Mass transit won’t cure urban congestion

I have a problem with vacations. As hard as I try to just sit still and relax, I always manage to turn each of my holidays into a grown-up version of an elementary-school field trip. My vacation in London this fall was no exception: I visited lots of museums, walked all over the city, and read as much about the local history as I could. But my best lesson was a little education in public-transit policy, which came at my own expense.

The oldest subway system in the world runs beneath the streets of London. Called (in that sensible English way) “the Underground,” the city’s electric trains cart thousands of Londoners and tourists through the metropolis every day. But the Underground is rather slow if one has to travel a long way or change trains. And it’s uncomfortably crowded during peak times. The same can be said for the city’s buses, which is one reason why so many Londoners pay through the nose for the very scarce parking spaces that are hidden within the city.

And it turns out that traffic congestion is alive and well in the city where urban mass transit was born, more than a century ago. I learned this lesson the hard way: I took a cab during rush hour — and missed my flight home.

Rush hour traffic in London is so bad that even my experienced, gray-haired cabbie couldn’t get me from my friend’s flat to Victoria Station (which are about the same distance apart as Raleigh and Chapel Hill) in less than an hour. The trip usually takes 30 minutes.

Yes, London has the oldest — and, some say, most effective — public-transit system in the world. So how could I have missed my flight because of rush-hour traffic? It’s simple: Mass-transit systems don’t necessarily reduce congestion.

Mass transit began in London in 1829, when George Shillibeer started carting 20 people at a time between the Bank of England and Paddington Green in long “omnibuses” pulled by three horses. Shillibeer’s buses were so popular that competitors popped up immediately. By 1839, more than 600 buses were transporting the masses over London’s filthy streets.

Steamboats had carried commuters from the suburbs to the city since 1815. But they could hardly be considered urban mass transit, because of their limited usage. In any case, they were quickly replaced by steam locomotives. London’s first passenger rail line opened in 1836; running between London and Greenwich, it competed directly with the 20-year-old steamboat business.

In 1846, a royal commission — established by Parliament to make some sense of all the competing rail-line proposals that entrepreneurs were submitting — recommended that no stations be opened in the center city. The honorables had decided that the only use of rail transit would be to ship goods. But the entrepreneurs knew better, and they invented modern mass transit in spite of the government’s myopia.

The above-ground rail stations that predated the Underground actually created traffic congestion — most notably around subway hubs. Then the trains brought commuters into the city and dumped them into the already-crowded streets. There simply were not enough roads to handle all the traffic, and the city government only reluctantly and belatedly built new roads.

Sound familiar? The same thing is happening in Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro — and in smaller communities throughout North Carolina. These commuters are traveling into their cities by car, not train, but they face precisely the same problem: too few roads.

In 1863 in London, the Metropolitan Railway Company opened the world’s first underground railway. A decade later, more than 150 million people a year were using what came to be called “the Tube.”

Still, the trains (all privately owned and operated) made no long-term impact on congestion or sprawl, even after they were taken over by the government. In fact, the trains actually aided suburban sprawl, by allowing people to live farther from the center city. And as London historian Francis Sheppard wrote recently, “Everywhere, but particularly in the centre, [the trains] generated more road traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.”

Road congestion remains a major problem throughout the world today — even in cities with superb public-transit systems — for the same reason it was a problem in Victorian London: There are more travelers than there are roads to carry them.

[Cline is director of publications at the John Locke Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-policy research institute located in Raleigh (and found on the World Wide Web at www.johnlocke.org.)]

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