Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mass transit vs. green alternatives

Mass transit is always good, right? It's way more efficient than all those cars clogging up the roads. I loved my years in Japan, where trains come and go everywhere with high efficiency and frequency. I didn't need a car, and it was great. You'll know what I mean if you've ever spent time in New York City or Washington D.C. Plus, the imminent threat of global warming compels us to build for a future of mass transit, right?

But while reading the Economist's excellent survey on The Future of Energy last week, a new thought occurred to me that I haven't seen discussed. What happens when, thanks to all this entrepreneurial energy going into solving our energy problems, we get zero-emissions cars? Then, what's the green argument for building zillion-dollar train and bus infrastructure? Some of these projects take decades to complete--by which time it's hard to imagine gas-hogging cars will still be around. Road congestion, parking scarcity, etc. -- all of these can be made much easier with information technology that again it's hard to imagine won't be in full swing by the time that gigantic train project is complete.

I'm just one guy, so you shouldn't make policy based solely on what works for me, but at the same time you risk doing terribly damaging and irrational things if you try to "guess" about what works best for society as a whole. If you aren't positive something's a good public policy idea, you should be extremely cautious recommending it, and public transportation policy is another example.

There is just no way you will ever make mass transit efficient enough for those of us in the suburbs to give up our cars. I'll carpool or vanpool to work if it's convenient, sure, but a bus? Or a train? No way, especially if I have one of those super-efficient low-cost, carbon-neutral cars of the future.

I bet virtually everyone supporting big mass transit projects agrees with me when they say we want mass transit for other people. I'm too busy/important/lazy to take the train, but you on the other hand shouldn't be able to enjoy my lifestyle. I want you to deal with hauling groceries, making multiple drop-offs for young kids, changing your mind to pick up last-minute takeout -- all the reasons it's rational for me to take a car instead of the bus or train. If you get off the road, it will make my life easier: no traffic congestion, no parking problems.

But what happens when you decide you want to move into your own single-family dwelling in the suburbs? Hmmm, maybe I can think of something that will prevent you from ever being able to afford that. Like, maybe if I raise your taxes enough to pay for some expensive mass transit project?

Incidentally, before you say it's obvious what should be done, take a look at Jimmy Carter's energy crisis speech of 1979.  What happened to the 20% of energy we were supposed to get from solar by 2000?  Or the declaration that "this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977"?  Laudable goals, but they look about as silly in hindsight as I'm sure most of today's well-meaning proposals will seem in 30 years.

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