Morton J. Marcus is an economist formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers. His column appears in Indiana newspapers
A few introductory thoughts. First, I am not in the pocket of any automobile company. Second, I am very conflicted about the subject of this column: urban transportation.
Third, for years I have argued that the private automobile is the greatest mass transit system ever developed. Uber, Lyft, and self-driving vehicles are reinforcing that argument.
Fourth, while autos have been blamed for urban sprawl, congested routes, and the deterioration of civility, family and community, they are not the sole villains of contemporary life. Air conditioning must take part of the blame.
Finally, the interstate highways have been a powerful and fundamentally positive force in America, where they have been allowed to be integrated into our cities.
Let’s start with this last point. Which city in Indiana has the most successful downtown? Easy, Indianapolis. No other Indiana city has its interstates built to channel traffic into its downtown. Terre Haute, Evansville, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Muncie, Lafayette, Anderson, Columbus, Michigan City and now Bloomington are like Kokomo, where a bypass was not therapeutic to the heart of the city.
Indianapolis alone has seen its downtown saved by two crossing interstates. Ironically, those who benefited most from those interstates are now posting signs in their yards demanding that we rethink the I-65 and I-70 intersection. They urge InDOT to rebuild it right this time. Some even suggest ripping the interstates out of downtown and replacing them with a boulevard system from an earlier era.
The idea is as bizarre as the extension of the South Shore rail line from Hammond to Dyer in Lake County. These fantasies are stimulated by the belief we can resurrect 1925 or 1955 with large injections of federal funds. Projects that the communities cannot and will not support are deemed desirable, if the feds will fund them.
The Indianapolis Red Line, an electric bus, which will come into being only if the feds cough up about $75 million, is another example of getting others to pay for our flights of fancy.
As with the interstates in the 1950s and ‘60s, local residents resist intrusive technologies that change land use. There is no popular demand for the Red Line or the South Shore extension. They are seen as future assets by real estate developers (speculators and government officials), and by ideologues who want revenge on the automobile through a return to pre-WWII urban life.
Self-driving vehicles are the next step in the emancipation of millions of people. The elderly, the infirm, the young, the vulnerable and the busy will all benefit. Our cities will benefit by having a more efficient use of those resources which lie idle waiting for the few moments each day when they are employed by commuters.
With scant evidence, many of these Transit Oriented Developments are offered as the means to attract young technocrats, the current holy grail of economic developers.