Let’s spend a few minutes talking about something that relates to all of us – driving, or, in government-speak “transportation.”

If you’re like most people, chances are you own a car and navigate San Diego’s freeways to get to and from your work each day. Given that Californians are among the highest taxed people in the nation, one has to wonder, why are our roads becoming so badly congested that trips that once took 20 minutes now take an hour?

Let me take this opportunity to flatly criticize the irrational infatuation urban planners have with light rail (like the cute little red Trolley) as the panacea to solve every problem from freeway congestion to global warming. I realize that this is going to drive a whole bunch of bureaucrats in some faceless government building downtown absolutely nuts. I’m not concerned, however. They should be working and not surfing internet blogs during the work day anyway.

Rail systems work in some cities, but not others. Everyone agrees the subway in New York and the London Underground are an important benefit to city residents. Yet, when similar rail systems are tried in cities like San Diego and Salt Lake City, they flop, often spectacularly. Why does rail work in some cities, but not others?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that rail systems only work in cities with very high population density. New York, London, etc. Older cities that were built around the horse and buggy were built with high density to begin with. Getting from one place to another on your horse takes a while, so these cities quickly built “up” instead of “out.” Better to climb up an extra flight up stairs than sit on the back of some animal in the snow for another 30 minutes.

Newer cities, particularly those built after the Second World War like San Diego, were not formed around the horse and buggy. They were built around the automobile. With a car, one can travel miles in the time it takes your trusted horse to travel a few hundred yards. This led to the lower density development we see today.

With cars, people moved away from the noise and congestion of downtown, live where they want, and then drive to the workplace.

Then one day, I can envision some government bureaucrat from San Diego visited New York City, and noticed how people get around on the subway. Quick, efficient, relatively low cost. Wow – we should have that in San Diego. So in comes the modern Trolley.

The problem is that San Diego is not New York – it does not have anywhere close to the population density to make the system practical. To make the system appeal to a large segment of the population requires the building of multiple lines and a plethora of stations. The problem is that the system can afford neither. Worse, as more stations are added to the system, the time it takes to get from one place to another quickly exceeds the time it takes to drive there. To get more riders you need more stations, which means more stops, which means fewer people will choose to use the system, which leads to … You get the picture.

Urban planners and bureaucrats love light rail, however, and aren’t about to give it up – so to prop up the system, a whole array of subsidies are found to make everyone pay to subsidize the transportation of those few who use the system. When these subsidies don’t work (they rarely do because the system is so darned expensive to build, maintain, and operate), the bureaucrats look for all kinds of ways to “get people out of their cars” with a variety of mechanisms, including increasing car taxes, gas taxes, finding ways to make parking more expensive and less available, etc.

One of the biggest abuses of taxpayers comes when gas taxes (first imposed to pay for roads) are diverted to pay for rail transportation, and other silliness like bike paths (how much traffic relief do you think comes from people opting to ride their bike to work?). This is why Proposition 1A is on the November ballot – finally a measure to shift more of the gas tax money which drivers are paying to actually pay for repairing and expanding roads (which people use) as opposed to rail (which most people don’t use).

Any first year economics student knows that cross subsidies (car drivers paying for trolleys, for example) have a powerful effect in distorting the market and individual decision-making. By shifting gas tax dollars to pay for rail travel, users don’t get accurate price signals (rail is cheaper than it should be, while driving costs more than it should).

The urban planning crowd argues that rail really is better for people’s quality of life. Yeah, right.

The best example of this fallacy can be demonstrated by driving from San Diego to downtown Los Angeles. Counties have choices when it comes to the allocation of transportation dollars. Orange County and Los Angeles made very different choices, and it shows when you’re driving on the 5.

Orange County funneled their transportation dollars into – gasp! – roads. I-5 from the 5/405 merge north to the LA county line is a 12+ lane monster, and traffic at most times of the day FLIES in all directions.

You know you’re approaching the OC/LA line when all of a sudden traffic slows to a mind-numbing five miles per hour, virtually any time of day. Why? Because LA county chose to put their transportation dollars in a virtually empty rail system, instead of roads. As a result, the 5 freeway through LA isn’t 12+ lanes like in Orange, but a 1950’s style measly six lanes (three in each direction) of traffic that barely moves.

Now, how this improves anyone’s quality of life is a mystery. Cars moving this slow spew a lot more pollution than those cruising at 60, and I don’t think too many parents would rather spend an extra 150 hours per year in their cars instead of at home with their kids.

The bureaucrats at the Ministry of Transportation avoid any intellectual examination of these facts by sneering that “Americans have a love affair with their cars” and espouse how the whole array of coercive laws and subsidies are necessary to break Americans of their irrational attachment to the automobile. This is a cheap way of smearing rational Americans who drive, rather than facing up to the simple fact that rail systems like the Trolley simply do not pencil out in cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, or just about anywhere else in the West.

[Right about now is when I expect some bureaucrat downtown is zipping an e-mail to some light rail systems “consultant” (who no doubt drives to work) who makes a million dollars a year developing studies and PowerPoint presentations showing how you really can fit the square peg in the round hole, asking him to comment below and talk about how the world would be so great if everyone took a train to work.]

It’s the urban planning bureaucrats who are the irrational ones. First, let’s remember that if everyone drove cars on efficient freeways, there wouldn’t be much need for the very same bureaucrats at the Ministry of Transportation, or the Department of whatever. Face it: if the bureaucrats built a trolley line to the neighborhood of everyone reading this post, a trolley ride would cost about a zillion dollars, and it would have to make about that same number of stops before it finally arrived at your workplace. Then try taking the train from your workplace to your kids’ school to pick them up and zip them over to soccer practice – on a train.

No, San Diegans don’t drive their cars because of some irrational “love affair” which the all-wise bureaucracy must break. We drive because we’re rational. We can work and commute on our own schedule, travel point to point, haul groceries and other cargo, and transport our kids, all at much lower cost than with a rail system (when all the subsidies are factored in).

In truth, we are already paying for all the roads necessary to move quickly and efficiently throughout our county. The primary reason we can’t is because too many of those dollars are being siphoned off into all kinds of “transportation” projects which actually “transport” very few people, but look really swell on paper.


Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.