Lessons from the Second City

To a person from Atlanta, public transportation means: riding a train that hardly takes you anywhere you want to go; paying too much for a ride; riding with some less-than-desirables; and only riding if driving is absolutely out of the question.

As far as I can tell, to a person from Chicago, public transportation means: riding a train that takes you to the front door of any place in town, even to the suburbs; paying a decent amount for a ride; riding with a healthy slice of the Chicago socio-economic spectrum; and riding anytime you want to go somewhere.

Why? There are many reasons, but the primary one that I can tell is that Chicago is very dense, whereas Atlanta is famously spread-out. This difference, by the way, explains other interesting features about Chicago, such as its ample supply of tall buildings. A moderately large building in Atlanta could get lost in Chicago. But a public transit system that works needs lots of passengers in not-so-many miles. Bad news for Atlanta planners, unless they can figure out a way to give Atlanta a natural boundary to bunch up against such as Lake Michigan, New York harbor, or a nice big mountain.

It should come as no surprise that an "L" system that actually provides good service would have its origins in private ownership. From the founding of the first "L" line in 1888 until 1947, the many lines were privately owned and funded. Not only was a public goods problem solved by these private lines, it was solved very well, not just adequately. The story of how these lines eventually became part of the public CTA is a long one, but suffice to say it's rife with government interaction, and that the rail systems, for some reason, were unprofitable after the Great Depression and wartime rationing. The system, though no longer private, clearly demonstrates, in its early success, the problem-solving capabilities of private enterprise.

Compare this with Atlanta. The MARTA, as the rail system is called here, has a North-South line with a fork at the top, and an East-West line with a one-station branch to the Northwest. In 1971 the newly-formed Marta agreed to take over (for about $13 million) Atlanta's private bus system, and already began applying for federal aid. In 1972 it reduced bus fare from 40? to 15? (so far so good) but began receiving sales tax funding from the metro area. [It seems likely that the reduction was to encourage people to ride to demonstrate the need for public transit, but that is just a guess.] The early years were full of government grants and tax payments to the system. Not only was it funded through what amounts to extortion, as opposed to Chicago's system, but it also had eminent domain, which meant that some people who lacked sufficient political or legal sway were sacrificed to Atlanta's dreams of mass transit.

Fast forward to the present, with the conditions I gave you at the beginning. Marta has budget crises left and right. Huge amounts of its funding come from taxes, not through user fees. Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the country, and still people prefer to drive rather than use Marta. Without continuous payments from the government, with money taken from Atlanta residents, the system would collapse.

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.

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There are many reasons, but

There are many reasons, but the primary one that I can tell is that Chicago is very dense, whereas Atlanta is famously spread-out.

What came first: the chicken or the egg? Does Chicago have good public transportation because it's densely populated, or is it densely populated because it has good public transportation?

Libertarians are right to be skeptical of public transportation, but we sometimes take our eyes off all the incentives government provides to sprawling auto culture. Public funding for highways is an obvious one, but what about the ways government turns cities into cesspools of poverty and dysfunction? It seems to me that in the hypothetical free market paradise, we might end up with more Chicagos and less Atlantas.

One other factor that might

One other factor that might explain why MARTA doesn't go anywhere useful is racism. Every time they try to expand MARTA's reach into the suburbs, white people protest.

It could be that they don't

It could be that they don't want the disruption of a rail line they don't use being blown through their communities (much like Arlington screamed bloody murder when the noodle-thin I-66 was blasted through hundred+ year old North Arlington neighborhoods, and I-66 ends at DC's border because DC residents yelled louder).

On the other hand, though, if I remember correctly there was/is still support for the Bulldog Boondoggle of a light-rail express link from Marietta/Gwinnett to Athens, which would tend to support your idea.

But, in fairness, it could be any number of reasons why the northern counties don't want more intimate connection with downtown Atlanta.

The first (and last) time I

The first (and last) time I attempted to use MARTA when living in Atlanta was to ride from Brookhaven station, a five-minute drive from my apartment, to the airport to catch a plane. Because of track maintanence (of which there was NO notice at the Brookhaven Station), I waited for nearly 20 minutes before a train arrived. At the Lindburgh station, we were told that this train was terminating service and we would have to wait for the next southbound train. Another 25 minutes.

I made my flight only because I didn't have baggage to check and I sprinted to my gate which was thankfully in the T concourse. It had taken me nearly and hour and a half to get to the airport, a 20 minute-drive from my apartment.

Digamma, Chicago was already

Digamma, Chicago was already dense in 1888, and Atlanta is still not dense, over 20 years after the rail system was introduced.

