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America’s Tired Transit System: No Way to Run a Railroad?

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson- Passengers walk up a staircase to the New York subway system after taking a shuttle from the Metro North Railroad system at Yonkers station while a derailed train prevents service into and out of New York, December 2, 2013. Commuters from New York City's northern suburbs faced travel delays on Monday morning, the day after a seven-car train derailment that killed four people and injured 11 critically.

In the wake of the Metro-North train that derailed just outside of New York City this past weekend there will be many words written about America’s beleaguered mass transit system.  But sometimes in government (as is life) the problem is pretty simple.  So credit this week goes to Alex Pareene at Salon.com whose analysis on why mass transit is doomed cuts right to the heart of the matter. (Pending media confirmation, the Metro-North accident is very likely to be related to a degraded transit system or conductor error. Regardless, America’s transit system needs to be reinvigorated desperately).

Which is why Pareene’s article is so important.  Politicians don’t use mass transit and they don’t know anyone who does.  The result is that public policy is skewed in the direction of cars and their drivers.  The effect is very regressive, most of the people who use mass transit have no other option.  Of course some middle class professional people use mass transit in big cities.  You can tell who they are.  When the Subway in New York or the Metro in Washington or the T in Boston stops in a station and doesn’t move for ten or fifteen minutes, certain people get off the stalled train and head for the stairs where they will, presumably, hail a cab.  Most of the others can’t afford the cab fare and they have no option but to put up with whatever is ailing the system at the time.  Mass transit’s problems are so severe that, as Pareene points out, they even affect very liberal Democratic cities like New York and Minneapolis.  If mass transit can’t dominate the agenda in those places it appears to be, as Pareene writes, “doomed,” and that’s not good for any of us. 

  • Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at Brookings and the Founding Director of the Center for Effective Public Management. She is also senior editor of FixGov, a blog focused on discussing domestic political and governance challenges and realistic solutions. She is a public sector scholar with wide experience in government, academia and politics. Kamarck is an expert on government innovation and reform in the United States, OECD countries and developing countries.  In addition, she also focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in many American presidential campaigns. In the 1980s, she helped to found the “New Democrat” movement that resulted in the presidency of Bill Clinton.

    As a senior staffer in the White House she created the National Performance Review, the largest government reform effort in the last half of the twentieth century. After the White House, she spent fifteen years at Harvard University teaching government management and American politics.   She is the author of How Change Happens—Or Doesn’t: The Politics of U.S. Public Policy (Lynne Rienner, 2013), which explores transformative changes in the space where politics and policy overlap and asks why some policies succeed and others fail. Her most recent book on politics is Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System and her most recent book on government organization is The End of Government As we Know it: Making Public Policy Work.

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