Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to change your perspective on something, or at least reconsider the status quo. Today was such a day for me, on account of the MTA's decision in the wake of the hurricane to allow riders to use the system -- or at least those parts of it that are working -- at no charge. As I waited for my train at 163rd Street -- the A-train was running local -- it occurred to me that the subways should always be free.
I understand that the argument probably seems self-serving considering that I ride the subway, but really, let's take a step back and think about the costs of our automobile-centric society: 1) environmental degradation, which covers everything from suburban sprawl to global warming, 2) all the political bullshit that comes from our reliance on oil, and 3) that should be enough. The real question here is why we as a society choose to completely subsidize the vast majority of roads, but not public transportation, particularly when the former is a huge cost, and the latter is huge benefit. I realize that I'm oversimplifying the case here, and that roads are essential to the modern economy (via the transport of goods), but still, let's stop penalizing those who don't own cars by making us pay for roads that we barely use, and at the same time make us pay to use a system that is obviously of great benefit to society as a whole.
Not to mention, subway fares are essentially a flat tax, which means that they penalize the poor far more than the not-poor; if our presidential candidates really wanted to provide some relief to the working poor, they would free the subways and let everyone ride for free; raise the capital gains tax one percent, end of story. I was filled with righteous indignation as I passed through the open gates at 34th Street. It only lasted until I made it to the street, where the gray sky was mottled with blue.
The bottom line is that cars are exceedingly destructive and not a viable long-term proposition for the transport of people; for this reason, those who want cars should have to pay more to use them. At the same time, however, the government needs to make it feasible for people not to own cars by expanding (free) public transport around the country (while limiting sprawl and preserving green space, etc.)
Buses should be free, too.
By this point I was on my way home, and as I walked west, I considered my proposal for free public transportation. (Admittedly, we are going to have to tolerate a certain amount of graft and corruption in orrganizations like the MTA, which is a bureacratic nightmare; I'm not saying the present system is perfect.)
But if we're going to rebuild, it seems as though we should think about making things better instead of replicating what we know is already broken.
All snacks should be free, too, obviously.