There will be other costs, of course: 240 miles of LED lighting would cost millions of dollars, but installing such a system would have side effects that would make them worth every penny. Rats, after all, hate the light and would be pushed to find new underground homes.
— Peter Wayner, “The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair,” The Atlantic, June 9, 2018.
I bolded the sentence above because it’s so crazy. I wish I could have bolded every single word in the feature.
Peter Wayner wrote a piece for The Atlantic. It begins from a false premise. It ends with science fiction so outlandish, I had to check if I was reading inside a lucid dream.
FOR USELESS, TWISTING, OUR NEW TECHNOLOGY / OH NOW THERE IS NO SOUND, FOR WE ALL LIVE UNDERGROUND
The government is starving New York’s mass transit system. They refuse to fund it.
Instead of fixing the problem, Wayner argues that we should rip up the tracks and replace subways with a subterranean kingdom of robot cars.
Here’s Wayner in the first paragraph, talking about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority:
But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future.
Here’s the second-to-last paragraph:
Perhaps the public would like fat, overstuffed chairs on wheels in some years and tiny hoverboards in other years. Who knows?
Indeed, who knows? I tested my theory, and discovered I was not unconscious. I was unable to float above the ground, or push my finger through solid matter. I was, in fact, reading a real article by a real person in the real world. God help us all.
Wayner is every Reddit tech-fetishist who slaps “autonomous” onto a problem and thinks they’ve solved it. Never mind that autonomous vehicles do not work. Why let a little thing that like get in the way of fantasy camp? Reading “The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair” is like reading a 1996 pundit worry about the unlimited power of hackers: “What if a hacker hacks his way inside our nation’s analog clock system? What then?
Paste writer Jake Weindling sent me Wayner’s piece, and I had what certain sects of Protestantism probably refer to as a “real snake experience.” A poisoned river of rage ran through my body. Jake sits next to me in the Paste fortified compound. I told him that it was all I could do to not yell at my inanimate laptop screen.
Wayner’s piece isn’t just bad; it’s not even wrong. It soars beyond the realm of truth and falsehood. It’s deluded in the way that a blind man describing Shrek would be wrong.
The online world was quick to dismiss Wayner’s fantasy for the strange, neoliberal pipe dream it was:
Letters were sent to the Atlantic in response—including one by a man named Patrick Zerr, who said it was a “pleasant fantasy to believe that innovation and a Silicon Valley mindset are all that’s necessary to solve one of America’s most intractable infrastructure challenges.” Zerr wrote:
I have a degree in infrastructure engineering and am an engineer-in-training in the field, but the inaccuracies in question are not nearly so arcane as to require such credentials. The respective capacities of free-flowing vehicular lanes and subway transit are well established. Generously, a freeway lane might carry 2,000 vehicles per hour, which—again, generously—might each carry somewhere between one and two travelers, on average. This gives us a high-end estimate of moving 2,000 to 4,000 people per hour in a single direction. An MTA subway track, such as Mr. Wayner effectively proposes to replace with a single lane of traffic, is capable of carrying in excess of 30,000 people per hour. This is not a small difference and makes one wonder whether the author has considered it.
Of course he hasn’t.
Even addressing the practical concerns of Mr. Wayner’s Wild Ride lowers me, and everyone reading this feature. It’s like criticizing your toddler for trying to cover Whitney Houston. How could any rational, bipedal adult take Wayner’s proposal seriously?
Think about it. You don’t even have to know math to see the problem. Why are four hundred separate space-filling cars better than a single train car? How will you be able to have the cars drive when the autonomous vehicles we do have are A) incompetent, B) not real AI, C) crash a lot? Why is he so happy about “the opportunity for advertising throughout the system?” Even if the cars were super-intelligent, how would they be able to handle six million daily commuters? How would this be “dramatically faster?” How would destroying the New York MTA be cheaper than fixing it? You budgeted ”$8 million for each of the 240 miles” of track. In what universe is this conceivable? Why doesn’t this bother the author? Why am I writing about this in the year 2018?
Wayner’s feature is banal Randian erotica for people who want transportation without the poors. However. The reasoning behind the fever dream is much more interesting than the fever dream itself.
THERE IS MONEY TO FIX THE NEW YORK SUBWAY SYSTEM
Neoliberalism has always been a sham. But those of us who criticize neoliberalism have got it all wrong. We’ve focused on the wrong parts of it. How cruel it is. How ineffective it is.
What we should have been concentrating on is how unrealistic it is.
All neoliberal, technocratic solutions begin from single premise: Forcing the rich and powerful to give up their wealth and power is impossible. If a neoliberal saw a Jeff Bezos walking down the sidewalk, they would go a block out of their way to avoid stepping on his shadow. That’s why they have to force themselves into pretzel shapes to solve problems.
What is the simplest answer to New York’s transport woes? Pay the damn bill to fix the trains. Stop, right there. That’ll do.
Folks. There is always money. If rule one of politics is “All politics is local,” then rule two is: there is always money. There is always money.
How do I know this? Because there is always money for the powerful and their interests.
There is always money for bailouts.
There is always money for tax breaks for the one percent.
There is always money for wars.
There is always money for military contractors. The cost for the indefensible F-35 program is roughly the same cost as forgiving all student debt.
There is always money for idiotic venture capital investments.
There is always money for the rich to take from working people.
So the next time some grimacing austerity con-artist tells you there’s no magic money tree, start shooting three-pointers over their head.
Money is determined by power, not supply. Power is the scarce resource here, not cash.
To quote Zach Carter, “Money is a tool governments use to manage these variables and solve social problems. It is not a scarce resource that governments have to track down in order to pay for projects.”
Neoliberal grifters love to talk about money and sunk costs, because it props up their false world of economic determinism. They talk about cost and prices because it justifies their just-so stories about why the poor have to stay poor, and why public goods have to be privatized.
But there’s always money.
Even if the neoliberals were right, Wayner would still be wrong. At the end of the day, preserving the subway of New York is infinitely cheaper than building a freaking robot underworld. We are an infinitely wealthier society than the America that built the highway system. There is nothing lacking at all except political will. I advise Wayner to keep digging his tunnels; burying this idea is the best thing for it.