Reclaiming the Street for Real Americans

Some things are central to being a Real American, things that make us the best country; others are not.  In the first category, as any RBC reader will agree, are driving alone anywhere I want;  with light traffic, few stoplights, and no tolls, pedestrians, or bicycles; parking free when I get there; and two-dollar gasoline.  The way things were for a few years in Southern California, back in the day. Now that that’s established, the bad news: ugly facts are undermining our core values:

(1) Roads are free and a basic human right, but even patriotic politicians like Sam Brownback can’t figure out how to get them without (trigger alert, I know this is a family blog) taxes.
(2) Even if we pay for them, it seems we can’t lane-mile our way back to the golden age; every beautiful new freeway or widening is immediately congested to the pre-existing crawl.  And people are less and less willing to have neighborhoods bulldozed for highways.

What to do?  Many cities are looking at ways to get some large undeserving classes of people out of cars, leaving room for us Real Americans on the road.  I’m thinking about the ungrateful hipsters who are refusing to be their kids’ chauffeurs for  twenty years, leaving their cars behind in the Pleasantvilles where they grew up and flocking with bicycles to places like Boston and San Francisco and Brooklyn and Portland. Also poor people. A lot of these folks vote Democratic, by the way, so prima facie don’t deserve the freedom to sit alone in traffic listening to the radio.
An obvious way to do this is (another trigger alert) public transit, and not just buses stuck in traffic with the cars.  What we had all over every big city when we fought and won World War II, built Hoover Dam and the TVA, had free public universities people were proud of, and all that Commie stuff.  One form is surface light rail,  which doesn’t require tunnels, and runs in the street.  Because we trashed so much of this and lost our expertise over a half-century (especially how to build it), we are learning old lessons and reinventing wheels.

Halfway down the story, we learn that

Unlike in Europe, the United States lacks uniform standards for the basic features of a streetcar. That means customers might ask for longer, wider or faster vehicles or those that can handle different loads or ride on different suspensions. “You’re essentially designing a new vehicle. [It’s] very expensive to set up a manufacturing line and only build three or five of a particular product type,” said Yraguen, the Oregon Iron Works president.

Way back in the ’30s, the most successful streetcar in history, fairly described as the DC-3 of  urban transport, was designed by a committee of street railway company representatives and made by different companies all over the world.  About 5000   were built, and the PCC cars, as they are called, are still operating, in the US and elsewhere.
Maybe the federal government could create more value by coordination than by just sending checks?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.