Putting the "Mass" in Mass Transit

Every traveller to London loves the tube.  There is no better way to get around this great city than with a multi-day Underground pass.

But as a tourist, I have always tended to ride the underground during the day, or late at night after a show.  For the first time, for a couple of days in a row, I have had to brave the tube and Victoria Station at around 6PM.

As a result of this experience, I have a message for "smart growth" urban density-seeking urban planners: please don't do this to me.  Never have I been so uncomfortable, so claustraphobic, and so ready to go Postal than I was in those tremendous moving crowds.  It is a system designed to move a maximum amount of people efficiently, but it does so by forcing human beings to conform to the requirements of the system, rather than the other way around.

Unfortunately, it is exactly this dehumanizing vision that so enraptures modern planners.   It is their mindset that people must adjust to their plans, not the other way around.   It is ironic that most of these people, who would claim to be children of the sixties devoted to individualism, are in fact the architects of the ultimate Tayloristic forced conformity.   I understand that such transit solutions may be necessary in a city as high of a population density as London, but please don't force that kind of density on the rest of us.   If you enjoy it, power to you, you are welcome to live in such an environment.  But leave the rest of us alone who want a car and 2.2 acres.

In particular, the whole notion of "congestion" really struck me.  City planners always talk about fighting congestion, but they always mean traffic on roads (though ironically much of what they do actually increases congestion on roads).  But what about pure human to human congestion?  I would far rather be stuck on a freeway in my air conditioned car listening to the radio than packed in a moving mass of humanity in Victoria Station, packed into a platform waiting for a train, and then packed for half an hour standing in a train straining not to topple over on the person next to me.


  1. Nate:

    See, I'm not sure if the time in the car is preferable. I grew up in LA, and then spent a year living in London, and I've never felt the near all-encompassing rage on the Tube as I did on the 405.

    I like Denver, as a mid point. You want to go to the high density areas, you can take the bus, the light rail, or your car, your choice.

  2. Dr. T:

    Hah! You think the Tube is bad at rush hour, try the Tokyo subway. It employs "pushers" to jam people into the cars so tightly that they can barely breathe. It's even more horrible for women, who get groped by the upright swine packed next to them.

  3. nom de guerre:

    yes, but you're all suffering *together*. nobody is more comfortable (or better) than anyone else, which was always the goal. (except of course for the elite philosopher-king-boffins, who will guide us proles as a shepherd guides his flock. surely you won't begrudge **them** their limos and special traffic lanes reserved just for their use, right?)

  4. robert61:

    The iPod + podcasting make all the difference for me in the crowded underground - my equivalent of your car radio. The worst, though, is having to stand in such a throng when you're carrying something unwieldy like groceries.

  5. Chris:

    Sounds like the fares on the Tube are too low.

  6. Richabbs:

    As a believer in free-markets, I agree with you most of the time, but I think you are being a bit elitist when talking about mass transit. Also, your complaint has a striking similarity to a Yogi Berra quote regarding a popular restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore; its too crowded!" People aren't taking mass transit because they enjoy being herded like cattle. Rather, they have made a calculated decision that taking an overcrowded train to their destination in the large cities that have mass transportation is a better value than any other means to get to their destination.

    Extreme over-crowding on mass transit in most large cities is caused because there is insufficient resources provided to mass transit. If you had more tracks and trains that made more trips at peak times, you'd have less crowding. Of course, if this does occur, the automobile worshipers would just cry that "the lack of riders on mass transit trains suggests that mass transportation is inefficient" and the mass transportation funding would be cut.

  7. Craig:

    Here's why mass transit has "insufficient resources," Richabbs:

    "More than 100 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus and train operators took home paychecks topping $100,000 in fiscal 2006 because of lush overtime earnings that have skewed Metro’s budget and sent pension costs spiraling out of control under a uniquely generous employee retirement plan."

