The politics of public transport
Public transport almost always provides the first impression that people form of a place when moving from one country to another. If only for the value of that first impression, it would seem a worthwhile investment.
There are few areas of public life that more clearly mark the move from the United States back to Europe and London than public transport. While politicians seek to manage it, and pundits discuss whether the fall of US empire is happening or already happened, investigators will one day conclude that US public transport had offered the best evidence of what was going wrong. Looked at closely and a public transport system functions like the window to the soul of a nation.
This is not to say that London’s transport system is perfect. It allows too much car congestion at too low a cost upon drivers, the resulting air pollution chokes the city and public life, but Transport for London does manage a system that on some level embraces the understanding that it has to prioritise pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit, and that these priorities need to be backed up with investment. The US simply isn't there yet, but why isn't it?
Public transport almost always provides the first impression that people form of a place when moving from one country to another. If only for the value of that first impression, it would seem a worthwhile investment. My recent experience of landing in New York’s JFK, late on a weekday night in winter, was - as always - to pay the $5 fare required to take the Air Train shuttle out of the airport terminals and to get to the subway at all, a first reminder that – as Americans like to say – freedom isn’t free. When I arrive at the actual subway platform, hopeful passengers wait in the cold of the night, looking down tracks disappearing into the night and with no sign, information or indication anywhere on the platform of when a train is coming, or even if a train is coming at all. In our collective ignorance, we cling to a faith that, eventually, a train must come because nobody has told us that it won’t, and after twenty minutes our faith is rewarded with a headlight in the distance, bringing the promise of the metropolis we came here to reach. In a world where cities from Kuala Lumpur to Istanbul now boast clean and spacious metro systems with clear information, first-time visitors at this gateway to the United States might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.
It is not aboard this empty, late-night train, with its rows of unclaimed seats that you realise how badly designed a New York subway carriage is. To get a fuller appreciation for its singular failure, you need the rush hour of Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn. It is then that you first realise that, rather than maximising the space in a quite small carriage, seats have been placed perpendicular to one another, so that one cuts out the legroom of another and means that seats have to remain empty while many people stand. Inside this carriage, the problem is not just the confusion that three distinct lines can run on the same line – so that lines 1, 2 and 3 all share the red and the A, C, and E all share the blue. It is not even the absence of logic that labels some lines with letters and others with numbers. The biggest problem in navigating the subway from a crowded carriage is that in the panels along its walls only two contain maps and the remaining twenty or more hold adverts – a small army of impatient New Yorkers packed-in tight separate you from the map you need to see. That you cannot see the only information you really need, because the only information provided is advertising, in a roundabout way, is the perfect metaphor for US democracy. A few years ago I took a shuttle bus from JFK to Manhattan, unable to see the world outside the window because the bus itself was wrapped in a plastic wrapping that had enabled the vehicle to have an advert printed on it. This, and the inability to see the world at all because you are inside an advert is the same metaphor, perfected.
At the root of these design failings are three fundamental truths about the contemporary US, each of which - taken to a larger scale - contributes to the decay and collapse-from-within of the US empire. First is a lack of concentrated thought given to the design of a public asset because – somewhere in its rugged, individual soul – the US does not like to be caught believing in ‘public assets’ at all. Second is the primary status afforded to commercial opportunity and consumerism above useful public information. Third is the emotional disregard of the journey as a potentially nice, pleasant thing. This is mostly accepted because – by some perverse logic – citizens of the US have been taught to believe that the avoidable difficulty enshrined in everyday life is actually a testament to the country’s greatness. The rat, running between the tracks, is just a reminder that life was never supposed to be easy.
One thing that cannot be helped, however, is that whatever the poor state of a public transport system, a society will always end up with the public in it. Even if this is only because of the logic that homelessness is ever-rising, the rain is falling and the day is cold, members of the public not in private homes or private employment still need somewhere warmer and drier in which to gather. The subway’s small offer of a public space also creates a rare opportunity to earn the income by which people will eat for another day, or get through to the next high that breaks the hopelessness of existence.
San Francisco, mostly seen as the second ‘world city’ of the US, after New York, offers the more graphic insight on this failure of US society and politics. On a station platform, I watched a man cleaning the dirt from out of his fingernails with a syringe. Possibly the most depressing sight of a month in the US was a station employee arguing with a homeless man who had borrowed his litter-picking device and was using it to collect recycling. An underpaid worker with few tools to do his duties, a homeless man who has to pick up and sell-back items of rubbish if he is to survive – this is not the struggle that US society needs.
All of this, quite naturally, drives people out of the public realm and into the private one. Just as people eventually choose private healthcare or education, in the end, no matter how ideologically opposed to it, you might as well give up on the solution, buy a car, and become part of the problem. As with other public services, and particularly healthcare, poor public transport in the US is no indication of lack of investment, but only terrible management. The newest section of Manhattan’s subway cost $2.5billion for each of its 3 miles, while Paris achieved a recent extension at just $450million a mile. Lack of transparency and competitive subcontracting are given as the core problems blighting US rail infrastructure nationwide.
Fittingly, it was on my way out of San Francisco that I had my final encounter with perhaps the most striking moment of US social failure and transport failure combining as one. At a ticket machine displaying all of the previously mentioned design failures and lack of clarity, I worked through the many available ticket variations towards the one that I wanted, my confusion increased by a homeless man, appearing directly over my shoulder and – helpfully but not so helpfully – trying to offer instructions while I tried to understand the archaic system. With his palm outstretched, as I collected my tickets, the homeless man reached over to beg a few coins from me for his efforts to provide a service of information that the system failed to.
The moment reminded me of the historical detail that in ancien régime France where, before the revolution in 1789, the country's landowning aristocrats had allowed the roads they controlled to fall into ruin because obscure laws meant they were entitled to any goods dropped by carts travelling along the bumpy tracks. Likewise, in the space where the San Francisco authorities should be providing a workable, modern ticketing system, the familiarity of a local homeless man creates for him a chance of the income that he is denied by the absence of either work opportunities or social security. In his efforts to earn some money, the failures of both the transport and economics systems fuse together and create a new, compound failure. One day, historians studying the decline of the US will find that the answers were, all along, waiting on the subway.