I recently went with Meghan McCarron to a screening of the long, excellent video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, and since then have been reading some interviews with the director, Thom Andersen. In an interview with StopSmiling in 2007 he commented on changes in public transportation in Los Angeles.
Since I made the movie, the bus system and public transportation system in general has gotten better. But it’s on the verge of getting worse because, over the next couple years, they want to raise fares more than 100 percent. They’re losing money. It’s attributable to the investment in subways and so-called “light-rail” projects. The ridership on those systems has never been very high because the idea of those systems is not to serve the public that actually uses public transportation, but to attract another public to using public transportation.
I don’t know how these issues have developed in the seven years since he gave that interview, but his observation–that new public transport proposals were designed to appeal to wealthier people, and therefore not only didn’t address the needs of those who actually used pubic transport but exacerbated them–strikes me as profound. I suspect this is a common phenomenon, and one that I will strive to look for now that it’s been pointed out for me. It reminds me of something I once heard articulated by a Berkeley economist on the radio: the free market works on price signaling, so people too impoverished to contribute a meaningful signal are invisible, treated by the market as if they don’t exist. Thus, free market solutions are simply inapplicable to problems of poverty. Andersen’s observation is an example of how, even if the needs of impoverished communities is invisible to the free market, the rhetoric of those needs, or more specifically their value as a tool to justify profitable endeavor, is not.