Time for a Capitalist Revolution: What's Needed for Transit
In a fascinating article that's floating around the Internet (to view it, click here), writer Daniel Sweeny traces the history of transportation revolutions, from the taming of horses to the rise of the automobile. Along the way, Sweeny lays down some conditions that new modes of travel must meet in order to be considered revolutionary. One is that they must change more than a way of travel, they must change the way people live, work and interact with the world around them. And that, Sweeny says, is the problem with today's public transit systems.
Unlike the streetcars and subways of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern light rail systems haven't changed the structure of their cities, Sweeny writes. ""And the reason they have not is that they have been imposed upon established communities rather than spearheading the formation of new residential and commercial developments," he says. ". . . They are simply seen as solutions to a small set of problems such as traffic congestion or air pollution, and not as agents for changing the very nature of housing, lifestyle, leisure and the markets for manufactured goods — in a word, everyday life." In fact, Sweeny says, it's almost a rule that such government-designed transportation systems "are neither self-sustaining nor endowed with their own growth dynamics." The sole exception, he adds, was the federal interstate highway system, which he points out was promoted by powerful business interests (car makers and homebuilders mostly) and not "the result of some government edict."
So where does this leave public transit today? If Sweeny's right, in need of a serious dose of capitalism. If transit is to work, it must attract the profit-making ingenuity of real estate developers, shop owners, restaurateurs, large corporate employers, the news media, entertainment establishments, bar owners and cultural venues — the institutions, in other words, that shape cities. Are there any signs of this? A few faint ones — some apartment developers and employers are showing greater interest in being near transit stations in highly congested cities like Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
But mostly these scattered developments point up what's lacking: the sudden, widespread realization among businesses that they can make more money by orienting themselves to transit stations than by stringing their stores, offices and apartment complexes along the interstate highway. And that, Daniel Sweeny might say, is the revolution that's awaiting transit. Posted 5/1/2005
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