For those of you plugged into urban transportation debates, you’re probably either energized or exhausted by the fare-free transit conversation. Is fare-free transit a huge win for social justice, or a capitulation to a worldview that sees bus service as a form of welfare?
There has been much excellent work on this front. For my part, I have somewhat waded into this debate without ever fully diving in for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think there’s enough evidence one way or another as to what impact free transit has on various goals. Second, whether or not transit should be free depends almost entirely on what those goals are. If the goal is to increase ridership, then making transit fare-free makes sense, at least as an experiment. But if the system already struggles to run good service, free transit is unlikely to help that in any obvious way and may even hurt.
However, there is one type of transit that I do think should be made free immediately: AirTrains. Specifically, the JFK AirTrain.
You can read my argument for that here, but the upshot is: Most people already ride the AirTrain for free (within airport grounds), it would help all airport users if more people to take public transit to the airport, and the AirTrain’s $8 fare is both enough to discourage a lot of ridership while contributing little to the Port Authority’s bottom line. So check out the article if you’re interested.
For what it’s worth, researching this article on the AirTrain made me more in favor of fare-free transit generally than I was before, if for no other reason than I noticed we have lost a spirit of grand experimentation with public services in the U.S. For example, back in the 1920s, Los Angeles briefly implemented a total ban on downtown parking, which was promoted as a short-term experiment to solve a new and puzzling problem of urban car congestion. At the time, this policy was widely regarded as a failure and quickly reversed, but I like the spirit of experimentation and wish we did more of that today. Instead, transit agencies tend to do “pilot projects” that are either designed to fail so they don’t have to do more of it or only a “pilot” in the sense that they want to announce they’re doing something new to seem “innovative” but not at a scale large enough anyone will notice or care.
So I like the idea of trying fare-free transit in different ways and in different places and seeing how it goes. But more importantly, I like transit agencies feeling empowered to try new things in a big way.
Some Books I Liked
I love receiving book recommendations (from humans, not algorithms). Many of my favorite books ended up on my list that way. So in that spirit, here are a few of my favorite non-fiction books I read this year:
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster, Adam Higginbotham. I am obsessed with how bureaucracies fail so this was pretty much my ideal book.
The Reckoning, David Halberstam. I am obsessed with how bureaucracies fail so this was also pretty much my ideal book. This is a 700-page book about the mid-century demise of U.S. automakers and the rise of Japanese competitors. I have noticed that Americans love to talk about dysfunctional public bureaucracies but largely ignore or downplay the harm that dysfunctional private bureaucracies play in our lives as if all of our work experiences at private companies have been paragons of efficiency, unless planes start falling out of the sky or something.
Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing, Peter Robison. This book will make you very angry and probably hesitant to fly in a Boeing plane and also my god are Boeing executives a collection of some of the most despicable men. Was there some corporate rule they all had to cheat on their wives with their secretaries?
Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy, Daniel Geary. I read like 10 books this year about the 1960s urban crisis because I increasingly view the 1960s as a terribly important decade to understand for contemporary political reasons which is why I’m pretty confident the next president is going to be a thawed out Ronald Reagan. In any event, this got me deep into 1960s welfare policy. If I had to recommend one book on that, this would be it, because most social scientists are terrible writers.
Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott Sandage. Absolutely delightful book, including a long section on the mid-19th Century credit agencies which were literally just huge networks of spies and gossipers sending unverifiable shit-stirrings to a corporate headquarters when then got put in a big book and treated as fact to deny people loans. I love how fucked up everything has always been, humans are incredible at being jerks to each other.
American Colonies, American Revolutions, American Republics, Alan Taylor. This is a trilogy by an esteemed historian that changed the way I view the settling of the Americas and creation of the United States. Highly recommend if you have the time and patience. If you don’t, here’s a New Republic review.
Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia and Populist Politics, Timothy Lombardo. I have read more books over the last several years than I care to admit trying to figure out how we got here and all that nonsense and if I had to pick one that more or less sums it all up this would be it.
The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America, Bradford Pearson. I am putting this in here both because Brad is a former editor of mine and a friend but more importantly he pulled off an incredible troll by pretending a book was a feel good all-American sports story to fool dads into reading about Japanese internment camps.
If you have any good book recommendations, let me know!
Your points in the Motherboard piece are all well-founded, the most salient of which, in my opinion (as a person who travels for work and therefore uses the tram roundtrip at least twice/month), is making the an airport voyage suck less. There is near constant pandemonium in the corridor at Jamaica Station as confused tourists attempt--with little and sometimes no help from the woefully underrepresented onsite MTA staff--to figure out how to exit. Crowding at busy times (which is most time these days) is frequently unsafe and leads to genuine panic among people who are jet-lagged, have limited English speaking proficiency, and typically ill-accustomed to public transportation in general, let alone one so fast-paced. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for airport workers to commute to work through that melee just so that the city can syphon an extra $8 off a relatively small number of people.
Hi Aaron, I though you might be interested in Overhaul by Steven Rattner, who led the bailout of the auto industry. It is a very self-congratulatory book, but I thought it was interesting to see an outsiders view into the inefficiencies of each automaker as the gov't met with them. Your recommendation of The Reckoning [just ordered a copy] reminded me of having read this book years ago. Thank you for the recs!