Cowen Clarifies a Little on Subways
By David Henderson
In my review of Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class, I wrote:
Disappointingly, in light of the problems caused by lack of tolls, Cowen cites that highway system as a big success. Less successful are other modes of transportation; he laments the fact that the number of bus routes has decreased, that “America has done little to build up its train network,” and that American cities “haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years.” That last lament was shocking because subways, except in high-density cities such as New York, are notoriously costly and inefficient.
What led to my making this point? Tyler wrote (on p. 91):
The more general picture on transportation can be described with two words: less and slower. The number of bus routes has decreased, and America has done very little to build up its train network, even when additional or faster train lines would be profitable. Although American cities have growing population and wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years, with the exception of the partial system in Los Angeles.
In context, I took this to be a lamentation about the lack of new subway systems.
Tyler was reporting a true fact and his not pointing out how inefficient subway systems are what led me to my interpretation. Tyler has now clarified a little, but only a little, writing yesterday:
I know, I know — if only we would spend more money [on transit], do it better, and so on. An alternative and really quite simple hypothesis is that mass transit is largely a 20th century technology, it is being slowly abandoned, and in the United States at least its future is dim. The more you moralize about the troglodyte politicians and voters who won’t support enlightenment, the harder it will be to give that hypothesis an analytically fair shake.
Of course here also he doesn’t take a stand. He simply says this is an hypothesis, but doesn’t say it’s his hypothesis. So maybe he doesn’t have a view at all on whether tax-financed subways are good or bad.
One thing I just noticed for the first time in looking over my review of Tyler’s book is another aspect of his statement “Although American cities have growing population and wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years.” It’s based on something my UCLA urban transit professor George Hilton pointed out: At least back in the early 1970s there was strong evidence that mass transit is an inferior good. That is, the greater people’s income or wealth, the lower their demand for mass transit. Of course, that may have changed. But if the relationship between wealth and demand for mass transit has held up, Tyler’s word “Although” is out of place. It could well be because of this negative relationship between wealth and the demand for mass transit, that no new subway systems, with the exception of L.A.’s, have been built. That’s not a slam dunk. If mass transit is an inferior good, then we can understand the drop in demand for actual trips; that’s different from positing a drop in political demand for subsidies.