The Trouble With Transit

by Alexander Volokh
unpublished op-ed, December 1996

On December 4, Joseph Drew, the L.A. County transit chief, resigned from the Metropolitan Transit Authority citing political infighting and "public hypercriticism." His resignation came two weeks after the release of the movie Star Trek: First Contact, and one month after the airing of "Trials and Tribble-ations," the much-promoted episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine based on the original Star Trek episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles." Coincidence? Probably. But Star Trek tells us more about rail transit than the MTA would like us to think.

* * *

As part of the promotion for the Deep Space Nine episode, 250,000 cuddly tribbles -- "the sweetest creatures known to man" -- were placed on transit systems in seven cities nationwide -- Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

Ira Steven Behr, Deep Space Nine's executive producer, calls the episode "probably the most expensive hour of episodic TV ever produced." All the same, it probably didn't cost as much as the Red Line (over $5 billion), the Blue Line ($1 billion), or the Green and Pasadena Lines (almost $1 billion each).

According to Mr. Spock, tribbles are like "the lilies of the field -- they toil not, neither do they spin. . . . They are consuming our supplies, and returning nothing." To which Lt. Uhura protests, "But they do give us something, Mr. Spock; they give us love."

And so it is for rail transit. Rail funding is warm and fuzzy; like all major, visible projects, it makes politicians feel important. It lets urban planners atone for the decentralized nature of Los Angeles, which they are ashamed of and call "sprawl." And, like tribbles, rail transit is unproductive, wasteful, and tends to grow large and unmanageable.

Today, "authentic" purring tribbles are a best-selling Star Trek product, says Dan Madsen, president of the Star Trek fan club. They sell for $20 -- interestingly, the same as the average cost per passenger round trip on recently built U.S. rail systems. L.A. round-trip costs are lower for light rail ($12 for the Blue Line) and higher for heavy rail ($27 for the Red Line); commuter rail (Metrolink) costs $46 per round trip. Any of these is a lot of money compared to buses; L.A. urban buses cost $1.31 per round trip (a tribble buys 15 of those), and L.A. buses overall cost $1.79 (11 per tribble).

Granted, rail trips are longer than bus trips. But even by passenger-mile, buses come out ahead: taxpayers pay $0.31 per passenger-mile by bus, compared to $0.70 for Metrolink, $0.83 for the Red Line, and $1.25 for the Blue Line.

According to a recent series of Reason Foundation studies, MTA consistently overestimates ridership and underestimates costs. Through inconsistent forecasting and selective accounting, rail lines are made to look cheaper than bus lines. In fact, rail provides less capacity than bus corridors with parallel bus lines. Rail dollars create fewer jobs than bus dollars. Rail does not decongest roads; most rail riders are former bus riders, not former drivers. Rail is not even faster than bus, once we account for time spent outside the train, navigating within the station, and waiting between transfers.

* * *

Rail proponents distrust buses, which are cheaper and more flexible than rail, and also distrust cars, which are individual and therefore infinitely flexible. As transportation analysts Thomas Rubin and James Moore put it, rail advocates believe "rail will ultimately perform as required, but only if the rail system is constructed in its entirety. Thus, no matter how dismally existing rail systems might perform, proponents have an argument for building more."

While rail transit does not work on Earth, it might work for a while on the Borg ship. The Borg, the villainous, cybernetic race in Star Trek: First Contact, are organized in a huge collective where individuality does not exist. They fly a perfectly cubical ship, and execute their tasks mechanically, going mindlessly from point A to point B. There are no conflicts over goals, priorities, or alternative uses of resources, since everything is centrally planned.

The Borg imagine themselves more efficient and "perfect" for having expunged individuality. But as the crew of the Enterprise shows, distrusting the moral worth and efficiency of individuals is in fact the Borg's fundamental weakness. By mandating a one-size-fits-all solution, the Borg stifle their creativity, flexibility, and ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

Real life, moreover, is not like a Borg ship. Because our lives are not centrally planned, we all have different needs. Rail systems that lock commuters into fixed routes cannot possibly accommodate transit needs as well as buses or cars. Like the Borg, rail will fail because it is collective and inflexible. Cars will succeed because they are flexible and individual.

* * *

One of the trailers, the night I saw Star Trek: First Contact, was for a disaster movie called Volcano, in which an undiscovered volcano erupts in Los Angeles, causing panic and zaniness. One of the last scenes in the trailer showed a major L.A. roadway flowing with lava. A man sitting behind me said, "It's the MTA story!" The audience was highly amused. As Dave Barry might say, I swear I am not making this up.

An average guy off the street sees an advertisement for an L.A. disaster movie and thinks, "MTA." Something is definitely wrong.

Alexander Volokh, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank based in Los Angeles, has fond memories of the RTD and is a devotee of the original "Star Trek" series.

Return to miscellanous articles page
Return to home page