The Freedom of Transit

This week’s episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast had a reading of an article by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, in which Jacoby makes the tired argument that driving is better than taking transit because having a car is more liberating/offers more freedom. You can listen to the Chapo guys discuss Jacoby’s piece here (starting at the 54:26 mark), which I recommend.

The basic thrust behind the column seems to be that Jacoby is furious that the Boston Globe moved their offices to a downtown location, which has made his commute by car too expensive to feasibly continue. Even though he has perhaps the easiest transit commute you could possibly hope for under the circumstances (a twenty-minute train ride in which home and work are only a five-minute walk from a subway station, without even the need to transfer to another transit line), Jacoby is so upset by the prospect of taking transit that it has led him to ruminate on the implications of the loss of his autonomy (read: his absolute fury that he has to share space with fellow human beings that he holds nothing but contempt towards and superiority over).

Over the course of his article, Jacoby makes a series of downright false assertions about the benefits of driving that the Chapo fellows tear into with relish. Early on, he claims that when you drive, “you travel where you choose and by the route you choose” and that “you can take your time and meander or put pedal to the metal.” Bear in mind, he’s talking about his commute to work, and in Boston no less, where traffic congestion is abysmal and you have about as much choice in your route as a lab rat does in a maze. At another point, he points to being able to listen to the radio or music in your car as a benefit of driving, as if no one has ever thought of bringing their headphones onto a train. He suggests that in our car-loving culture, no popular songs have ever been written about transit (apparently no one has ever told him where his own city’s transit pass got its name from). Jacoby also makes some classic conservative claims that every transportation guru is familiar with and tired of, like that users cover the cost of our roads (they don’t and never have, as every transportation professional will attest). He also mistakes the preponderance of drivers in America with a love for driving rather than the natural result of a built environment that practically forces everyone to drive.

But these are all fairly straightforward, silly points that can be easily refuted. The basic premise behind Jacoby’s piece, that owning a car denotes freedom and that the very act of driving is one of liberation, is something that demands a little more scrutiny. The Chapo hosts do a good job of breaking down this notion and tying it into a larger discussion about what passes for “freedom” in our society. But as someone deeply invested in the transportation field, I have a very specific interest in fighting against this idea that transit users are captive riders, while drivers are free.

In fact, the exact opposite is true.

Transit professionals, advocates, and marketers have been fighting this idea for ages, but they’ve tended to do so on car advocates’ terms. Their arguments for transit focus on the practical: you can leave the driving to someone else; you don’t have to pay so much on gas and parking; you avoid wear and tear on your car; etc. All of these are perfectly true and important, but by focusing on these they have conceded the larger question of freedom. Bicycle advocates have sometimes taken on this point more directly, but their arguments have tended towards the smug and self-serving; referring to drivers as “cagers”, for instance. But the question of freedom is still a matter that should be taken head-on.

A robust, well-functioning transit system is far more liberating than driving not just because of the cost to the individual (although that is a crucial point) but also because of who and what you are beholden to. When you buy a car, you have to make payments to the dealer. You have to purchase insurance, which brings in a whole other set of people you have to regularly send money to. You have to routinely buy gas, putting you at the mercy of an abstract market that fluctuates constantly. Sometimes you have to pay for parking. You have to obey the rules of the road and constantly be alert every time you drive, lest you draw the eye of a cop. Not only that, but you become beholden to the object itself; you have to keep it in good working condition, you have to find a place to store it wherever you travel, and when it breaks down (which it inevitably will) you have to take it to a specialist to fix it for a boatload of money. Not only is all of this a drain on your wallet, it exerts tremendous stress and is a huge set of responsibilities that you’ve taken on. You become beholden to a wide set of people, corporations, and institutions who are each taking a cut, all for an object you probably never even get to have any fun with.

Transit, by comparison, demands very little of you. All it asks is that you show up at a certain time (and the more frequent the transit service, the more freedom you have on this point, as Jarrett Walker of Human Transit has noted), you pay a small fare, and you behave yourself while on board. You don’t need special training to ride transit. You don’t have to take out an insurance policy to get on a bus. But not only is the barrier to entry very low, the barrier to exit is almost non-existent. Once you get off the vehicle, you are not beholden in any way to the transit agency or your fellow riders. Your responsibility to the transit system begins and ends with the trip you take.

Disentangling yourself from car ownership is a time-consuming and laborious process, given how many lines of responsibility you have to sever (completing payments to the dealership, cutting off ties to your insurance company, selling your car/paying someone to tow it away/letting it rot in the front yard, changing your commute patterns, etc). But transit doesn’t demand anything of you once you get off. You’re not obliged to get back on tomorrow. Personal circumstances vary, but if you want to try a different mode—walking, bicycling, carpooling, driving—your local transit agency isn’t going to be the one holding you back.

Transit doesn’t demand your loyalty, but if it’s working properly, it will be there when you need it. And that’s much closer to true freedom.

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