The "city" I live in,

The "city" I live in, Montgomery, AL, can't even support a modest bus line. The most people I've ever seen on a Montgomery bus is 3, but usually they're completely empty. Even though they're all but unused, Montgomery bought all new buses recently, and I've heard rumors that light rail is being pimped in certain smoke-filled backrooms.

MARTA is a sick joke. There

MARTA is a sick joke. There are lots of reasons, most hit upon in remarks above, but none of it really matters now, except perhaps on consideration of just pulling the plug on the thing, which is never going to happen.

I've always been convinced that Eisenhower's highway program was a bloody disaster of proportions that I've never seen seriously considered in public debate. Atlanta is a fine illustration. At its confluence of interstates 75, 85, and 20, the "urban sprawl" problem was as predictable as sunrise. Just look at the way the thing has blown up along those lines. (GA 400 and Stone Mountain Parkway are just as bad, but it's not hard to trace their inspiration.) I haven't paid close attention in the past couple of years, but I always had a hearty laugh every time I heard another rumble of the idea to build a new super-perimeter outside of I-285.

"Yeah. That'll solve the problem." (hah!)

Here's another insight: go spend a day in the local traffic court of your choice. You find a considerable predominance of people being priced out of independent transportation markets (like; their own cars) by costs of paperwork violations (like: mandatory insurance). Back when I was doing battle with this sort of thing in the courts, I spent nights in jail with completely appalling stories of people getting beaten to death by it. "Can't travel, can't work. Can't work, can't travel." In an area like metro ATL, that's the kiss of death. But you can count on jobholders to stand up and profess pious concern for the downtrodden.

(bah) The whole thing is a total cock-up, and I'm glad I don't live there anymore.

Mass transit systems were

Mass transit systems were often built by property developers who wanted to be able to get potential buyers of homes to and from their employment. That's how New York City grew, thanks to August Belmont and his investors.



just a quick comment - good

just a quick comment - good history on MARTA, by the way - MARTA can't claim emminent domain by itself (according to the MARTA Act, which is State Law). What usually happens is that the city or the county does it for them, so it's almost as if MARTA had done it themselves. But I'm pretty sure that if MARTA had emminent domain powers the system might look a bit different.

QIWI says: “The “city”

QIWI says: “The “city” I live in, Montgomery, AL, can’t even support a modest bus line. The most people I’ve ever seen on a Montgomery bus is 3, but usually they’re completely empty. Even though they’re all but unused, Montgomery bought all new buses recently, and I’ve heard rumors that light rail is being pimped in certain smoke-filled backrooms.”

I live outside of Montgomery AL, in Prattville. I previously worked in the public transportation industry as a consultant and contractor. Currently most of our clients are in Montgomery and many of them are located in the downtown district. Two days ago there was an announcement that plans for a light rail system in the downtown area were moving forward. With funding assistance from the Fed this will result in an 80/20 split for the expense of the “first loop” of this project. From what I have been able to find the “first loop” will be contained to downtown and will cost and estimated 25mil. 5mil of this will come from local coffers. I have ?? points that the planning group needs to address:

How many people will this light rail system service?
Not potential riders because of population density. How many people will really ride it because it is a better way to get around?

How much revenue will this project generate?
Mass Transit is not in business to make money. Their business is moving people. But most lines are self-sufficient and the federal funding received is put towards expansion of services and capitol improvements/investments not operating cost.

What is the gross operating cost of this project going to be once delivered?

And how will it be funded?

Will it pay for itself?

Can we see the data?

How much is the fare going to be?

How many employees will it take to run all of the operations connected with this project after delivery?

Where will the maintenance facilities be located and what are the initial and ongoing cost of these facilities?

How long will it take to recoupe our 5mil investment?
Funny, we have no money for schools or teachers, no money for classroom supplies. But we have money for a pie in the sky project like this, prisons and money for colleges’ whose students are failing because the free education they received in K-12 did not adequately prepare them for college. Yet another band-aid on a shotgun wound.

Dose any one on this board have experience with rail?
I do. I have never ever seen a rail project of any kind or size come in on or under budget and I have never seen one come in on schedule. Most projects run 24 to 48 months behind schedule (as a rule of thumb) and usually run 50 to 100% over budget.

So my last point is this:

Whose interests are really being met with a project of this nature at a time when our state and local governments display an utter lack of fiscal responsibility? Primarry education is on the verge of being broken and our best answer is to build more prisons and hire more cops for the streets. The streets filled with our uneducated. These and other issues could have been avoided along time ago with proper funding for edcation not a light rail loop in downtown Montgomery, AL.

Sad days are upon us.