Creeping technocracy crept another creepy step when the Metro broad of directors decided recently to keep their foolish and expensive Farecard system.
There were only mild protests, when there should have been a public outcry. Once again, computer-engineered cost-benefit fallacy has triumphed over common sense and human convenience.
No, this is not going to be another silly tirade against modern technology. It is merely an essay on the need to keep people in mind as "mechanization takes command," as Lewis Mumford put it.
The question is not whether this writer likes to dislikes the little cards with the black stripe, or the insolent attendants the indolent piece of paper constnatly asks him to see, or the mechanized gate that keeps hitting his flanks. The fundamental issue is the relation of people to the land -- rational land use.
Land used to be in infinite supply in this country. Now land, next to life and liberty, has become our most precious commodity. Yet we are wasting it. And that also means wasting people's energy, time and money.
Some 20 years ago, the Senate District Committee, under Sen. Alan Biblee (D-Nev.) and with planner-historian Frederick Gutheim as its staff director, took a careful look at this problem in the Washington metropolitan area. It found that in the absence of any effective public transportation, people were becoming increasingly dependent on private automobiles. This has two serious disadvantages.
The first in that one quarter of the population -- people who are young, old, disabled or poor -- do not drive. They are therefore excluded from the labor force and more dependent on expensive public services than people who can move about freely. That is expensive for society as a whole.
The second is that the proliferation of private automobiles leads to a proliferation of parking lots and freeways, which takes up an inordinate amount of land. The resulting urban sprawl is incredibly expensive and even more inefficient. Just think of the cost of constantly extending utilities and services.
Urban sprawl is a vicious circle: The more widely homes, shops and employment are scattered, the more dependent we become on private automobiles, which, in turn (see above) spread everything farther and farther apart.
So Bible's committee recommended a regional rapid rail system for this metropolitan area to balance private automobile transportation. The planners of Metro, as the system came to be called, were fully aware that even the most attractive rapid rail was unlikely to bring about a reduction of automobile commuting. They knew they had to travel first class merely to hold the line, to prevent a catastrophic increase in automobiles, parking lots, freeways, urban sprawl, public costs and taxes.
The residents of this region understood and voted overwhelmingly in favor of taxing themselves to pay for a first-class Metro. They knew that often in life you have to spend money to make or to save money.
The Metro planners and directors also understood and, by and large, gave us a first-class system -- if you discount such idiocies as the placement of the National Airport station, brakes that torture human eardrums, cheap escalators that keep breaking down, designation signs that say "Dupont Circle" when the train goes to the airport -- and Farecard.
I believe it was right for the Metro planners to consider any technical innovation likely to make their subway pleasant and efficient for its riders. The Farecard, however, was, from the start, efficient only for the cost accountants.
For the consumers, the Farecard concept has a number of irritating disadvantages -- even if it works:
The rider has to stand in line at least three, and often four times -- to buy his ticket, to get in, to add to the fare, and to get out.
The Farecard is damaged and likely to malfunction, cause irritation and hold up the line when --
-- placed next to another magnetized card in your wallet,
-- it gets wet in the rain,
-- it gets moist from body perspiration, or
-- it is crumpled in your pocket or by a furiously frustrated hand.
To carry a Farecard without damaging it is a nuisance. In winter you must remove your gloves and unbotton your cost; in summer you have to protect it from perspiration.
If a Farecard is damaged, it screams its silent scream, telling you to see the attendant. He or she is someone I see with about the same relish as my surly neighborhoodo U.S. Postal Service clerk.
Even if Farecard "works" by Metro board standards, it usually fails to print its charges legibly on the card. You thus don't know what you have spent and what you owe. It is a gambling game. If you lose, you have to go back and stand in line for Addfare -- which is apt to be out of order.
This Farecard fun and games will cost about $75 million by the time the 101-mile Metro system is completed, according to Metro general manager Richard S. Page. It will cost an additional $8 million to improve the Farecard machinery.
Simple turnstiles and tokens, in contrast, would only cost $24.4 million and would require $13 million a year less for maintenance.
Despite this cost differential, the Metro board decided to keep Farecard for one totally fallacious reason: Farecard is supposed to be fair.
The gadget can do tricks, as Washington Post reporter Douglas B. Feaver put it. It can charge different fares to different people riding different distances at different times a day -- like a game computer.
The trouble with sophisticated technology is that it tempts people to do everything they can do with it. Since computers and electronic pockekt calculators, we have such irritating complications as 31 cents overseas airmail stamps and the 12.26 percent Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) tax employers of housekeepers must figure out every three months.
Since Metro has decided to keep its toy, you can count on Metro to use it -- to its utmost magno-electronic potential. Fare structures and differentials, already beyond reasonable comprehension, will become ever more complicated. But they will still not pay for our regional public transportation system.
Tokens and turnstiles will not pay for it, says the Metro board majority, and that is undoubtedly right. Metro is wrong, however, when it argues that commuters resent paying the same fare for long distances as for short. They don't in New York City, Paris, London, Toronto, you name it.
People are smarter than that. They know there can never be a fair public transportation fare. Consumers will never defray the cost of public transportation. What pays for Metro trains and buses is a less expensive and more livable habitat -- the money we otherwise pay for urban sprawl.
We don't charge for the use of elevators, with either coins or magnetic tapes. What pays for elevators is the income derived from the buildings they serve.
True, this country is not yet ready to accept that public transportation is an essential public utility that defies conventional cost-benefit accounting. Until this truth is accepted, the best, simplest and happiest solution is to let riders pay their token -- in every sense of the word.
But the country will have to be ready, however reluctantly, to accept the fact that the price of oil is going up and up and up. Ten years ago, all we had to do was balance public and private transpoortation. Now public transportation must win or the country will lose.
Continued Farecards -- and the continued fare increases and complications they are bound to bring with them -- can bring nothing but more irritation and, quite possibly, more commuter automobiles, more freeways, more parking lots, more urban sprawl, more taxes and more blight.