13.11.06

BUILD IT AS IF YOU WOULD USE IT. I've been catching up on some of my reading, including The American Enterprise's "Attack of the Snobs" issue. This passage, from Robert Bruegmann's "How Sprawl Got a Bad Name," provokes some thinking about topics of regular interest at Cold Spring Shops.
The power of self-interest can also be seen in individuals who press for mass transit yet are very unlikely to use it themselves. They assume someone else will ride, and free up highway space for themselves. Here again, members of the incumbents' club form alliances to protect their advantages, sometimes in unexpected and ephemeral ways.
The idea of providing public transit so that somebody else will use it is at least as old as the first energy crisis, and it lives on in public economics under the general rubric of "merit goods" (skeptical and favorable definitions.)

That got me thinking, first, about Metra. Why does Chicago have the best commuter rail service in the world? Why would there be semi-fasts out of Highland Park and Wilmette, the Barringtons, and Geneva, as well as the Naperville and Hinsdale Zephyrs? If the service exists for Somebody Else to use, what's the point of providing time-sensitive services for the most upscale clientele? Might that clientele actually be riding the trains? I suspect so: many a frustrated commuter fed up with multi-tasking, overstressed road rage cases that either ride your bumper or fail to react when the cars ahead start moving becomes a multi-tasking overstressed commuter providing material for the monthly "Metra Sez" gripers about cell-phone shouters, noisy laptop-pickers, and seat hogs.

And then consider the excess demand for prestige degrees, and the greater difficulty Illinois and Wisconsin residents are having getting into their flagship campuses. Perhaps when the best local students could be sure of a place at Madison or Urbana it didn't matter too much if an Oshkosh or a Whitewater or a Northern or a Southern existed for middle-class and middling-ability high schoolers to choose on the basis of the parties or the Greek system. No longer. The onus on policy makers within the university, as well as within state government, to design the state university system as if their most influential constituents were going to use it.

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