November 09, 2005
Lessons from the Monothingy Debacle
Posted by geoffrey manne

Lior Strahilevitz, blogging at the University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog (has anyone come up with a cute shorthand yet like Co-op or the Glom?) has a post on Seattle voters' decision yesterday to scrap the city's plan to build a monorail.  The voters had several times approved monorail funding initiatives, and the city had so far spent $200 million with nothing to show for it.  The voters finally pulled the plug (for now, anyway).

Strahilevitz draws three lessons from the debacle:

  1. Mass transit innovation should be undertaken only with "substantial federal assistance."
  2. "Too much political process can be a bad thing" (with the implication that the program could have succeeded if the experts in the government had only solicited less input).
  3. "Direct democracy is a flawed approach for transportation planning," because "transportation planning is a technocratic exercise" which should be left to the experts.  I think this is substantially the same as number 2, but maybe I just don't get it.

Seriously?  Those are the lessons?  He must be joking.  Let me try:

  1. Mass transit innovation spending is a boondoggle for politicians and urban planners and it's a massive waste of money whether its done by the feds or a city.
  2. There will inevitably be political meddling in such projects -- it's precisely why we shouldn't get involved in them in the first place.  Just scrap these projects before they get off the ground, so there's nothing for the process to meddle with.
  3. Technocrats are just autocrats with engineering degrees. It was the technocrats who figured out how to consume $200 million dollars before the "political process" finally shut them down. The "experts" will fleece us if they have the chance, although they will do so expertly.  The voters may have enabled them, but there would have been nothing to enable if we didn't go in for these things in the first place.

To sum it all up, I have one word:  Amtrak.

In Strahilevitz' defense:  He did cite the Simpsons, though.

UPDATE:  Will Baude has more, much more.  His bottom line:   

So in the end I am unwilling to condemn all state involvement in public transportation. The network effects, public good problems, and so on are real. But we should wear our public-choice hats and remember that problems of government monopoly, confused public intervention and captured technocracy are very real, so a system that admits of lots of private competition with the public provision ought to be preferred to one that places all of our hands in one dubious basket.

"We should wear our public-choice hats."  Sounds like what Tyler Cowen would say.  Which is a good thing.

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Comments (17)

1. Posted by Lior on November 9, 2005 @ 21:23 | Permalink

Harsh. Point # 2 is about APA-style neighborhood decisionmaking and point # 3 is about voter referendums. You can have one without the other.

With respect to your latter points, I wonder whether you're joking. Some jurisdiction had to be the first to invest in subway systems, light rail, bullet trains, etc. Are you seriously advocating New York City (or Paris) without a subway? Subways have allowed those cities to achieve incredible density, which makes those cities efficient and green. Exclusive reliance on busses just wouldn't work there.

Moreover, as my post makes clear, the mass transit professionals were against the monorail from the start; they preferred the light rail system that the city has been building slowly. Mass transit planners make all kinds of mistakes, but if you give them a goal, they're pretty good at identifying the costs and benefits associated with competing alternatives. Better than us voters, anyway.


2. Posted by geoff manne on November 9, 2005 @ 22:46 | Permalink

Well, I was trying to be sensationalistic, if not entirely joking. But, yeah -- I'd take a world with no city planners anyday, even if that led to Paris without the Metro, over a world where government (whether at the behest of misguided voters or self-serving technocrats) spends our money so profligately. I guess my question to you would be -- by what mechanism would you have such projects undertaken to ensure more Paris Metros and fewer DC metros; more NYC subways and fewer Amtraks; more . . . I can't think of any other positive examples. I'm all in favor of more density, but as Robin Hanson points out, urban planners are more often impediments to this than facilitators of it.


3. Posted by William Henderson on November 10, 2005 @ 6:00 | Permalink

Lior, nice post. High quality mass transit (and Chicago is the city I am most familiar with), has huge network effects that can only occur with a system of sufficient capacity and breadth of service. I think mass transit explains the survival of NYC, Boston and Chicago. It has also been a boon for DC.


