Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Metro system “is hemorrhaging bus riders.” The news was presented as, if not a crisis, at least an urgent matter that needs to be promptly addressed. Yet that’s hardly the case.
It’s troubling, we’re supposed to infer, that “passengers have fled” public transportation “for more convenient options — mostly, driving.” According to the Times headline writer, this bloody mess is “worsening traffic and hurting climate goals.”
“The bus exodus poses a serious threat to California’s ambitious climate and transportation goals,” says the Times. “Reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions will be next to impossible, experts say, unless more people start taking public transit.”
It’s been clear for some time policymakers across the state want to pull drivers out of their cars and push them into mass transit, no matter how inconvenient and sometimes painful it can be. Joel Kotkin, Chapman University professor, has been telling us for years that Sacramento has trapped California on a “road diet” in an effort “to make congestion so terrible that people will be forced out of their cars and onto transit.”
Columnist Steven Greenhut has watched as schemes to build “wider, protected bicycle routes” while at the same time “removing the number of traffic lanes in the process” have progressed. Those plans, he said, are found in the “fine print” of 2017’s Senate Bill 1, which most Californians assumed was passed and signed with the intention of raising $52 billion over a decade for repairing the state’s crumbling roads to improve automobile transportation.
Yet it seems the higher taxes will yield fewer lanes. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Sacramento, La Quinta and San Luis Obispo are among the cities that have been awarded gas tax dollars to create protected bike lanes by eliminating or reducing the size of lanes used by motor vehicles.”
While infuriating, it’s not surprising. Officials have openly telegraphed their desire to separate Californians from their automobiles. Media reports about “bold” plans “to wean Californians from cars,” efforts to “to inconvenience people out of their cars,” and using the law to “reshape urban lifestyles” are not uncommon.
Californians, though, who are probably more responsible for the country’s car culture than the residents of any other state — in the early 1920s, Los Angelenos were four times more likely to own a car than the average American — like their automobiles. The independence factor cannot be easily swept away.
“Cars have, from the very beginning,” writes University of Florida professor Paul Atchley, “represented more than just transportation to most Americans. Cars have historically represented the freedom to go places, to make choices and to pursue many paths.”
But policymakers would rather they decide for the rest of us where we should go, to stay in our lane, so to speak. They favor mass transit projects they hope will keep straying to a minimum. Public transportation “advocates speak approvingly of forcing American commuting patterns ‘back to the way we were,’” says Kotkin, while planners “romanticize the densely packed cities dependent on public transit” that were predominant at one time. But their fixation on the past “leaves them at war against cars.”
It’s a near certainty that residents of no other state are as manipulated and coerced by policymakers to the degree Californians are. Often this is done in the name of the environment. But placing the state on a road diet to shove drivers into buses and commuter trains does not necessarily produce an environmental benefit.
Mass transit also requires energy, much of it from fossil fuels. Transportation expert Randal O’Toole has said there are “only four urban areas where mass transit is used enough that it uses less energy than driving a car,” New York, San Francisco-Oakland, Portland, and Honolulu. “And in most of those urban areas, the greenhouse gas emissions are proportional to energy consumption.”
Rather than grieve over lost ridership, policymakers ought to act as the public servants they claim to be and adapt to the wishes of those they purport to serve. Californians increasingly prefer the freedom of auto travel over the limits of mass transit, which is obliquely reflected in car and truck sales, and unmistakably illustrated by declines in public transportation ridership. The market, nothing more sinister than consumers exercising their freedom to choose, should decide, not elected and unelected government officials who can’t tame their urges to manage society’s private affairs.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.