The Dead End of Public Transit for Profit

I have only driven a car about eighty miles in my entire life. I was hitchhiking through Arizona and was maybe a hundred miles from Tucson. The driver was high on something—my guess was narcotics—when he pulled over to the side of the road and told me I was going to have to drive. After quickly considering the situation, I said okay. He climbed into the back sit and passed out before I restarted the engine. The time was somewhere between midnight and four in the morning. The night was still dark and there were no other cars within viewing distance. I had taken some driving lessons a few years previous. Plus, I had been watching people drive most of my life. The highway was as straight as a line on a piece of notebook paper and as flat as that same piece of paper. I started the engine and we crept closer to Tucson. When we neared the outer suburbs of that city, I gingerly pulled into a shopping center parking lot and turned off the engine. I waited about half an hour for the driver to wake up. When he did, I gave him the keys, said goodbye, and left the car. I really didn’t want to be in a city I didn’t know with a guy who shot dope before he drove across the desert. He mumbled thanks, said he knew where he was, reached into his pocket, and gave me a ten-dollar bill. I thanked him and left. Then I walked into town with my knapsack, bedroll, and the ten bucks.

The reason I mention my minimal time behind the wheel is to bring home how familiar I am with public transportation. I’ve been riding it since my last year in junior high when my family moved to Frankfurt am Main in western Germany. Streetcars, subways, and buses were cheap. In fact, a ride cost the Deutsch Mark equivalent of less than a nickel a ride when we first moved there. For the first time in my life I was quite mobile and did not have to depend on parents or other adults with cars. The price of a ticket from the conductor or the vending machine was the price of freedom. Ever since, I’ve been taking the bus or the train whenever I can.

There’s a certain atmosphere on city buses, a certain set of understandings. One learns a lot from watching, listening, and occasionally conversing with the people around them. It’s not always pretty, but it is almost always informative. There are those who treat the bus as car service and there are those who treat it as a temporary home. In many cities I have ridden in, it is the minimum wage worker, the houseless person, the older individual, and the single parent with small children who are the most frequent passengers. To the suburban mentality, this is often threatening. I attribute that to the antisocial nature of suburban living.

My son is a statistician and policy analyst for the public transportation system that serves the Boston metropolitan area. The system is mostly publicly-owned, with some of the commuter rail providers being private. The struggle to get people to ride those trains is one that pits the contrived need to operate without a loss against the desire of some public transit officials like my son to get more people to ride them. Schedules must be made more convenient than commuting by automobile and cheaper than the combination of fuel, tolls, and fares. This is a difficult challenge when such systems are required to at the least pay for themselves. The demands from politicians under the illusion that public transit should be a business and not a service means the transit authority must constantly justify its budget to legislators who drive or get driven everywhere they go. In other words, they never take public transit and might even consider it frivolous. Like so many other budgetary conflicts in states with large cities, the battle over funding often comes down to the difference between an urban and rural/suburban understanding. The latter depends on personal vehicles, while the former often find them a genuine hassle to own and store. Of course, there are other factors when it comes to cutting public transit budgets; the usual impetus to cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations is probably foremost among them.

The scenario in Boston can be translated to public transit systems throughout the United States. From small cities like Burlington, Vermont, and Asheville, North Carolina to the national passenger rail system called Amtrak, the politicians whose only determinant seems to be the lack of profit when it comes to every government expenditure except for war and law enforcement (and themselves) oppose publicly-funded transit. The fact that the recently passed infrastructure bill has as much funding for public transit as it does is something of a surprise. It will be interesting to see how much of it actually goes to improving the systems on the ground and how much ends up in the pockets of administrators and privatized entities that serve their stockholders and not the public for whom the dollars are supposedly earmarked.

It’s a fairly common understanding that the will to slow down global climate change does not really exist in the halls of Congress. The logic of capitalism won’t permit that body to change its direction. This is why the Postal Service is under constant attack, why public schools are often poorly funded, why medical care is both expensive and certainly not universal, and why public transit is more expensive than it should be and so often poorly maintained. Increasing the frequency of buses and trains, expanding their service, and keeping fares low would ultimately attract more riders, which would mean fewer vehicles on the streets. The subservience to profit is unlikely to change as long as it defines the inhumane economy that has us convinced there are no alternatives. Public transit systems that put service above any perceived need to make a profit would be a small but important step in the failing struggle to reverse the negative elements of human-caused climate change.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.