Subsidy-Switching: We Can Do It Now
A Report from Los Angeles
by Richard Risemberg

Every day, more and more of the earth is covered with pavement; every day, more and more cars crowd onto those pavements, old and new, pressing together like maggots as they inch desperately towards their distant goals. Every day, new voices bemoan the fate we force relentlessly onto our future, and every day those voices tout solutions to the problem--solutions that often require the wholesale physical restructuring of cities that cannot afford even to patch a pothole, or that ask for saintly dedication from a populace that routinely drives its children three blocks to the local school. Perhaps we have the luxury of waiting for a Haussmann to appear and restructure Los Angeles or Phoenix or your favorite stucco suburb along the lines of Paris with its Metro and its arrondissements; perhaps we have the energy to fight the inertia of money and old thought, to tell the developers that people choose what they offer because they offer nothing else to choose--perhaps we do. But while we wait for Haussman to be reincarnated and developers to develop hearts of gold, there is something we can do that will, without requiring vast changes in infrastructure or the spirit of mankind, persuade even Americans to leave the car in the driveway and walk down the street with their neighbors to the nearest bus stop, and that is an old practice that I will give the new name of "subsidy-switching." To put it simply: let us no longer subsidize cars, as is now done in the United States and too many other countries which follow its lead, but let them pay their own way; and let us fully subsidize public transport.

There's More to This than Meets the Eye--or Ear
After all, we live now in an atmosphere of opinion that vomits forth great thundering torrents of invective against the idea that public monies might in any way subsidize private behavior--yet after a gasp for breath those same mouths passionately defend the "right" to pave over as much of the earth as possible for the convenience of those who wish to drive about alone in little metal boxes, and don't you even think of raising gas taxes!... They are perfectly willing to let general tax revenues support the majority of the infrastructure and personnel costs required to keep them driving (and parking) on their billions of acres of formerly productive soil. Let us make a rather incomplete list of what it takes in public expense to keep a car rolling in our cities:

All these represent a direct financial burden on the governments of our country, a burden which is only modestly ameliorated by fuel taxes and other fees imposed on private automobile use. (Commercial vehicles pay higher taxes, often on a per-mile basis.) In Europe, gas taxes are famously high because car users are required to pay their way rather than get a free ride at the rest of society's expense. In the US, the private automobile driver is the biggest welfare user of them all.

But direct public expenses are not the whole story, either: what about indirect expenses? Here's another short list:

By all these means and more is driving subsidized by all of society in kind or through the governments. Yet it is essentially a private preference we are thus subsidizing: for there are other means for getting around that do not have so many deleterious effects, financially, physically, or emotionally, and which should be fully subsidized so that they may provide similar travel services to the car at less cost and lower environmental effect, improving the health and cohesiveness of the communities they could serve. I refer of course to rail and bus systems, especially rail, which once built has lower maintenance costs than bus use, and which is far more efficient in its use of space and energy than any road-based system can be.

In Europe, where nearly as many people own cars as in the United States, car use is lower, because cars are taxed in proportion to the social costs they incur, and public transport is subsidized as a benefit to all of society, even that part which does not use public transport. The car is there seen as what it really is in most instances--a recreational vehicle. People can perform their essential travel on foot, by bicycle, and on buses, trolleys, and subways.

What Good Is It?
Some values of public transport are obvious, some are not. That more people on the subway means fewer cars on the road is obvious: and fewer cars on the road means less oil out of the ground; less pollution in the air; less need for paving over yet more acreage for roads and parking; less noise irritating citizens on the streets and sidewalks, in businesses, and in their homes; and less congestion of the roads--leaving them more pleasant, in fact, for those who must or choose to continue driving in their cars. Less congestion means also that those internal combustion vehicles which do use the road will operate at higher levels of mechanical efficiency because of fewer starts and stops; and less congestion also means that more people will be willing to use bicycles on the road instead of cars, leading to an even greater improvement in traffic flow, personal health, and the quality of civic life.

But all these are still negative benefits of the increased use of public transport, brought about by what it prevents or obviates; there are positive benefits of public transport use as well. One of the finest positive effects of public transport is that it can reestablish people in their own communities and in the agglomeration of communities that form a modern city. After all, instead of walking twenty feet from your door to your car and sealing yourself into it, you would be walking down the block to the bus stop, or around the corner to the subway station, and on the way you would certainly stop and say hello to your neighbor watering the lawn, to the local children on their way to school, or to the grocer getting off the bus herself to open her store. And once on the bus (or train) yourself, if you had a long enough way to go, you would pass through various communities of your city, and as you did, members of those communities would get on the bus, perhaps sit by you a while, and then get off, to be replaced by others as the miles went by. You would be part of your neighborhood and part of your city, instead of just another person with an address that is nothing more than a number in a book. It is telling that many of the Western cities that are known, worldwide, for providing rich cultural experiences--New York, Paris, San Francisco--are those that were built into their present form before excessive deference to the private auto became the paradigm of urban planning. Eliminating the giveaway that private automobile users now enjoy without thought or thanks, and using the cash to build up public transport systems and make them available to all at low or no charge, would go a long way towards making our cities livable again.

Harass a Politician--They're Paid to Listen to You
Subsidy-switching is something we can start to bring about right now, promoting it vigorously to the politicians and administrators who control urban policy. Metro Rail is slowly and controversially, but steadily, being built in Los Angeles, the Disgraceland of car culture; toll roads (a palliative, but not, in my mind, a cure) have sprung up in the stony heart of Orange County; and even President Clinton has heard of carbon taxes and supports them, if only (typically) in theory. New ideas, and good older ideas, have a better chance now than at any other time since the late 'Thirties. People are tired of devoting a quarter of each day to being automobile operators, they are tired of noisy cities, crowded nervous streets, and dirty air. But car use is kept artificially cheap, and alternatives literally do not exist in many parts of the world. With subsidy-switching, we can reverse that sentence, and free ourselves and our neighbors to live out the happier possibilities of urban life.

Richard Risemberg