians. There are dozens of them!

I'm familiar with the unmitigated disaster that is the California high speed rail project. As best I know this "growing consensus" has not produced actionable cost-effective American rail projects. Billions are poured into contractors to perform various reviews, hardly any low speed track is laid.

Yes, trains are more expensive than they need to be, because of the reasons I listed in the comment you’re replying to and in my OP. The “growing consensus” isn’t among policymakers and politicians but among urbanist advocates. Like him or not, if Noah Smith were transit god king these projects would likely happen much more cheaply.

Zoning is not "environmental review" or "community inputs". They want some carveouts from roadblocks they favor for things they like, but they haven't actually turned against the roadblocks in general.

just increase taxes on cars to capture their externalities.

I'm not really arguing against doing this, I just don't think this seems very politically viable as a "solution."

Improve the strength of our institutions and management

Sorry if this was unclear. I meant to express the idea that in general public transit management and planing is the US is clearly worse than counterparts in other places. It's not clear to me that improving this does not require clearing substantial hurdles with deeply entrenched interests.

Even with current systems

Yes, but I'm arguing that increasing adoption will likely require substantial improvements, not that increasing adoption is bad?

Can't afford a good car

I am sympathetic to this argument, like I said I find many of the Urbanist arguments appealing. I do think that some of the cost comparisons are a bit tricky though. Realistically, someone on the edge of poverty should not be paying the Experian number quoted by OP. When I was driving around in a 20+ year old Honda Civic my lifetime total cost was about 1/3 of the IRS standard mileage rate at the time, including fuel, insurance, maintenance, and repairs. Driving certainly can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be as expensive as the average diver in the US spends.

Extremely simple, just increase taxes on cars to capture their externalities.

For this to have any effect, you'd have to do it without doing the same for public transit, otherwise you've just increased taxes across the board.

Even with current systems, if people use public transit it's massively beneficial and efficient compared to cars.

It is not. On a per-passenger-mile basis it is less efficient. And that's without accounting for circuity, which means it's wasting more passenger piles.

Trains are less efficient not because they aren't capable of better per-passenger-mile metrics than cars, but because trains use the same amount of energy no matter how many people ride them, and right now not that many people ride the train, so a lot of energy goes into moving around not that many people. The more that people use the train the more efficient it becomes (easily beating cars long before reaching peak capacity), so while I am not personally advocating for higher car taxes, to the extent that they shifted consumers towards trains they would be solving the problem of efficiency/reducing externalities per passenger mile in real time.

Trains are less efficient not because they aren't capable of better per-passenger-mile metrics than cars, but because trains use the same amount of energy no matter how many people ride them, and right now not that many people ride the train, so a lot of energy goes into moving around not that many people

Yes, but we have to deal with the trains we have, not hypothetical full ones.

Sure, but that was why I added in the stats noting that ridership doesn't just decline, it bounces around and can be increased as well as decreased

Trains are not more expensive and polluting because they lack the capacity to move around more people but because (and this is O’Toole’s argument) most seats are unfilled lately, so a lot of energy goes into moving only a few people. But if ridership was higher the numbers would be completely reversed!

That's a very laconic "if". We can fill trains in Manhattan because it's a long skinny island. For pretty much anywhere else, trains are terrible because they're doing a linear job in an areal world. It's far less practical to have a grid of trains than a grid of roads, so you end up typically with a three seat ride -- bus to train to bus -- to get anywhere. This isn't because of the automobile or anything like that, it's the nature of a mostly-2D environment.

but of course these figures are depressed by outsourcing the costs of the actual vehicles to the users

That's not "depressed". That's actual less subsidy. Car users pay for their own rolling stock, both operating and capital costs.

That's not "depressed". That's actual less subsidy. Car users pay for their own rolling stock, both operating and capital costs.

I guess I should clarify that O'Toole's concerns wrt subsidies revolve around the cost burden on the taxpayer. Paying those costs privately is just a different, higher way of tallying the same burden

That is just a completely bizarre way of counting "subsidies". A car owner spending money on his own car is not a subsidy, nor a "cost burden on the taxpayer". The government spending money on a train is a subsidy in as much as that money is not recovered through the farebox.

