There are no shortcuts when building a civilization

I am just as intrigued by autonomous vehicles as the next guy. Everything I’ve read about them suggests that they’ll relieve congestion and improve safety, and I both hope and believe that to be true. Our roads are clogged and anything to unclog them — and to improve efficiency, confer environmental benefits and cost savings compared to the current shape of our car-obsessed culture — would be a good thing.

But while it’s one thing to view autonomous vehicles as replacements for non-autonomous vehicles on existing roadways, it’s another thing altogether to say that we should literally rip up existing mass transit tracks and fill the tunnels with them.

Oh yes, someone is saying that. Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, writing about how, rather than fix New York’s aging, overtaxed and increasingly unreliable subway system, we replace it with autonomous vehicles:  

The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future . . .

. . . Instead of fixing the old trains, let’s rip out the tracks and fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement. The result would be radical improvements in throughput while saving money and increasing the ability of the system to survive a fire, flood, or terrorist attack.

​These subterranean highways would be dramatically simpler than public roadways for an autonomous artificially intelligent system because the tunnels could be limited to authorized vehicles only. No jaywalkers on cellphones. No babies in runaway carriages. Just a collection of competing fleets, centrally orchestrated and offering different levels of service to different groups at different prices.

I’m less interested in the specific pros and cons of such a plan — hey, we put a man on the moon, so why not a driverless Uber underneath Sixth Avenue? — than I am in the assumptions and preferences which underlie it.

The premise of this idea — one which has been astoundingly popular across the political spectrum over the past several decades — is that it’s simply unreasonable to expect our society to build and maintain great public works. That taxes are inherently bad and that raising them to provide goods and services for the well being of people is simply out of the question. It assumes, more specifically, that we simply cannot or should not fix New York’s subway system because it’s too hard. Too expensive. Not sexy. “Yes, the subway has been one of the marvels of the industrialized world for over a century,” the article basically argues, “but it’ll cost money and require work to maintain it so let’s go with Project: Jetsons.” 

It’s so very sad to see such a mindset. One which doesn’t even attempt to push back, not even a little, against the mindless “government bad, taxes bad, private sector good” dogma which has permeated public discourse since the 1980s. One that completely ignores not just the immediate and obvious benefits of public transit, but which doesn’t even begin to comprehend the second, third and fourth-order impacts public transit has had, particularly in New York. The city, as we know it, would not exist without the subway system. One would think that grappling with that fact would be required before one talks about replacing it with a bunch of Teslas in a tube. 

It’s also worth noting that this cars-on-the-7-line idea is intended to be operated by private companies on a for-profit basis. The article talks about how such an idea would take New York back to its roots, noting that the subway system was once a patchwork of private companies (the IRT and BMT, etc.) and public entities (the city-run IND) running competing lines. It might be useful for the author to note, however, that that system ended in the 1940s, with the city taking over and eventually creating a public transit authority to run it all, because the private companies had little interest in cooperating or serving the public effectively. Put simply: private ownership of public transit simply didn’t work. 

Any transit idea, however fun and futuristic it sounds, that does not appreciate the shortcomings private sector solutions have historically had when attempting to confront large scale public needs is fatally flawed. Any plan which does not appreciate the negative social, economic and even democratic impacts of a private, profit-driven system organized around individually-tailored and custom-priced trips, as opposed to moving masses of people along common corridors, is either hopelessly naive or intentionally tailored to sew inequality. 

Most countries treat mass transit systems as national assets. They openly acknowledge the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need. They do not apologize for it, fetishize private investment or bend over backwards to invent crazy new systems from whole cloth when a near-perfect model — time-tested and, however worse for wear these days, historically reliable — is already in place. They do not act like it is a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. They recognize that public works are not, first and foremost, aimed at profit-generation, and for that reason they cannot, by definition, be the responsibility of those in the business, first and foremost, of profit-creation. For that reason, their transit systems tend to be far more useful and far better run than ours do. 

We should fix the existing subways and build new ones where they are needed. We should build on what has worked in the past and fix that which is not working now. We must dispense with the idea that we can somehow disrupt our way out of having to pay for, build and maintain the sorts of large-scale public works which benefit society via public means.

​We must, above all else, acknowledge that when it comes to building a civilization, there are no shortcuts.  

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.