Wednesday, December 05, 2012

No mystery

About a hundred years ago, privately owned and operated streetcars plied the streets of major U.S. urban thoroughfares.  Then they declined and eventually disappeared because (a) there was a nefarious corporate conspiracy to replace them with cars; or (b) most people preferred private autos for all the obvious reasons. 

Many seemingly serious people pick version (a), ignoring the idea of a market test.  But that's no problem because voter coalitions can often be formed/found to stick taxpayers (here, there and everywhere) with the bill for new ("restoration") streetcars.  Phoney cost accounting often helps. 

This is now an old story and has been repeated many times.  California is now building high-speed rail justified on specious grounds, with final financing unknown.  Making promises that cannot be kept is not new in American politics.

Today's case in point is the recently approved L.A. Streetcar.  Questionable downtown baubles are not new in American cities but LA has a special problem. It is the nation's #2 city (in size) but it it's downtown does not come close to #1 (or even to rival San Francisco's) up the coast.  In my estimation, it never will.

But they keep trying.  Here is some of the L.A. Times front page report from today's edition:
Streetcar line called downtown's missing link ... Approval of a $125-million project is hailed as the way to finally make cars optional in the city center — but skeptics say the money would be better spent elsewhere.

In a city that is often derided for its lack for public transportation, downtown L.A. is the one exception.

The city center has light-rail lines, a subway, a maze of bus routes and shuttles, links to commuter rail and even a tiny funicular that trudges up and down Bunker Hill.

But many residents and developers say that it can still be difficult to get around the far-flung city center without a car. So urban planners and downtown boosters have spent considerable time on what may have once been considered impossible: creating a truly car-optional neighborhood in the center of a region defined by its car culture.

Voters in downtown Los Angeles this week approved key financing for a $125-million streetcar project that might finally put this theory to the test. The streetcar would run mainly along Broadway, and Hill and Figueroa streets, three of downtown's main arteries, connecting various neighbors, including the old banking district, South Park, Civic Center and the fashion district.

Developers — and some residents — see the streetcar as a missing transportation link.

"If you're in New York, or San Francisco or Portland, you forget about your car. You walk, you take public transportation, and you get a much richer experience," said Scott Denham, vice president at Evoq Properties, a downtown developer. "The whole concept of being in L.A. and not having to drive to have a whole Saturday or Sunday to experience downtown… It's really not that far off in reality."
The story points to the political economy we have.  Every evening's news features furrowed brows fretting over deficits, fiscal cliffs, unfunded liabilities, etc.  But there is no mystery.  Milton Friedman explained it clearly in just over two minutes.