“Unfortunately, transit systems are designed to benefit existing power groups in their geographic distribution.”
That was the key sentence in a very polite, supportive, and well-written email I received about the political challenges facing my One America plan for US commuter rail. I’m not sure if the reader was referring to the geographic distribution of the power groups or of the transit systems, but his logic makes this distinction pointless. He was saying that people with the power to create or reform transit systems will do so to benefit themselves, where they live.
The premise unravels, however, when you shift the word “existing” from modifying “power groups” to modifying “geographic distribution.” Recruiting existing power groups to invest outside their (presumably fixed) geographic distribution is a hard problem, but it’s also a bad model of reality, because geographic mobility is one of the more common expressions of power. And, geographic mobility is far easier to achieve than socioeconomic mobility. It’s better to think of the issue as recruiting relatively fixed power groups in their existing locations to move themselves and their resources elsewhere.
Affluent people do this all the time, creating new little ponds for big fish to swim in, and eventually growing little ponds into bigger ones.
As can be seen clearly in the development that springs up around urban metro stations, transit creates affluence, so looking at the causality as strictly affluence creating transit is one-sided. It’s an unforgivable lack of vision to design a transit system to only serve nice places where powerful people already live and want to visit. The “power groups,” which I concede exist, should be made to appreciate that they make places nice.
Yes, this is partly flattery, but it’s also grounded in fact. Affluence can create new nice places simply by drawing a line on a map and saying “We’re building a route here and we’re going to use it.” Let’s not forget that Palm Beach was built on a deserted island and became what it is because the founder of the town extended the railroad there.
My rhetorical follow-up would be: If the “power groups” can create nice places simply through the presence and application of their resources, why not distribute those nice places across the map? Let’s call it the Lots of Ponds concept.
So, let me invite you on an adventure. Look at the One America map and imagine creating new Palm Beaches, new Las Vegases, new Chicagos out of the obscure cities of America’s less celebrated corners. Let’s be the makers of the future, rather than the mere inheritors of the past.
But, any way you want to think about it, let’s get One America done. Vision and resources, which are currently at a disastrous distance in the United States, need to shake hands and become friends again.