Plumb Lines

February 24, 2009

Aristotle would take the Subway

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:18 pm

Reihan conspicuously absents new mass transit from his list of proposed rail projects. He suggests that we spend on freight, existing mass transit, and “incremental improvements.” These all seem like good ideas to me, but even if it were the case that these projects would be more stimulating that new mass transit, we should not choose our transportation projects based exclusively on their economic benefit. The Interstate Highway system was a tremendous economic boon, but destroyed urban life in the United States. Likewise, even if mass transit were an economic sink-hole (which, to be clear, it isn’t), we have to think about how it affects the practices of daily life. The language of externalities isn’t particularly useful, here, though it would be natural to slip into it. The real flaw of the automobile, which is not inherently so different from public transit, is that its paraphernalia disrupts the most human, I daresay the most natural way of getting around — walking.

UPDATE: Reihan rightly points out in the comments that his list specifically identifies mass transit projects, especially the Second Avenue subway, that represent particularly good ways to spend money on rail. My point was not that Reihan’s list was a bad list, or even an anti-transit list (though where, I ask, are the funds to complete the Cincinnati subway?), but that we should make our transportation decisions with regard to more than projected ridership and cost.  Of course, it’s still important to do the analysis, avoiding boondoogles and capturing opportunities, but even if the Second Avenue subway had lost out against HSR in California in Ben Adler’s analysis, it might still be a better idea because it will contribute to the ongoing rehumanization and pedestrianizing of New York’s built environment.

David Schaengold



  1. I actually _did_ include mass transit on my list, but didn’t elaborate because I didn’t think it was necessary I also cited Ben Adler arguing that spending on the Second Avenue Subway, and/or investing in improving mass transit in Los Angeles proper (via bus rapid transit or possibly fixed rail) is preferable to spending on HSR between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

    Comment by Reihan — February 25, 2009 @ 8:07 am

  2. One reason I like mass transit is that it seems to me a better communitarian alternative to travel by car. We are bound to the realities of sprawl at this point, not to mention the inevitable distances between cities, and while I am completely for reviving the walkable city through new urbanism, I would also like to see public transportation replace the 12 lane freeway. At least on a train we are among each other. At least on a bus we are face to face.

    Comment by E.D. Kain — March 6, 2009 @ 10:52 am

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