Not for the first time, John Derbyshire gives me an idea, this time with his column, “From A to B,” on NRO May 9. Rightly does Derb grouse about the Long Island Expressway, his regular artery. I used to have to take that road to the Huntington Town House, a catering hall, every Friday and Saturday night, to play in tuxedo bands for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
And a musician cannot — cannot — be late.
That was in about 1971-72, and the LIE was a mess even then with commuters heading home from Manhattan. My gigs usually started at 8:30 or 9:00. I lived in Manhattan, and still I had to leave at 5:00 if I hoped to make it in time.
IN HIS A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, Paul Johnson repeatedly cites a study to show that railroads were never genuinely profitable. Instead, they received incredible subsidies, generally in the form of land grants, grants that amounted, in some cases, to as much as a third of the acreage in newly admitted 19th century states.
Derbyshire makes the same point about today’s roads. Governments subsidize them heavily, but do not levy user fees appropriate to their use. (As such, he sympathizes with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed $8 per car fee for entry to Manhattan.)
I wonder, though. Given that roads are, and will be, government enterprises, subject to government planning, is it possible that with just a little tweaking they could be made much more comfortable?
IN 1984, THE OLYMPICS CAME TO LOS ANGELES. City residents dreaded the Games. Our fabled freeways had already grown so crowded that radio stations broadcast traffic reports every ten minutes, all day and night long, and they needed to. You used to be able to drive from Santa Monica to Palm Springs, a straight shot of about 100 miles along one of the widest highways in the world, the Santa Monica Freeway, in about two hours. That journey now takes closer to four hours at most times of day. The last time I did it, my wife and I made the return trip at midnight just to avoid the crush.
As Olympics fortnight approached, two of my musical friends, Catfish Hodge and Paul Barrere, decided to get out of town. They formed a traveling act and booked themselves all over the country, anywhere except L.A.
Meantime the L.A. city fathers, in concert with the largest employers in the basin, created a coordinated time shifting campaign for work hours. They aimed to reduce traffic by two or three percent so as to ease the trip to all the different Olympic venues, which were scattered at locations from Malibu to Pasadena.
Off went Catfish and Paul, and surprise! You could get anywhere in Los Angeles during Olympics fortnight with no trouble at all. There simply were no traffic jams. And it hadn’t cost anything, either.
The city rapidly reverted to form when the Olympics was over. Why?
PARTLY IT’S INERTIA, AND LARGELY, a failure of imagination. The two go together naturally in government, of course.
When I lived in Westwood, New Jersey, the big local controversy had to do with parking. The town had a big lot near the commuter rail station, where New York bound commuters could park by purchasing a monthly ticket at a ridiculously low price, something like $30. The spaces had to be allocated by lottery, they were in so much demand. They could have been priced up to ten times as much.
There was good reason to do so. Cheap parking had created traffic jams in Westfield, mainly composed of out of town commuters. A higher parking fee could have cut down the traffic, raised money for the city, and had little effect on local residents — especially with the addition of a resident street parking sticker.
The town council could never summon the political will to raise prices. Too many residents liked their cheap commuter parking.
At the same time, another group of locals, mainly the merchants, wanted to put up a multi-story parking garage behind the main street stores — this to facilitate commerce in Westfield’s toney downtown, home to Talbot’s, Victoria’s Secret, dozens of fine restaurants, and specialty shops. (Nice place, Westfield.)
They’re still fighting about that one five years after we left. A powerful committee of Westfield residents opposed increasing commercial traffic, because it would degrade the quality of life in town. Therefore they opposed the parking garage.
But there were plenty of eco-minded locals who advocated “traffic calming” devices on the streets, forcing cars into single lanes, eliminating curbside parking and the like. If you’ve ever had to drive in a place with such visionary devices, you know they are better called “traffic infuriating.”
We face a peculiarly American dilemma here. We have a problem that, because of the public facilities involved, requires heavy-handed central planning. We are constitutionally opposed to such things. But public works is a heavy-handed public function already. We might as well bend our efforts to making it less stupid.