Jane Jacobs on Transportation, Government Monopolies

The use of “gravy train” to describe public investment will resonate with those readers familiar with Toronto’s disgraced former mayor Rob Ford. Indeed, the general tone of Jacob’s piece – questioning the wisdom of public management of transportation – is more reminiscent of writing from the political right than the political left. As demonstrated frequently throughout Vital Little Plans, one of the most satisfying elements of Jacobs’ writing is her ability to scramble simplistic assumptions about political alignment and urban policy.

So if not the traditional right/left political divide, what motivated Jacobs’ pointed and repeated criticism of public transport management? Reading through the various selections in Vital Little Plans, it becomes clear that the common enemy she is attacking is top-down, centralized control of complex systems.

For followers of Jacobs, this should not come as a surprise. The founding ethos of her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is that city success flows from the bottom up. There, she casts the villain as government planners who have a utopian vision of what cities should look like; they destroy functioning urban fabric because they are too far removed from its use to even notice that it is succeeding.

Here, in various selections from Vital Little Plans, Jacobs’ argument against public monopoly control of transportation is similar: a single government agency is liable to miss opportunities for innovation, be biased to the status quo, and ignore changing consumer demands.

Given her love of bottom-up organization and distributed decision making, I suspect that Jacobs would have been a supporter of ‘informal transit’ systems like collectivos, matatus, dollar vans, or jeepneys, although there’s no writing about them in this volume. Those systems tend to be composed of thousands of independent actors, each with a financial incentive to meet consumer demand, and without centralized control of routes or individual driver behavior. While that has often made them the enemy of public authorities, I imagine it would have made Jacobs a fan.

Andrew Salzberg