Alan Huynh and the 10 Worst Problems in Transportation

One of USC SPPD’s brilliant students, Alan Huynh, as a blog post up on what he considers to be the 10 worst problems in the transportation world.

Mine are in no particular order.

1. Crash safety–for everything from cars to bikes to scooters—around the world is unacceptably low, particularly for pedestrian victims of motorised crashes. Every year, 1.7 million people die in car crashes, and 35 percent of those are children. Just in case we need help with that statistic, that means the cars wipe out the equivalent of: Santa Barbara, Boulder, and Miami each year in crashes alone. We’re not even talking about deaths related to air pollution, which is also unacceptably high.

2. Transit companies are more accountable to voters than passengers. Even in places where a comparatively high number of people are regular transit users, passengers are usually a voting minority. Therefore, transit companies can place a low priority on service quality and still maintain their public image as long as they keep building and marketing their services–to voters, who, when they themselves face a too-long, too-uncomfortable, and too unreliable transit trip won’t ride, but who think “well, somebody else will take transit, but it’s not for me–my time is valuable” and still vote for transit.

3. Gas and parking are too damn cheap. This allows “transit is for somebody else” thinking. A price floor on gasoline would help us out a lot. Unfortunately, we are not going to get one.

4. Transporting water. (No, it’s not just about passenger travel and finding ways to complain about why drivers won’t switch to transit.) Women and children carry water routinely throughout world to supply their families’ needs. It is tiring, physically debilitating work, and there are simple technologies that could make it much easier, like rolling drums. Access to potable water is a fundamental health and justice issue, and it’s a matter of personal freight transport or housing or both.

5. Transit takes too damn long, even in places where transit is heavily supplied, and in places where it is well-patronized, it’s way too crowded. Yes, yes, yes, there are some easy, wonderful, comfortable transit trips out there. Awesome. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them. See #2.

6. Americans—and lots of other world residents— are too wealthy. By any measure, this is not really a problem. But since auto travel is a normal good, and with higher incomes, consumption of normal goods increases. No evidence anywhere from any city, no matter what its form, contradicts this relationship. Wealth goes up; VMT goes up; sometimes transit trips go up, too, along with other modes. Because if you’ve got money in your pocket, you can go places and do things as well as afford the modes you want to get there.

7. The parking spaces right by the front door of the gym are always full, while the ones far from the front door are always empty. Because you wouldn’t want to walk too far to get on the treadmill. You can figure out the rest.

8. There is far too much money and political payoff in building rather than operating and maintaining, which derives from problem #2 and reinforces problem #5 and causes us to overbuild all of our transport infrastructure. Nobody screams when you cut driver time (save for the unions), lines, or stops–but all of those cuts degrade service (problem #5). Propose to cut somebody’s pet project? Screams, tearing of hair, beating of breasts. We thus have a really overbuilt and undermaintained system. Now, don’t get me wrong: the earmarking issue is about 1/10000000th as important as the Republicans are making it out to be, but my concern centers on how we use what monies we have, regardless of the total amount.

9. There is lots of hand-writing about how cars take priority in US cities, but very little thinking about how and why cars came to dominate cities or how to change that political nexus now. So apparently there was this conspiracy between GM and Goodyear to buy up the street cars in LA, which alone, all alone, made transit unviable without heroic financial assistance in every major city in the US outside of the northeast. That’s right! The federal government did things to favor auto companies to pacify the unions, yeah, baby, they’re at fault. It’s all the oil companies fault! That’s the ticket! It’s not consumers or voters faults because if it were, it would be a harder problem to fix than all these bad bad conspiracies.

By 1929, there was basically 1 car for every household in the US. Sure, there were households with more than one car, but..still. That’s quite a ratio, very early.

If you open any microfiche of any NYC or Boston paper from 1920 onward, there will be op-ed after op-ed about “those bloodsucking streetcar companies” or “those blood-stained streetcars.” Bad customer relations, even then.

So what happens when most urban voters become car users, I wonder? Might that influence the amount of free parking and auto conveniences supplied in the city?

Nah, a conspiracy.

10. Analysts who think benefit-cost analysis is everything—as well as those advocates who think benefit-cost analysis is nothing. Rail transit investments are long-term, don’t forecast well even when people are trying to be honest, and thus they become vulnerable to criticism because of poor early performance. That’s not fair. Would the Brooklyn Bridge have passed a cost-benefit analysis? I doubt it, but the region is unimaginable without it.

However, the other extreme—all rail transit is good transit no matter how much it costs and no matter where it is and no matter how many perfectly well-functioning bus routes get re-routed, or cancelled to feed into a new rail line to make it look like it’s getting riders—is just as bad.

Bonus: freight companies are global, powerful, and often very difficult to regulate or entice into voluntary agreements that don’t screw over their least empowered employees or small-business partners. Everybody celebrates that freight rail is “cleaner” than trucks. Yippee. Then when people actually have to try to collaborate with freight rail companies, it’s like trying to lift a Cadillac with your eyelashes, and suddenly everything seems much less sweet than Thomas the Tank Engine would have you believe. Not that the ATA is any better. (If bychance any wonderful members of the freight world are reading this, please don’t put me with Jimmy Hoffa. My dogs would miss me.)

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One thought on “Alan Huynh and the 10 Worst Problems in Transportation

  1. Interesting list — as a world traveler I see the main problem is the world copies the USA culture. This is the status quo and the USA has no idea of the normal problems of the underdeveloped planet, which is about 85 percent of the planet.

    China has started purchasing motorcycle and cars, this is going to make the problems of the USA small in comparison.

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