A Desire Named Streetcar; Or, What Happened to Mass Transit?

MARTA Gold Rail Line Train, Atlanta. Photo by RedRails. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
MARTA Gold Rail Line Train, Atlanta. Photo by RedRails. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

I like mass transit. When I’m living in or visiting a substantial city, there’s simply no better way to get around than the local bus or (if I’m lucky) train system. Why battle heavy traffic when I can relax, crack a book, and let someone else drive me  to within easy walking distance of almost any local destination … probably for less money and time than I’d waste on gasoline and parking?

That may sound like an odd confession coming from a libertarian. And, these days, it is. “Mass transit” these days usually refers to government-operated enterprises which run at operating losses and tap taxpayers to make up their deficits.

That, however, was not always the case.

New York’s subway system was operated by private companies until 1940. Chicago’s elevated trains were privately owned and operated until 1947. It wasn’t until 1963 that a bi-state compact purchased 15 private transit operators to make “mass transit” in St. Louis area a wholly government-operated enterprise.

The telling of the story of  private mass transit’s death usually starts with Los Angeles, where National City Lines, a company owned by General Motors and other automobile-centric companies, bought up the private streetcar lines, replacing them with buses. At the same time, the same players lobbied heavily for automobile-friendly streets and “freeways,”  making it more convenient for city dwellers to move to the suburbs … if they bought cars.

So, it’s complicated. Yes, mass transit is heavily subsidized. But so is “car culture.” Those interstate highways and wide city boulevards didn’t build themselves.

At its founding, less than 10% of America’s population lived in the urban areas that make mass transit practical.  That number today: 80%.

But according to a 2020 report published by Railway Age, only one in five Americans report “access to” mass transit, and of that 20%, 40% never use it at all, while only about 11% use it daily.

Look, I get it: Owning a car, motorcycle, scooter, or bicycle makes getting around more convenient in that you can travel on your schedule and per your chosen route, not someone else’s.

On the other hand, riding mass transit means no car payments, insurance premiums, parking worries, etc. In or near an urban core, it just makes sense … assuming systems built to serve their markets rather than to tick items off lists of government transportation planners’ priorities.

Re-“privatizing” mass transit might save its life by making it more attractive to its supposed constituency, the public.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.