It isn't really, no. If what we care about is how much people have to spend on transit then you both take into account how much they pay in taxes and how much they pay out of pocket.

That's "what they are spending", which is not the same as "subsidy", which is what "other people are spending for their benefit".

I feel like you're focusing on the definition of subsidy when the focus for O'Toole and myself is the costs we're all paying, of which subsidies are one form and private costs are another. Of course, much of the funding for cars is also money that other people spend for driver's benefit; from the above linked piece up to 40% comes from general funds, mostly from local property and sales taxes.

Of course, much of the funding for cars is also money that other people spend for driver's benefit; from the above linked piece up to 40% comes from general funds, mostly from local property and sales taxes.

It turns out that with cross-subsidies and such it's fairly difficult to figure out the subsidy number -- if money is taken from road taxes and spent on transit, but then money is taken from sales tax and spent on roads, how do you count it? But I am sure that "40%" figure doesn't include private costs in its basis.

Yeah it can be confusing because gas taxes are used for both systems as well. Also correct that the 40% doesn’t include private costs but rather taxes; the remaining 60% is from user fees. I just added that in to point out that both systems are financed partially by people other than their users; the fact that car owners bear the private burden of their vehicle doesn’t mean that car infrastructure doesn’t receive other people’s money as well.

Sure, it's a density issue.

It's not just a density issue. It's not enough to be close to a subway station. You need to be close to a subway station that gets you efficiently to your destination. In Manhattan that's easy. In DC, not so much -- lots of rides end up making you go all the way in to Metro Center or another hub and then back out.

I like to think that people responsible for the Madrid metro heard they needed an outer loop but didn't quite grasp the concept.

Interesting, didn't realise that the Parisian system is so intricate. It seems that Moscow is approximating the same design lately.

That's actually an unofficial map made by a Russian designer. The official one... has actually been redesigned to look a lot like the unofficial one. It used to be as bad as the NYC one.

I really appreciate you mentioning O'Toole. I too have an affinity for people who are so X that even other Xs think he's annoying.

As for the transit debate: personally, all else being equal, do you prefer the user experience of trains or cars? I like cars. BUT, in reality, all things aren't equal. Of course, as you point out, the costs are different. Not only in consumer price, but environmental cost, cost per mile, etc. It's fine to focus on these things, but I think arguments about efficiency and overall cost generally overshadow the debate when other things, such as end user experience, which includes privacy, personal safety, convenience, status, comfort, etc. are, I think, more relevant to why trains are getting they ass beat in America.

You have to consider why cars are subsidized more than trains. Maybe that's what people want. Are they wrong to want it? Maybe.

I think the way forward for trains is for cars to become prohibitively expensive for most people.

I too have an affinity for people who are so X that even other Xs think he's annoying.

A kindred spirit!

I'll be honest, I prefer trains by a lot. I grew up in the middle of nowhere where you needed a car to do anything. My family car broke down all the time and left me immobile, so for me driving only ever represented how stark the limitations on my freedom were. When I grew up and moved to the city I assumed things would be better, only to realize that almost nothing that makes me feel less free than being stuck in urban traffic.

That said, I tried as much as possible to keep my personal experiences out of it, and I don't begrudge the existence of the suburbs or anything. I think you're right that the current situation represents at least some people's preferences - O'Toole cites somewhere that large majorities of people say they want to someday live in single family houses, which is unsurprising. I think America should host all forms of urban planning as catered to different people's needs. I also think there's a balance to be walked between accommodating those different needs that isn't walked well (ie, was it reasonable for New York City to bulldoze hundreds of thousands of apartment units to build expressways for people outside of the city?).

I also think the current situation is to burdened by regulatory nudges and government intervention to really get a good look at what people's revealed preferences would look like. For instance, this paper showing that if parking minimums weren't set most businesses, trying to predict the needs of their customers, would probably build less parking than mandated (if this wasn't true, it would odd that we set minimums anyway).