As a historian, it irritates me when people cite historical evidence after a superficial Internet search (or, worse yet, treat Wikipedia as a primary source). Matthew Yglesias—I know, I know, I may as well be reading Krugman—today argues that opposition to mass transit stems at its root from jingoism. This is a familiar refrain and fallback position for the left when they can detect no traces of racism. To support his notion that publicly-funded mass transit is American, he looks to our history in an attempt to showcase his straw men’s hypocrisy.
He discovers that the biggest subways are in non-European cities and that most of the prominent rapid transit systems are domestic. A commenter helpfully added further support:
Here’s a postcard from live free or die New Hampshire, circa 1877. And, oh no — Socialism!
The only problem with their history is that everything they cite was originally private. Chicago’s “L” was originally served by a number of companies that later integrated to provide better service before being taken over by the city after 60 years of service. The PATH system was built and run as the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad for nearly 50 years before it too was taken over by the Port Authority. The New York Subway, though owned and operated by the city from its inception, was built by private contractors. The Manchester Horse Railroad, offered up as an ironic commentary on the nineteenth-century, was actually a private company that flourished in its sixty years of operation until it too was taken over by the city.
Further examples abound: nearly every municipal transportation system prior to the Great Depression was privately-owned and operated—and that jumps to 100% if we look exclusively at the nineteenth century. Mass transit was historically a private affair, and a generally successful one at that. Unfortunately, as public transportation was supplanted by private—viz., the car—in the 1940s and 1950s it inevitably failed to maintain ridership and lapsed into bankruptcy. Once that happened, local politicians deemed it too important to fail and appropriated its assets and operations as a matter of civic pride. Unsurprisingly, public ownership and operation could not stanch the economic losses, which generally continue to this day.
Yglesias is right, though, to point to the contradiction of opposing a high-speed rail network while accepting a public highway system* and a raft of zoning and building code restrictions. A principled stand against one would entail a stand against them all, since they each represent an abrogation of someone’s property rights. One might argue that the opposition to new rail appropriations is strategic given the inordinate capital and ongoing operational expenses it represents. However, one can fight that fight and still indicate one’s rejection of the other abuses.