Having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system

Monday, January 29th, 2024

It’s always jarring to come home to the US, Chris Arnade notes, often from much poorer countries, to find that our infrastructure is infinitely worse:

But it was what happened after I left the airport that convinced me that America, and especially NYC, is broken.


The train, to be fair, was on time. But it was filthy. The carriages were mostly empty, except for three or four homeless guys in each who were either sleeping or passed-out. The dozen or so of us who got on at the first stop chose our seats carefully, positioning ourselves close to each other, for safety, and as far as possible from the sprawled-out guys and their piles of trash and puddles of urine.


I thought about Sofia, where the subways and buses — and other public spaces and resources — are so much cleaner, safer, and smoother. Where workers simply wanting to get to their jobs don’t have to deal with navigating the mentally ill, addicted and desperate every day. For context, the GDP of Manhattan alone is about nine times that of the entire nation of Bulgaria. But NYC’s problems only seem to be getting worse, especially for those who have the least. I don’t have to take the subway; I have the cash for an Uber. But I try to see, and to understand a little, the world as most people see and understand the world.


Eventually, that morning, a guy covered in old vomit and carrying a cane, his trousers only just above his knees, got onto the subway train, and went up and down each carriage, hitting every sleeping or passed-out guy on the legs, yelling at them to move on, to give the rest of us some space. Everyone else pretended it wasn’t happening, hoping it wouldn’t go south, focusing instead on the floor or their phones.


But having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system. It isn’t fair on the riders who don’t have the money to avoid the subway. It also isn’t fair on the homeless, who are being encouraged — or at least not discouraged — to hang out on crowded trains, maximising the chances that bad stuff will happen.


One of the forces that influenced LA authorities, though they won’t admit it, is homelessness. They built La Sombrita, rather than a proper bus shelter, for the same reason NYC is taking benches out of Port Authority: they don’t want people to sleep there. It’s something you see more and more in American cities: a locking down of public spaces in an attempt to deal with the growth of the homeless population. A removal of resources for the majority, because of concerns over “misuse” by less than 1% of residents.


To get big-brained about it, something like La Sombrita could only happen in a high-regulation/low-trust society like the US. If regulations massively limit both bottom-up and top-down solutions, and if those solutions are expected to protect against all sorts of bad behaviour, you end up building the least to mitigate the worst — building things the majority doesn’t want, or doesn’t find useful.

The high-regulation part of the US is usually couched in the language of safety, but it’s really about not allowing organic growth, which is messy — even though, people being people, it tends to result in things the majority really wants. Ecuador, by contrast, is a low-regulation (although low-trust) society: here, you get ad hoc, bottom-up solutions. If there is a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, without natural shade around it, riders rig an umbrella to a pole, or throw some old seats under a tree. In the US, such solutions would be dismantled within days.

But also, in places like Quito, bus stops attract street vendors, who come with umbrellas, making people feel safer by their very presence. LA has some of that, but it’s against the letter of the law, and vendors are constantly hassled with fines, or threats of shutdowns. My favourite taco place was closed down twice during my short stint in LA, for bureaucratic reasons. All this is to say that in Quito getting the bus is a much more pleasant experience than in LA — even though the latter city is roughly 1,000 times richer than Ecuador, and the latter has its own serious troubles.

Regulations themselves aren’t the problem, though. Germany, like much of northern Europe, is a high-regulation society, but it’s also high-trust, compared to the US. Here, nice and fully functional things are built without fear of misuse. For Americans, who have both a high-regulation and low-trust society, this is all rather depressing; it’s the combination that means we can’t have nice things.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    “Germany, like much of northern Europe, is a high-regulation society, but it’s also high-trust…”

    Evidently, Arnade has never heard of the large Asian and Africa immigration wave engulfing the EU.

  2. VXXC says:

    So says a socialist? Well, he might be a real socialist. He probably also more to the point voted Democractic most of his life.

    This is only the Democratic party since the 1960s, thanks for checking in…

    Perhaps the lesson is: Bulgaria had Communism before it had Democracy?

  3. Phileas Frogg says:

    One wonders if/when he will ask the question or connect the dots as to why exactly we have developed a low-trust society where previously we had maintained a high-trust society. When will he take the time to look around, cast back his memory, and play an internal game of, “One of these things is not like the other…”

    Moral of the story: Trust > Regulation
    Logical query: What builds Trust?
    Conclusion: Homogeneity.

    Logical query: How then do we build Trust?

    I have scant hope of such an epiphany at this late hour though. At this point the issues are so obvious that anyone beyond a certain age who still parrots the, “imperatoria fides,” is provably stupid.

  4. Dr. No says:

    Bulgaria is a culturally monolithic ethnostate. They have neither tens of millions of ultraviolent illiterate IQ-55 African colonists within their borders nor any significant number of a certain (((Tribe))) who would bend their government into a thing to serve them. This is why Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Baltic States, and so on, can have nice things. Though the per-capita GDP in these nations is a tiny fraction of that of the US, they are high-trust societies. They lack Muh Diversity and Muh Multiculturalism. This is mainly because their welfare states are not thus far sufficiently generous to attract Mbogo and the rest.

    German and Scandicuck politicians in the EU want to hold Hungary, and all the rest of this group of nations, at gunpoint and force them to bring in the aforementioned African horde. If the Bulgarians and the rest bend on this, in five years they’ll be craters and flaming rubble, and Sofia will be indistinguishable from Stockholm, Munich, Paris, and Detroit. As they can see what is happening in Northern and Western Europe with their own eyes, they will have no one but themselves to blame.

  5. Jim says:

    I disavow the “high-trust/low-trust” dichotomy because it misplaces the proper emphasis. “Trust” is not a cause; it is a consequence; thus, it cannot be described in such a fashion as would permit one usefully to analyze any society of man. The cause of trust is honor. Not only can an individual or group be described as honorable or dishonorable, but the fine contours of such honor can be outlined along many dimensions. For instance: Germans will honor the spirit of a contract; Jews will honor the letter of it; Armenians will honor nothing. Japanese are tranquil in peace but fearsome at war; Blacks are fearsome in peace but flaccid at war; Gypsies are flaccid in peace and at war; Chechens are fearsome in peace and at war. Etc. Crossbreeds may exhibit one or the other or a schizophrenia between them. Of course, the biology of honor could be studied by any academic worthy of the name.

  6. Szopen says:

    Bulgaria has ethnic minorities. It’s about 9% Turkish plus 4% Roma.

    As for my country, Poland, it’s not a high-trust society. I’d say we are mid-trust. :) Compared to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, or even Germany, especially for those countries from two or three decades ago, we are a really low-trust country with a lot of corruption. However, compared to southern countries, yeah, compared to them we have higher social capital.

    But we are already being destroyed.

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