THE FREEDOM COMPONENT IN AN MBTA FUTURE

The MBTA is great — for its limited purposes. But when you use it, you surrender some of your freedom. We should also keep that in mind when discussing expansion of the T, or burdening it on the taxpayer only

Recently I was asked, on facebook, by a most respected friend, to explain why I do not support City Councillor Michelle Wu’s petition to make the MBTA fare-free. This is what I responded :

OK, since you ask, it’s a matter first of simple fairness : no optional publicly funded service should ever be free to users. It’s not fair to taxpayers. We already gave users a huge benefit by having assumed the financial burdens If operating transit lines back in the 1930s when private transit companies went bankrupt because people gravitated to cars. There was and us no obligation to do so. 

Given the arrival of Uber and Lyft, transit, with its rigidities, becomes even more burdensome and difficult. Why have it at all ? Only because it operates in long established right of ways that keep tons of traffic off ordinary streets. I would like to see it expanded, which means all kinds of bigger budget allocations. In no way can such expansion just give itself away. If that’s the goal, I oppose expansion. Let Uber and Lyft do the job. They do it without asking taxpayers to foot the bill.

As a much more extended analysis may be helpful, let me try to explain at length my views on the role that publicly-funded transportation should play as we move deeper into the hugely congested Boston traffic boom, generated as it is by the City’s prosperity boom.

Most observers — maybe almost all — who opine these days about the future of the MBTA discuss its finances, its future expansions, and its prospects versus those of Uber and Lyft. I would like to add a dimension : that of liberty. Why “liberty” ? Because the option to travel is one of the fundamental attributes of freedom. You should, as a free person, be able to come and go when you please, where you please. Restrictions of free movement have always appeared unjust: because we, all of us, feel deeply that it is up to us to decide when to move about, and where. Public transportation does a very limited job of it. Buses and rapid transit take you where they go. If your destination happens to coincide with a T stop, fine; if not, not so fine. Also : our transit system is very able to take us to a destination: but not so capable if we have two, three, four destinations. Using the T to move across the City, rather than into it from an out point, involves hours and hours of transfers and waits.

Enter the automobile. Today many planners view cars as a burden, or a nuisance, or as pollution. Maybe they are that. Yet the automobile revolutionized people’s ability to come and go. In a car, you can go where you want, when you want, in all kinds of weather, and ask no man’s leave. Yes, free people were always free to walk wherever. But walking takes lots of time and involves a fair degree of decent weather and physical health. In a car, you can go much, much farther than a walker, and you can do it even if you are somewhat infirm. This summer I was without a car for five months. I had to use the T to go places. It enormously curtailed what I was able to do in a day. In a car I had been able to go to four, five, even six destinations in the course of a day. With the T it was difficult even to go to one. I recall having to go to a friend’s house in West Roxbury. Starting in Salem, it took me three hours and five changes of T and bus to get there. In a car, never more than half that time.

Having to get around town by bus or T, after doing it regularly by car — having to live in the weather, in the rain, the heat, the snow; waiting for the next bus, perhaps having missed the last bus by 30 seconds; freezing in buses with air conditioning on full blast — one learns a lot about freedom and loss of freedom. It was with this experience in mind that I read Senator John Cornyn’s Mussolini quote that has many activists on the left up in outrage : “We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.”  

This, Cornyn is telling us, is the true voice of government administering stuff. Mussolini began his career as a socialist. He moved from there to the dark side, but his words are those of socialism everywhere : limit the freedoms that the individual person rightly cherishes. I don’t think it has to be that way, yet the danger is real. Those who want to downplay the use of cars and step up the use of public transit ask us to restrict our freedom to come and go.

The friends of public transportation tout its low cost: but low cost too whom ? Certainly not to the taxpayer who pays for it. They say that greater use of transit will keep cars off our local streets: but will it ? Unless you can walk to the nearest T stop, you still have to drive to it, and that means driving on local streets. As for the pollution issue, the gasoline engine isn’t a given. Electric cars are upon us. Yes, even in electric cars, Boston traffic will be congested to the max; and it is time consuming, and mighty inconvenient, to be stuck on the Southeast Expressway between 2 pm and 7.30 pm and again in the morning. But so is it time consuming, or inconvenient, to wait for a 117 bus, or to endure the hour and more that the 116 bus takes to go from Wonderland to Maverick.

The T is very useful for what it is able to do. It does, as I wrote above, utilize long-established rights of way bermed off from the communities they pass through. The T does get you from home to Downtown and lets you be there without paying $ 20 to park a car, assuming there’s a space available. And yes, the T should become — will become — more flexible and offer more route options. But we should never lose sight that using the T puts you at the mercy of the schedule, of human error, and of the route. In most cases, I’d rather move by myself; and so would you. We have that right. It is a paramount right. Mussolinis — and their administrative cousins of all government structures — are not to be allowed to interfere, or to explain our freedoms away in fancy theoretical boasts.

I’m willing to pay to use the T, and to pay more, because I want a T — when I want it –that is as bug-free as feasible and as modern as plan-able. Otherwise, I fully explained my reasons in my original response to my friend’s facebook post. Public transit is an option. It is not a gift.

Now on to a larger view of the liberty argument. In the so-called “Green New Deal,” there’s sections which call for building lots of high-speed inter-city and cross-country trains — as a way, so the wording has it, to eliminate air travel. What say ?? The same document, or cousin versions of it, want to restrict the use of private cars by tolling their highway use, or raising gasoline taxes, or by taxing the presence of cars in restriction zones. Some legislators want to tax Uber and Lyft trips to Logan Airport. I am quite sure similar taxes await legislative cation in other states. Companion legislation would increase tax dollar allocations to MBTA repair and expansion. Whether these proposals deserve our support, or not, is a question for another column/. In this writing I simply ant to note that ll involve restricting people’;s transportation options. Instead of making the MBTA a first traveler choice by persuasion or by improved service, they seek to force the traveler’s hand.

If politics wants to enhance one form of movement over another or others, it should do so by assuring that its preferred movement mode is the most desirable, not by pressuring the voters’ wallets to decide in favor of the political preference. Maximize the voters’ freedoms instead of curtailing them.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere