Liddick: Future of transportation paved with good intentions (column)
January 1, 2018
Happy New Year. This year, let's resolve to map out the Road of Good Intentions before we begin any endeavor justified by "it would be great if we…".
To illustrate, we visit the formerly great city of Detroit which broke ground in 1983 on a "demonstration project" called the People Mover, an elevated 2.2-mile train connecting formerly bustling parts of the city's downtown.
The project was immediately plagued with bickering among controlling transit authorities and huge cost overruns that limited its development and prevented construction of light-rail feeder systems – even at a time when the federal government was pouring money on anything having to do with public transit the way a twelve-year-old pours maple syrup on a waffle. By 1984, $600 million had been committed to the $137 million scheme.
By the time the People Mover opened in 1987, Detroit was spiraling into a maelstrom of corruption, mismanagement and debt from which it is only beginning to recover; the grandiose plans of a regional rail system for public transport was sucked down with the rest.
Today, the elevated relic of 1980s city planning is a perfect illustration of the term "white elephant." Its 2.9-mile circular track has stops nowhere near the city's downtown economic engines and the best administrators can hope for is that other business centers will replace them. Ridership, always modest, has been declining for years. And the financial aspects of the system are a black hole that gives a whole new definition to the term.
The city of Detroit provides an annual operating subsidy to the People Mover of $6.5 million a year. The state kicks in $5.6 million. The feds provide more, but exactly how much is hard to tell: accounting for monies disbursed for public transport through a plethora of funding bodies, some of which have neither "public" nor "transportation" in their official titles is well-nigh impossible. Other green-eyeshade numbers are simpler: the system's operating expenses alone are around $18 million, against a seventy-five-cent fare that only brought in $1.5 million in 2016. According to federal transportation officials the true cost of a trip in the same year was $7.47.
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Nor is Detroit alone: according to a 2015 Brookings Institution study, no major U.S. metropolitan rail transportation system makes money. None. Not one even comes close to breaking even.
The People Mover's pickle illustrates what happens when city-planning fashion, popular fantasies and concern for things extraneous to moving people around efficiently and in a way they like, meets government. Which is to say, most of the time. City planners love rail systems.
And when they don't work, the planners' answer is always to raise urban density until they do — theoretically, of course. Our various governments don't have the power that the Central Committee of the Armenian SSR did in the 1970s: the population of Yerevan increased dramatically by "encouraged" immigration from the countryside, to justify a metro system.
But if they could, they doubtless would try the same tactic, with the same resultant misery. Americans prefer their lawns, sidewalks and space to the soulless, slab-sided, concrete-toned human beehives that pass for dwellings in the former Workers' Paradise – and in a good deal of the rest of the world. But without that density, public transit usually runs at a loss.
One possible variation that might be adopted to American sensibilities is Turkish: the venerable "dolmu." Pronounced "dole-moosh," it's sometimes described as a "shared taxi," although that is something of a mischaracterization. A dolmu — the name might be best translated as "apparently stuffed" — is usually a large station wagon or van with seating for 12 — or more, if it's rush hour. It can be publicly owned, but is often operated privately; it runs on a regular route like a bus, but much more frequently.
It's cheap, convenient, packed like the Bihar-Delhi local, and popular; it's worked for decades because it answers a real need with incredible efficiency that grows organically. No bureaucracy necessary.
For American sensibilities there would have to be modifications: safety equipment and load limits to begin with. But it would make a lot more sense than building a transportation system based on light rail trains or busses that run mostly empty and infrequently a lot of the time.
Or one might merge the dolmu and Uber concepts to develop an on-call minibus system running on a regular route when there are a sufficient number of customers to make the trip economical.
But the Uber model is unpopular with bureaucrats since it is private and (mostly) unregulated; there are fewer opportunities for interference, informal salary increases and favor trading with friends and political supporters.
They prefer the People Mover model with its ballyhoo, ribbon-cuttings, jobs-for-the-boys and naming rights.
And inevitable deficits, which others must discharge.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.