Public Good Theory And Transportation

Randall McElroy at Catallarchy has a really nice post from Sunday on the construction and use of public transportation in Atlanta and Chicago. One thing that matters is history — when the city builds its transportation infrastructure. But his point is well taken, and it’s not only public transportation that was privately funded by early adopters. I like his conclusion:

These two cases indicate something very important for city planners. First, if a city demands mass transit, private enterprise will supply it. Second, if a city does not demand mass transit, building it anyway (publicly, since private enterprise does not supply what is not demanded) will result in a system so poor that few people want to ride it and that can only survive on continuous 11th-hour rescues with tax dollars. Either way, we will get from point A to point B without you.

7 thoughts on “Public Good Theory And Transportation

  1. But he didn’t mention the most famous example; New York. August Belmont built the subway to make money developing real estate in distant Queens, Brooklyn, and even Uptown Manhattan (the Dakota apartment bldg where John Lennon was shot, was so named because it was so far from lower Manhattan as to be in the Dakotas).

    My favorite subway story is this one:

    In 1870 an enterprising inventor named Alfred Ely Beach opened a prototype of a pneumatic subway for a short distance under Broadway. What is more
    remarkable is that he managed to build the tunnel right under the ground by City Hall – but without the knowledge of government officials.


    He had the technology, but unfortunately he also had to contend with the crooked politics of Tammany Hall and its legendary leader, William “Boss” Tweed, whom he knew would extort many thousands of dollars from such a project. Refusing to submit to extortion, Beach decided to bankroll the initial construction himself. Once the public saw the completed work, he thought, the politicians would dare not stop him.

    At the corner of Broadway and Murray Street stood Devlin’s Clothing Store. Beach rented the basement of this establishment, and began tunneling from there. His men would bring the debris back to the store basement, from which
    it was removed at nights via horse cart. After 58 straight nights of such clandestine digging, the 312-foot tunnel was done. Wanting his subway to be
    special, Beach designed a station featuring chandeliers, a grand piano, a fountain and even a goldfish tank. The completed mini-subway, which only ran for a city block, cost Beach some $350,000 of his own money.

  2. Patrick, the reason I didn’t mention New York is that I live in Atlanta and have visited Chicago twice recently, and have no knowledge of New York’s system, though from what you’ve given here it seems like another great example.

  3. Because, of course, it was private enterprise that built the freeways I ride to work.

    Oh, and the bike lanes and buses I used all the time where I used to live.


  4. Our local idoits have taken up the light rail mantra. It will go from ‘downtown’, thru an old neighborhood (low density), next to the University (of Louisville) , then ‘near’ the airport, and then further to a neighborhood under the flight path (which of course is being bought out to create industrial parks. The ridership will be those few who fly in and want to go to a ‘downtown’ hotel or stupid muggers. But it will cost at least 400 million so the construction folks along with everyone else on the dole is for it.

  5. Jenny, roads and vehicles are two very different types of goods. It is difficult to control access to roads, but not to a bus or streetcar. That’s why roads are a “public good”, but the vehicles that use them aren’t.

    However even freeways can be privatized, I know of one in Orange County, California that is even advertised on the radio. You can take it to Newport Beach.

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