Except … we have such a system, and we demand no such thing. It’s the system of roads and highways in and around the nation’s capital. And it’s not all that different from the system of roads and highways in any other metropolitan area.
Why are we so much more forgiving of their punishing costs than we are of the transgressions of Metrorail and other rapid transit systems?
I wonder this sometimes as I listen to the rush-hour traffic reports on WTOP. (Given that I am a Metro commuter, why I listen to those reports is another puzzler, but we’ll leave that for another day.)
Every 10 minutes, it seems, a new accident or broken-down vehicle is causing a new snarl. And if it seems that way, it’s because it is that way: In one recent 12-month period on the Capital Beltway alone, WTOP counted “a total of 3,463 fender benders, side-swipes and pile-ups.”
Yet when we descend the Metrorail escalator and find we have to wait eight minutes for a train instead of four, we are mightily annoyed. When single-tracking causes a longer delay, we’re furious. And when one person dies in a Metrorail accident — which last happened nearly five years ago — it’s the subject of major investigations and blanket news coverage (including a number of editorials).
One explanation is that mass transit, like air travel, has the potential to produce mass casualties, and so a laser focus on safety and security is essential. On highways there are sometimes group tragedies involving vans or buses or multiple pileups, but most casualties occur one by one by one.
Yet given the huge difference in total casualties — more than 37,000 killed in road crashes across the country each year, versus very, very few in subway crashes — the imbalance doesn’t seem entirely rational. Nor does the threat of mass casualties explain why we seem more willing to accept endless traffic jams at New York and Florida avenues than rail work on the Blue Line.
Part of the reason might be that we feel more in control behind the wheel. Of course everyone complains about traffic. But even if the gain is illusory when you switch lanes and pass two cars on your right, you at least feel you’ve taken your fate in your hands. On a train, you are at someone else’s mercy — and for some people, being underground exacerbates the sense of powerlessness.
Part of the reason might be that Metrorail provides us with someone easy to blame. The state transportation officials who can grill the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority general manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld every two weeks at Metro board meetings rarely have to answer questions themselves for congestion or safety lapses on the roads.
And, besides, who exactly is to blame for that congestion and those safety lapses? Is it the state officials? Congress, for failing to approve an infrastructure bill? The driver whose truck broke down in front you? The truck’s owner, who failed to maintain the vehicle?
We could do something about that — get tougher on seat belt scofflaws, install breathalyzers in every car to prevent drunks from driving. But many Americans see both of those as an impingement on freedom.
We could do something else, too — build more mass transit and maybe appreciate it a little more. As it happens, since that last Metrorail death in 2015, Washington’s system has steadily improved both its safety standards and its performance. More and more routinely, when you descend the escalator, the screen greets you with that simple, blessed message: “Metro is operating on or near schedule.”
That won’t stop any of us from complaining when there’s a delay. But before we get too exercised, it might help to tune in to the latest traffic report.