Sunday, December 12, 2004

Let That Lonesome Whistle Blow Your Market Blues Away 

Forgive me if this becomes a Lileksian post, but I'm going to wax nostalgic about New York for a moment, then give a poorly remembered history lesson coupled with a didactic political message -- we Minneapolitans who idolize old humorists are more similar than we might wish, even if Lileks is a (vastly overrated) fascist and moron. (Actually, I don't know if his fascism is overrated. I meant his writing, as any Star-Tribune reader knows)

I was dragged out to see a rehearsal of a reading of a ten-minute play I wrote this afternoon (yes, it was as boring as it sounds), forced to leave my (intermittently) climate-controlled room and venture into a gray December day with only my fashionably shabby sportjacket to protect me against the freezing Manhattan wind (to be frank, Chicago, I am increasingly convinced that we are windier than you). After my punishment at the hands of undergraduate acting students and their trial-by-improv-comedy director, I ran for the 8th St. subway station entrance, convinced I'd just missed the damn train. But as I reached the platform, a G.I. green-painted iron monster ambled to a stop and opened its doors. It turns out the MTA has been running a vintage 1930s subway car on the N/R line every weekend from Thanksgiving till December 19th. The interior is a thing of beauty -- if I get my camera phone working properly, I'll post a few blurry shots of the gloriously ugly interiors, complete with "rattan seats and period ads" (including a few for Viceroy cigarettes touting the Readers' Digest claim of greater health benefits through filter science). Travel between cars (newly illegalized by MTA diktat) was encouraged, engineers in funny hats chatted and answered questions, straphangers actually had straps to hang on, and the conductors shouted the stops in their best theatrical voices. I rode the thing, investigating each slightly different car, three stops past mine, then walked back home past the neo-classical architecture of City Hall and ugly/awesome historic TriBeCa. It was, all in all, considerably more magical than The Polar Express.

Now the part (per Lileks, still) where I stop playing wide-eyed Midwestern tourist and move smoothly into obnoxious neighbor who knows more than you.

This really is just a post where I share something cool that happened to me, but there is a political story for this political blog in this world where the personal is political, and/or vice versa.

The notoriously poor design of the New York subway system (no crosstown lines, ridiculously redundant lines running a block apart, incompatible rail gauges among different lines, no service east of 4th Ave, etc.) is a direct result of a turn-of-the-20th Century idea that big public works projects are best managed by private interests. A 1905 editor of muckraking McClure's magazine gives you the details:
The story of the travail of a modern city in bringing forth a great public work: how the will of the people, opposed by the street-car monopolies, deflected through the Political Boss, ineffectively enforced by the Rapid Transit Commission, blunted by its own dumbness, finally found expression in a great work; and how, at last, following the common fate of such enterprises, the Subway is nourishing a new private monopoly, more piratical than any of its predecessors. --THE EDITOR.

Soon, there were two competing privately owned companies controlling rapid transit in New York -- the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Corporation. The Market did its work, and competition gave New York relatively stable and cheap fares. Then, it gave them "competing lines" that ran down the same damn streets and didn't cover huge swaths of all the boroughs, severe over-crowding, delays, corruption, and generally poor profit-driven duopoly service with no public input and little oversight. Finally, in the 1920s, the city planned to take over the whole damn system and try to make it compatible. The result has been a qualified success, with the subway system, after many extremely rough years, efficient, clean, safe, and completely necessary for the survival of the city. The current problems, and there are many, are because of never-ending Albany corruption and growing resistance to public funding of anything that doesn't directly benefit the wealthy. That's just my opinion, and a lazily proven one at that, but the lesson for the modern-day Light Rail advocates is apparent. Private companies will benefit private interests, and mass transit is not a true market by any stretch of the imagination -- it leads, when privatized, only to monopolistic exploitation.

So -- go ride the fancy old subway if you're in town, and thank the god of progressivism for Big Government.

[Updated to correct the spelling of a certain fascist's name -- you'd think I'd remember, having so purposefully skipped it every week in my hometown paper]

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