SEATTLE, Washington - There's been quite a bit of happy internet buzz for the past week or so because of a New York Times story about high gas prices causing some folks to switch to mass transit. I won't bother posting links, there's plenty of blog search engines out there.
This is nothing to celebrate. Every person that is switching from auto to transit for their commute is suffering a reduction in their quality of life. Transit is an inferior way of getting around except when auto transportation is completely out of the question (usually because there's nowhere to park at the destination). If transit is so great, people would choose it automatically, not only when suffering a (hopefully temporary) spike in the cost of driving.
If good meat got very expensive and people switched to cat food, this is a reduction in quality of life that nobody would celebrate. If electricity got so expensive that people sat around their house in the dark at night, this would be a blow to their quality of life that nobody would celebrate. But if some people are forced into the commuting version of cat food (mass transit), suddenly a big celebration breaks out.
I could list all the ways in which transit is worse, but why? I believe in choice, and people choose driving and they will switch right back to driving as soon as gas prices come down or alternatives to gas emerge for powering cars.
Why the celebration? Many people hide behind the floral-print skirt of the "environment", but people love to play the environment card when they really have a separate agenda. Cars aren't going away, and if you primary concern is the environment you should be focused on cleaner cars and cleaner energy (which is happening anyway due to natural technological progress and what is probably absurd overinvestment in these technologies.) Yet, if cars became 100% clean tomorrow, and were powered in a radically cheaper way, the same set of dorks crowing about the NYT article would still be pushing for transit.
Why? There's a spectrum of reasons, but I think the main one is the egalitarian impulses of many people. In a car based system, (gasp!) some people can't afford a car and (double gasp!) some people have nicer cars than others, while with a transit system the masses and the classes all get around the same way. In this sense, switching to transit is a bigger hit to the quality of life of a wealthy person than a poorer person, so it's a Good Thing.
There are other reasons: cultural dislike of suburbanites, the bogus perception that oil companies are "profiteering" (their profits in proportion to income and investment are in line with other industries), and the general affinity for massive tax-funded systems (see education, and their desires for health care).
Still, transit gets public support beyond the NYT-transit-article-loving fanatics - it even manages to win some elections and referendums. The most accurate analysis of why that happens appeared in The Onion years ago - the best satire is always very close to the truth.