Last fall, Steven Smith noted that European mass transit is subsidized the same amount as its American counterpart. Yet Europe has extensive mass transit offerings just about everywhere, to the point where it is difficult to find anyplace that has mediocre access relative to density or none at all, whereas in the U.S. the picture is the obverse. What gives?
Most complaints fall against ill-structured subsidization packages: roads in the U.S. have substantially higher subsidies relative to their European counterparts; driving standards here are rather more lax; exclusionary land use promotes driver culture at the expense of transit culture; etc. Part of this is of course true. Road standards are excessive and promote speeding which in turn promotes lax enforcement; land use is not planned in a way to support transit nodes; and road subsidies are hidden while transit subsidies are often paraded front and center. DOTs want to do nothing but build roads, and politicians insist on micromanaging transit while at the same time ignoring the multitude of excessive standards (and entailed ballooned costs) in the road planning arena. It's as if they have a monocle on one eye and a log in the other.
But that isn't the key problem. Smith, in his article, points out that the Bay Area receives an equivalent amount of transit funding for an equivalent population as Switzerland--but Switzerland has incontestably excellent transit while the Bay Area's, while good by U.S. standards, is, ahem, lacking. As Elizabeth Alexis notes, in Smith's quote, "The problem is more of how we spend money, not the amount of money."
How is this money spent? In the Bay Area, it is allocated to a number of transit agencies, each with its own agenda:
Amtrak California (Capitol Corridor)
Golden Gate Transit
Even when you take out the bus operators, that still leaves
ACE, and the
By contrast, the vast majority of passenger rail in Switzerland is handled by the
this includes all national-level passenger rail, the R-Bahn networks, and the S-Bahns. Some Swiss cities also have metros (Lausanne is the smallest) which are owned and handled by independent organizations. The Swiss
handles thus all the functions of
Amtrak California, and
And therein lies the problem. The Bay Area suffers from a bad case of bureaucratic redundancy, which means that multiple overlapping bureaucracies are handling things where only a single bureaucracy is really needed. So the basic problem is that, where in Switzerland,
is needed to perform any necessary office job, in the Bay Area,
And you wonder where all the money goes!
That's not the worst of it, though. American transit agencies are incredibly territorial, and jealously guard their turf to the point of undermining the common need for improved transit access. How else can you defend Millbrae, which seems to have been spitefully designed to inhibit Bay Area high-speed travel via the Caltrain ROW as expensively as possible? Or spending money to reduce interlocking redundancy, which in its turn undercuts on-time performance?
Elizabeth Alexis is dead right. And in the U.S., we spend money on bloated redundant bureaucracy, on entrenching petty squabbles in concrete, and at the end of the day we find we have no money to actually run transit, let alone well.
Organization before electronics before concrete, the Germans say. But here we take concrete uber alles, and even use concrete to entrench organizational inefficiencies.