WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- There's an old saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." It may be time that "road" was replaced with "railroad." A new study by the Laissez Faire Institute in Chandler, Ariz., takes a good hard look at the economics of various transportation choices. The news is not good for the rail enthusiasts.
Back in 1945, 50 percent of all trips were made by bus, trolley or rail. That figure today is down to just 2 percent, much of it concentrated in the Northeast of the country. The reason is simply that Americans grew wealthy enough to afford their own individual form of transportation -- the automobile. Because most American cities were not the cramped masses of twisting streets that cause problems for car users in the Old World, there was no disincentive to slow down this process.
Yet even so, government bodies continue to believe they should persuade Americans to use different forms of transport. The study, "Public Transit: A Bad Product at a Bad Price," sets out how governments now spend 20 times as much per person-mile on public transport as they do on roads, how people who never use public transport pay two-thirds of their cost via taxation and how automobile users are actually paying more than the economic cost of car use.
Not only is this a bad use of resources, argues the institute, but the solutions chosen are worse than they could be. Transportation officials have regularly gone for glamorous light rail solutions rather than cheaper, more flexible buses. Light rail, for instance, literally sets in stone transit routes, while buses can be switched easily to other routes should demographic patterns change. Moreover, the new systems normally fail to attract passengers out of their cars, while attracting passengers off existing bus routes; up to 80 percent of light rail passengers used bus routes previously. Because of these factors, light rail costs $1.20 per passenger mile, compared to 75 cents for buses and only 34 cents for private cars.
Yet there is one important point that is often forgotten in transportation discussions. Buses have a terrible image problem in the United States. Someone once said, "Show me a man who rides a bus at 30 and I will show you a failure." It is partly for this reason that buses are so much more expensive than private cars. Nor have governments gone out of their way make them more attractive. Virtually no one rides the bus in Birmingham, Ala., for instance, because they still run the old routes that used to carry African-American servant women from their homes to the homes of their white employers and back again. This is hardly conducive to attracting people who need to get to and from downtown work locations. Buses could probably be much more cost-effective if a little thought was given to their use.
Overall, however, the study is right to point out the inefficiencies of so much of the nation's transportation strategies. Good intentions don't pay for themselves.
A major op-ed column in The Washington Post this week by Walter Russell Mead of the Council for Foreign Relations argued strongly for military action in Iraq on the grounds that many thousands of children and adults were being killed by the "containment" policy. Unfortunately for Mead, the figures he used were debunked some time ago.
Mead argued that "containing (Saddam) for another 10 years condemns at least another 360,000 Iraqis to death. Of these, 240,000 will be children under 5. Those are the low-end estimates. Believe UNICEF and 10 more years kills 600,000 Iraqi babies and altogether almost 1 million Iraqis."
Yet independent writer and blogger Matt Welch pointed out in the pages of Reason magazine in March last year that figures like these had been exaggerated. To begin with, not every death attributed to sanctions could be laid at their door: "drought, hospital policy, breast-feeding education, Saddam Hussein's government, depressed oil prices, the Iraqi economy's almost total dependence on oil exports and food imports, destruction from the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars, differences in conditions between the autonomous north and the Saddam-controlled south, and a dozen other variables difficult to measure without direct independent access to the country" all pressed competing claims.
Moreover, the figures for deaths themselves have dubious provenance. One source was a five-day survey of fewer than 700 households, from which 500,000 child deaths a year were extrapolated. Other figures were reprinted by the World Health Organization direct from information supplied by the Iraqi Ministry of Health. The idea that the Iraqis might have been exaggerating did not seem to occur to the U.N.
Nevertheless, as Welch said, the truth is bad enough. If we take the respectable estimates of Professor Richard Garfield from the School of Nursing at Columbia University, we still see at least 15,000 children under age 5 dying each year as a direct result of Saddam staying in power. Mead's case would have been strong enough if he had used these figures. It is a shame he felt he had to rely on discredited figures.
There is ongoing debate in the medical profession about a new idea called "evidence-based medicine," which prescribes treatments only on the basis of strong evidence of the efficacy of the treatment. Critics have derided it as "cookbook" medicine, slavishly following a recipe regardless of patient circumstances. A new organization in Britain critical of the practice published its manifesto in the British Medical Journal on Dec. 21 last year. It is called the Clinicians for the Restoration of Autonomous Practice (CRAP) Writing Group.