The Devil Went Down The Subway


NANJING — Once in a while it’s good to play a little game of devil’s advocate to keep us all on our toes. Today, the devil would like to discuss public transportation and why it may not be the be-all end-all solution to all of our problems. Let’s examine one of the more common purported benefits of large scale public transport: taking cars off the street, reducing traffic and pollution. Taking cars off the street is certainly a good thing and would reduce traffic and pollution, but in what perfect world are people who already use cars going to drop their keys and pick up a subway pass instead? Being an HNC student, I’ll take the United States and China as examples.

In China, the subway systems in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere are extremely convenient. But if you stand outside of a station and interview everyone coming out, you’ll find that most of them not only do not own, but also can’t afford cars. You’ll find that those people are opting for the subway not because they want to protect the environment or stay out of traffic. Rather, the subway is all they have. Without it, they would be on bicycles. And what about the United States, where our aging, filthy subways couldn’t possibly stop near everybody’s house, not that anybody would take them if they did. How many cars do these systems really take off the street? And speaking of traffic on the street, what about the traffic underneath it?  China’s subway system, for example, is grossly overcrowded. A woman was recently killed after being trapped between the doors on the platform and the train after she failed to push her way into a crowded Beijing subway. In fact, the Beijing city government has moved to increase subway fares in an effort to reduce ridership in their city’s clogged underground arteries.

The fare increase has another side to it as well. With the current pricing scheme of two yuan per ticket, the government is forced to subsidize $1.6 billion per year for the system to break even. That’s a lot of money that a lot of places just don’t have, and the cost would only go up as the lines expand. So a city may spend a couple hundred million dollars on a new subway system, only to spend a billion per year to keep it going and not even see a significant decrease in either traffic or pollution. We need to be more careful before we take action on public transportation. Devil out.

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