  8. Stephanie:

    I agree with you 100% ..... but unfortunately in highly populated areas travelling on the city's transportation system is the only option for the thousands upon thousands of workers. One reason why I moved away to the country before it was too late to hold on to any sanity that I had!! Many people thrive in a congested environment - how I have no idea. But then again as robert61 said he uses his ipod to become solitary in the mass.

  9. NormD:

    I wonder what the advocates of density living and mass transit will say when the next pandemic arrives? Reminds me of when the churches in the middle ages gathered people together during the various plagues to pray for salvation. Best intentions...

    Roads are congested because planners take the money allocated for highway expansion and divert it to trains.

    It should be obvious to even the most liberal thinker that roads are far more efficient and useful than rails. Roads can be used for cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, walking, deliveries, emergency vehicles. Roads are far cheaper to build and maintain. Roads go everywhere. Roads can easily be trenched to provide utilities. Even if you are a mass transit fanatic, you should support roads with buses on them, not rails. Rails should be used to transport extremely heavy, bulky loads over long distances, not people.

    Nobody wants to be part of a mass. We are individuals with individual needs, wants and travel schedules. Roads accommodate this.

    Longer term, roads can be made to carry much more traffic by using intelligent systems to insure an even safe flow sorta like an auto-pilot. You drive your car normally to a intelligent road entry point where you enter your desired exit and turn control of the car over to an auto-pilot. The auto-pilot will drive your car at high speed and close inter-car separation to the exit where you take over again. Lots of details to be worked out, but its could be made workable and safe. In the interim, you could add lanes or even a second deck to some highways to handle peaks loads.

  10. Richabbs:

    For those of you who still believe that mass transit v. automobiles is strictly a liberal v. conservative issue, I recommend you look at two sites. The first site (http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/viewarticle.php?selectedarticle=2009.04.17.001.pdart)is an article by David Schaengold that details why conservatives should care about transit. The second site (http://strickland.ca/efficiency.html) is a very detailed analysis by James Strickland comparing the energy efficiency of different modes of transportation. While one can take issue whether Mr. Strickland has included all costs involved with the various modes of transportation, his analysis is thoughtful and even-handed.

  11. Shenpen:

    "Every traveller to London loves the tube. There is no better way to get around this great city than with a multi-day Underground pass."

    WTF? It's crowded, smelly, hot, and many stations lack escalators, meaning carrying a heavy suitcase up the stairs is good way to get sweaty, which might not be such a good thing if you are wearing clothes you intend to wear your clothes for the rest of the evening.

    I always take the bus instead.

  12. Freelance Unbound:

    "Sounds like the fares on the Tube are too low." Chris

    Actually the price is pretty inelastic - there are no real alternatives for commuters into London. It costs money to drive in (Congestion Charge) and even more to park. Cycling is dangerous, it's not so compact that you can walk anywhere much realistically. And though the buses are more user-friendly in some ways, they can get snarled up in traffic and take too long to get anywhere in rush hour. This means that people pay what it costs, whatever it costs pretty much, simply to get to work.

    And the sheer concentration of work in London means it isn't as easy simply to move somewhere else in the country as it might be in the US. It dominates the region in a way that I think US readers may find unfamiliar.

    Hence your ghastly experience. But I hope the rest of your trip was pleasant...

  13. NormD:


    Unfortunately things are so much more complex than just miles per gallon. Lets say that we took a lane of a freeway and converted it to rail. The train may get great mileage but the lane lost to cars would reduce the mileage of all the cars due to increased traffic congestion and this burden should properly be placed on the train. Even though the train uses less energy the economy is using more. Lets take a more real world example. Politicians take dollars they could use to expand highway capacity and spend it on light rail. This raises traffic congestion, raises fuel consumption, lowers productivity, increases pollution, not to mention the devastating societal effects from people having to spend more of their time stuck in traffic (less time with family, less sleep, road rage, etc.)

    Also, to point out the obvious, the humans spend energy to improve efficiency. If we all walked everywhere we would use zero fossil fuels but we would get very little done.