4. Posted by Christine on November 10, 2005 @ 7:31 | Permalink

Geoff -- do you really think D.C. would be better without the Metro? I guess we all have idiosyncratic mass transit experiences, but after living in Houston for 10 years and spending most of that time on I-10, I have always thought that well-planned mass transit is an amazing thing. Yes, like any large public project, the agency problems are huge and great wealth transfers to cronies happen (like in the one mass transit experiment in Houston from downtown to the Dome). But I'm not sure the alternative is no mass transit. I guess we shouldn't have airlines either.


5. Posted by geoff manne on November 10, 2005 @ 9:46 | Permalink

Although I'm not certain about the ends either (the DC Metro, for example, is notoriously under-ridden -- was it really a good idea?), I am certain the means is faulty. Here's a report on some of mass transit's endemic problems, and see chapter 11 (webbed) in this book. I'm not sure whether the airline comment was a joke, but it's pretty clear we souldn't have airlines in their current configurations (and whether we should or not, they're dropping like flies anyway).

I'm not sure what Bill is talking about, but Chicago's rail system is hardly a boon (it's done almost nothying to relieve congestion and is run but not ridden for much of the day), and DC's is a well-known joke. I recognize the upside -- the network effects and even the potential green effects. But how about a little consideration of the costs here? And what about alternatives? Any chance that money could be used better elsewhere? Say toll lanes or lobbying to relieve density-reducing municipal policies which might permit people to, say, walk to work rather than ride or drive there?


6. Posted by Will Baude on November 10, 2005 @ 10:25 | Permalink

My own comment go too long, so now it's a blog post.


7. Posted by Larry on November 10, 2005 @ 10:28 | Permalink

chicago's rail system is hardly a boon. that's quite a statement. i doubt there are very many chicagoans who would agree with you.

and i think it might be a little late in the game to expect chicago to become a city where one can walk to their downtown job.


8. Posted by Lior on November 10, 2005 @ 12:55 | Permalink

According to the most recent report, CTA rail service (The El) accounted for more than 500,000 commuter trips on the average weekday. http://www.transitchicago.com/downloads/ridershipreports/132346may05rail.pdf
Please provide support for the statement that the El has "done almost nothing to relieve congestion" in Chicago. And this is an astute crowd, so pointing out that "there's still lots of traffic in Chicago" isn't going to cut it.

As for walking to work in Chicago, people who don't currently live here may not have heard about the substantial residential growth in neighborhoods near the loop. Construction cranes are common sites in the South Loop, West Loop, Streeterville, and the Platinum Coast (formerly a 9-hole golf course), and there has been substantial residential growth in the loop itself and on Michigan Avenue. People in all these neighborhoods can and do walk to their jobs downtown.


9. Posted by Larry on November 10, 2005 @ 13:22 | Permalink

of course that substantial residential growth doesn't particularly help the guy who makes my lunch for $6.50/hour. he's still living in englewood. public transportation is essential for these people and for me getting my lunch. i don't mind paying a bit more in taxes to subsidize getting these people to a job.

public transportation is a ridiculously complex matter. politics play a big role (part of the reason rail lines run when there are few people on them; also part of the reason certain parts of the city have rail service when perhaps it's not "profitable" for it to be there). there are plenty of examples of misguided public transport. while chicago has its problems, i think there are far, far worse examples.

and, i might add, "consumer" satisfaction with the L seems pretty high considering it was given the third highest vote total in the recent "7 wonders of chicago" survey by the chicago tribune. i trust the judgment of the people who live in the city/suburbs and use it much more than pontificating law professors and attempts at "empirical" studies - regardless of which side they happen to be advocating.


10. Posted by Dan Markel on November 10, 2005 @ 13:33 | Permalink

Geoff, to answer the truly compelling question of your post: the prawfs a while ago coined "ChicawgoBlawgo" for the UCblawg, but come to think of it, the UCBlawg would be another option too.

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