Forward to the Past


Mike Shedlock had an intriguing column this last weekend about Detroit (and other major cities) installing streetcar systems, at seriously high costs, while technology marches forward, toward, he suggests, to driverless automobiles which may be the rapid transit of the future.


Whether or not such vehicles will become practical remains to be seen. There are a myriad of problems that may remain to be solved before they become a preferred conveyance. I am sure that uber-wealthy folks would still prefer to travel by Rolls Royce and say “Home, James” just to revel in their affluence. While even middle class types like myself enjoy the idea of driving when and where you like in your own vehicle where you don’t have to worry about who used it before and what effluent or detritus they have left behind for you to discover. And that is only one of many things that could get in the way.


But there’s more to this situation than simply streetcars. They are a convenient symbol, and so they are useful here. But the real crux of the matter lies in the so-called “progressives” constant refrain about the “failed policies of the past” which must be replaced with something new and exciting, even if it is streetcars.


Which brings us to the city and county of San Francisco, California. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but not in that city, itself. Today I can still recall family trips there for various reasons; mostly to visit Golden Gate Park and the various museums. Back then San Francisco had three forms of public transportation. There were old style diesel buses with rounded corners instead of the more modern square look that was coming into style; the electric buses which were powered by two overhead wires and were not confined to tracks as the trolleys were. As a kid I loved them because at intersections they could almost always be guaranteed to let out a really nice electrical spark from their single wire contact.


Years later the Bay Area Rapid Transit was introduced. “Rapid Transit” was the darling of urban planners at the time. And of course it was supported by federal money, and the cities had learned by that time never to turn down a federal dollar, no matter what it was to be used for. BART was supposed to be a high-speed system to whisk passengers from their bedroom communities to their work in less time and greater comfort than ever before. It didn’t turn out that way, but the system is still there and is functioning as before. Meanwhile, the streetcar tracks in San Francisco were left in place, while the system moved underground and became the “Muni-Metro.” But the streetcars didn’t entirely go away. In the summer historic cars from a variety of locations around the world were detailed to travel up and down Market St. as a sort of tourist attraction.


Was all this even necessary? Not really; not any more than Detroit, or any other modern city needs new streetcars unless the people there want to pay for them out of their own pockets, without federal or other subsidies to entice them into it. Government money is always behind things such as this. The question is not whether the project will truly benefit those in need of better transportation; no, it is whether or not someone in government or someone connected to government tends to benefit from whatever is proposed. The question of necessity or of improved convenience for the average person is shunted aside with statements to the effect that they expect so many million riders per year at a particular fare, making the thing self supporting, after which, if fails to deliver.


In these situations one never fails to be reminded of the various mega stadia, built with government financing, that never pay off, provide the jobs promised and the income to the nearby businesses. The Houston Astrodome is one excellent example of a building that is mired in debt, and stands empty, except for the vermin that might populate such a location. It appears that it is destined for demolition, but removal of the building does not remove the debt that the remains.


Besides, streetcars, as Mr. Shedlock points out, went out of style by the 1960’s, except, perhaps in San Francisco. So, we might ask, why are we bringing them back to so many cities? The answer is likely to be that someone is benefiting from the government subsidies that are certainly involved, and if there is a private entity involved, that entity certainly has an escape hatch already engaged for when it becomes necessary.


In the end, this is another example of government involving itself in something better left to the private sector. If the local businesses in Atlanta, for example, want to chip in to build a streetcar line down one of the numerous vehicular throughways named “Peachtree” they should do so and bear the costs. Government should be willing to stand aside and let them make fools of themselves if they want, while requiring them to not disrupt the traffic flow for us ordinary folk who wish to drive or walk. After all, until someone finds a better way to move things around, we are going to have cars and trucks, travelling on roads, streets, boulevards, avenues and highways. But streetcars may not be necessary if something better presents itself.


Which brings us to a concluding paragraph on high-speed rail. This has become another darling of the transportation-planning sector. But one has to ask a question; the passengers must travel to and from the railhead at each end in some way that gets them to their final destination. Maybe their friends are going to pick them up or deliver them in what will probably be automobiles. Rail transportation may be fast, but it may not always be convenient. Speed is not the only consideration. And just because America hasn’t jumped on board the high-speed rail bandwagon does not doom us to a status as a second-class nation. As your mother might have said, if everyone else was going to jump off a cliff would you do it too? Of course, these aren’t cliffs, but they might be projects that are simply foolish in the long run. That is, unless of course, there is a plan in the works to eliminate automobiles to combat “climate change.” After which all of us ordinary folk will be relegated to horses and buggies, (and streetcars) while Al Gore and his fellow drive their favorite autos, fly around as they please and blame the rest of us for something that never happened.


Is moving backward technologically really progress?

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