  14. Yoshidad:

    Nice to see Warren has not let information sully his ideology.

    First, "smart growth" can support viable transit (and neighborhood commerce and offices) at densities as low as 13 units per acre. Of course London is much denser than this (probably 40 - 60/acre). Making smart growth bear the brunt of his claustrophobia (agoraphobia?) seems like an excuse to editorialize rather than a legitimate complaint.

    The "smart growth" pattern is really independent of density overall, and supports everything from very rural to very urban (see this link to dpz.com for a nice, pictorial example.)

    Finally, the sprawl model (the alternative to smart growth's mixed-use, mixed-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods) is fundamentally non-working when it comes to transit *and* congestion. Pedestrians meet many obstacles when they try to walk to transit stops and the sprawl answer to traffic congestion is to widen roads that are already too wide.

    A typical two-lane sprawl street in a suburban neighborhood is 40' wide. That's two 12' travel lanes, and two 8' parking lanes. FYI, 12' travel lanes are typical for freeways. These streets *must* bend every 1,000 lineal feet or so, or speeding traffic invited by these widths will mow down the neighborhood's kids.

    Bends are absurd bulbs, incredibly wasteful of asphalt, and discouraging to pedestrians. These are included because the garbage trucks might have to turn into oncoming traffic when they take the turn (remember, this is a residential neighborhood with relatively little traffic). That's the excuse, except "fire trucks" are what to substitute for "garbage trucks."

    By way of contrast, London's Oxford Circus street is...wait for it...40' wide (when you exclude the medians, and just pace off the four 10' travel lanes). In other words, one of the largest shopping streets in London, populated with the equivalent of multiple regional malls and six-story office buildings, gets by with exactly the same amount of auto space as a two-lane sprawl road in a low-density neighborhood. But no, transit is wasteful and scary!

    A study conducted by the Southern California Association of Governments reveals that adding width to streets is not even the answer to congestion. They mathematically modeled every remedy they could imagine, including double-decking the freeways. Only one remedy provided significant reductions in traffic: mixed use. That is, providing shopping, public buildings, offices, and residences (even light industry) in a single neighborhood.

    You don't really need a study to understand that people who can shop, work, send their kids to school and live in the same neighborhood do less inter-neighborhood commuting. It just makes common sense.

    I'd like to think Warren is ignorant of this, but I detect a little self-interest in promoting individual motoring, since his business requires people to continue doing that.

  15. richabbs:

    NormD, I would agree that trains as a mode of transportation are not always the most efficient means of transportation, but the notion that highways are always superior to trains and, therefore passenger trains should never be built, is simply incorrect. There are extremely high costs involved with building roads too, such as land use and opportunity costs. Also, it has been shown time and again that simply building more roads does not result in less congestion.

    Just like nuclear energy requires enormous upfront costs but are more efficient over time than carbon based energy (some unjustly due to regulations that are more about fear, rather than safety), subways and high speed rail in heavily congested areas also require big upfront costs, but wind up being more efficient over time. Remember, the highway construction under Eisenhower was a massive undertaking of public expenditure at the time, but it was well worth it. Transportation, like energy are public utilities. That doesn't mean that the government ought to run these endeavors, but, if properly done (yeah, I do agree these endeavors are not always properly done given our political structure), government expenditures in these areas wind up being beneficial to society as a whole.

  16. Richabbs:

    Here are two sites that show that "road building" doesn't solve congestion: http://everything2.com/title/Road%2520congestion and http://www.systems-thinking.org/theWay/sff/ffx02.htm.
    The first one is interesting because the author argues that car travel cost are under priced due to the the external congestion costs. He concludes that congestion pricing/taxing of roads is the best solution to the problem. He also shows that the London underground is preferable to buses for people with higher incomes (there is a stigma to "riding the bus").

  17. Allen:

    ]I have nothing against personal transportation methods, however I don't see how I get around as even close to being linked to my individuality. I enjoy this blog, however this post seems a bit shallow in its scope and its definition of individuality.