Everybody's Got One
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Thursday, June 19, 2003


Court: Fix air or else
Environmentalists are claiming victory after a federal court ruled the EPA was out of line when it cut Atlanta some slack on air pollution standards.

"This is tremendous news for everyone who lives in the Atlanta region," said Ciannat Howett, Atlanta director of the Southern Environmental Law Center. The center represented the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year.
Tremendously bad, yes – especially if, as the greens hope and intend, federal highway funds are diverted from desperately needed road improvements to ineffective moneypits like mass transit.
Howett said metro Atlanta can solve congestion and smog problems by getting solo motorists out of their cars -- the single largest contributor to the region's smog. ...
In 2000, only 4 percent of trips to work were by public transit, and MARTA ridership has decreased since then.
If you build it, and they don't come ... build more. In the process, do everything you can to prevent improvements in the situation by limiting construction, and actively working to increase congestion by taking away traffic lanes for little-used hobby-horses like HOV, bike, and bus-only lanes.
"These are not futuristic, pie-in-the-sky solutions," Howett said. "These are very doable. We have to get away from road building."
The projects are all eminently doable. What's pie-in-the-sky is the consistently disappointed expectation that people will actually choose to use mass transit unless either it gets a lot more convenient or the preferred alternative (driving) gets a lot less so. Even the greens are hedging their bets on this one – that's why they want a moratorium on road construction, to let traffic grow progressively worse.

In the real world, a 4% - and falling – usage rate should tell you that the customers don't want your product. Your “solution” isn't one.

But in green-think, not only should the courts be used to reach policy decisions unattainable at the ballot box, but incorrect individual decisions should be overridden by those who know better. Drive less or we'll shoot.

Update: I let myself get distracted. Yes, the greens' smug, elitist arrogance is offensive. Yes, their tactics are usually antidemocratic. Yes, their reliance on the nanny-state public sector is misguided and – I believe – outdated. But that's not the problem.

The problem is that their solutions won't and can't work. The only tool they own is a hammer, and these aren't nails.

The fact is, no one knows how to do mass transit in a decentralized, non-mass city. You can't copy New York's or Chicago's or Paris' system to a differently-developing urban space. A lot of people have some interesting ideas, but all they are is ideas – and the more innovative, the less data there is about actual usage patterns.

We know that hub-and-spoke isn't working so well for the airlines – if it weren't for differential pricing, they'd have gone belly-up long ago, and transit can't do that (yet). Circumferential light rail like Portland is an interesting alternative, but most intown trips are point-to-point – or point-to-point-to-point-to-point.

A while back (pre-9/11) James Fallows wrote an article for the Atlantic called Freedom of the Skies about small, lower-cost jets that might begin to function as a nationwide network of air taxis. It's not anywhere near rollout, but it's an intriguing idea. One of the nifty innovations in local commercial transportation in the past few years has been the mom-and-pop medical transport services that carry seniors, the handicapped, the chronically ill to hospitals and dialysis centers for their appointments. Also intriguing.

If I had to guess what metro non-auto transit is going to look like in a few years it would be more like van pools than trolleys – and certainly more like either of those than trains or buses. Mid-size vehicles, somewhere between one- or two-passenger taxis and forty-passenger buses, with room for packages and entertainment/work space, running prearranged schedules on high-traffic shuttle routes like the airlines and Amtrak, but essentially as-needed for the other 80% of trips, with combined passenger routes mapped and altered on-the-fly by GPS-enabled, traffic-monitoring wireless computers.

But that's a guess. I don't know. Nobody knows. Anybody who tells you they do, doesn't – and deserves special skepticism if they intend to use taxpayer money to implement the plan. Trying to design a transportation system today for the city of twenty years from now, extrapolating employment, housing, demographic, energy, social, political, and economic conditions beyond the predictive horizon, is a fool's goal – and a hell of an opportunity for the next FedEx-style visionary entrepreneur. (Not so much for the dozen who'll fail.)

posted by Kelly | 2:56 PM link