At the turn of the 20th century, when transit companies’ only competition were the legs of a person or a horse, they worked reasonably well, even if they faced challenges. Once cars arrived, nearly every U.S. transit agency slashed service to cut costs, instead of improving service to stay competitive. This drove even more riders away, producing a vicious cycle that led to the point where today, few Americans with a viable alternative ride buses or trains.That's true up to a point: a full reckoning must consider both the PCC streetcar, an attempt to accelerate the modernization of the trolley to gain passengers, and the Pernambuco Tramway phenomenon, that bit of Progressive Era wishful thinking by which the fare must stay at a nickel because transportation is a fundamental right, or something.
Here's how it turns out.
Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.The rail transit crisis began, Mr English notes, with those Good Intentions.
By the 1920s, as the automobile became a fierce competitor, privately run transit struggled.The rent-seeking by the emergent highway lobby probably didn't help, either. Mr English's next passage misses that.
But public subsidy was politically challenging: There was a popular perception of transit as a business controlled by rapacious profiteers—as unpopular as cable companies and airlines are today. In 1920, the President’s Commission on Electric Railways described the entire industry as “virtually bankrupt,” thanks to rapid inflation in the World War I years and the nascent encroachment of the car.
The Depression crushed most transit companies, and the handful of major projects that moved forward in the 1930s were bankrolled by the New-Deal-era federal government: See the State and Milwaukee-Dearborn subways in Chicago, the South Broad Street subway in Philadelphia, and the Sixth Avenue subway in New York. But federal infrastructure investment would soon shift almost entirely to highways. A return to transit by Uncle Sam would not come for another three decades.That shift didn't just happen. Yes, a military officer named Dwight Eisenhower had some logistics experience, and he was in a position to aid with the shift, but the automobile companies and the motor hobbyists had more than a little to do with it.
There's a lot more in the essay, and I'm only focusing on the absence of investment in fixed rail transit. I conclude with one other foreseeable consequence. When somebody in Washington noticed there wasn't much capital spending going on, the Wise Experts said, let's subsidize it and see if we can come up with a catchy acronym or long title for the bill. But they didn't think through the incentives.
The big investments of the revival era were too little, too late. They also began the ominous pattern of relying on federal funding for capital construction and scarce local dollars for operations and maintenance. Today, many systems have limited frequency and severe maintenance issues due to funding shortfalls over the decades. From New York to San Francisco to Chicago to D.C., virtually every major American rapid transit system has had a service meltdown as a result of chronic deferred maintenance.The same thing is true of the road network. It's the ribbon-cutting phenomenon, isn't it: the local politician can hand over the keys to the shiny new buses, or cut the ribbon opening the new road or bridge, but there's nothing sexy in patching potholes.