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Here's the answer to our 'summer of hell' commuting woes

  • It's not just New York that suffering from a commuting "summer of hell."
  • America's infrastructure is failing because the government is too involved in every aspect of it.
  • Meanwhile, the world's largest commuter rail system is the gold standard because it's mostly privately-run.
An MTA worker looks on as people stand on an idling train.
Getty Images
An MTA worker looks on as people stand on an idling train.

In New York, subway and suburban commuter rail passengers are calling it the "summer of hell," as emergency track work and other problems disrupt the daily routines of millions of people.

In the nation's capital, riders on the Washington Metro have far nastier words for a system that has seen frequent breakdowns and a very clear deterioration in service over the past decade. Across the country, no matter how you commute, the entire ordeal is taking longer and costing you more money.

All of this is taking place at a time when President Donald Trump has promised to fork over $1 trillion in federal money for an infrastructure rebuilding program. While visionaries like Elon Musk—who promised this week to start building a Hyperloop that would get people from New York to Washington, D.C. in 29 minutes—private sector-based solutions to America's commuting woes are still mostly the stuff of dreams.

So, before we just keep on cursing, or even start spending another dollar on our transportation infrastructure, the question is: How can we fix this?

Conservatives with a strong libertarian streak (such as myself) are often tempted to call for total privatization of mass transit, roads, bridges, and airports. We know that politicians running any industry will be primarily focused on what helps them politically. Price and quality will always take a backseat in that kind of scenario, whether it's transportation, health care, or education.

Want a project built and fixed fast and at a low cost? Too bad. Your local politician needs union support on Election Day, and isn't going to push union construction outfits to do either. Want a road paved in your neighborhood? You better hope your district is important enough to someone running for office first. Want the best engineering and management experts to run your city's transportation system? Well, they're probably going to have to take a back seat to your mayor or governor's political cronies.

Passengers wait on an NYC subway train halted by a power outage at 125th Station on June 27, 2017.
Photo: Jackie Faherty
Passengers wait on an NYC subway train halted by a power outage at 125th Station on June 27, 2017.

Given these all-too-real scenarios, you can understand why you don't need to be an anti-government free market fanatic to wish that politicians and the transportation sector could get their act together.

Still, we all know that's never going to happen. At every level, the government will never give up its iron grip on transportation. And politicians will never risk suffering the outrage of voters that would appear every time fares or tolls rise, or when commuter systems fail, without containing the potential fallout on Election Day.

Besides, some of the best urban planners in the world are arguing that major new projects aren't needed anyway, we just need better management. That's a key argument behind the "no new roads" push by groups like Strong Towns, who point out that infrastructure building is too often planned by non-local powers, who don't consider a given city's needs or how those projects will be maintained long term.

So where does that leave us? Is there an example that exists of a mass transit system that is both well-managed and financed, and where the commuters come first and politics last?

It turns out there is—and it's not in Never-Never Land. In fact, it's happening in the largest extended metropolitan area in the world: Tokyo.

In Japan's Tokaido megalopolis, with its population of about 38 million people, the large network of commuter and longer haul passenger trains in Japan have become the envy of the world.

For the last 30 years they've been running almost free of real delays, have never had a fatal accident in that time, and they actually run on a profit. They're even clean! And the secret to that success is a nice combination of free market advantages with realistic "light touch" government oversight.

You see, the commuter rails in Tokyo have been privately run for these last 30 years... sort of. In 1987, the government created a series of firms that for all other intents and purposes, run like non-governmental businesses. Since then, service has improved and the system's chronic financial problems have disappeared. That part of the free market magic works really well.

Again, it's not a totally private sector success story. The government had to set those private companies up in the first place, and they have an inside track to low interest rate loans and other occasional help from elected officials. Meanwhile, rural Japan's dwindling population has made it much harder for these companies to provide profitable service in some areas.

But this is about as free market as anyone can realistically hope for. The difference in quality and safety to what we see here in the U.S. is stark.

Their train system isn't run by political cronies. Its employees don't have the near-100 percent job security that hinders quality in government work. An apolitical profit motive spurs innovation and a drive for constant improvement.

All of the above is what really causes our transit and commuting pain in America, and Japan has eliminated most of those problems for more than a generation.

Again, we're not talking about a theoretical idea, or even some small scale pilot project. The Tokyo metropolitan is the world's largest, and this plan has been running successfully for 30 years. Promoting the idea that the Japanese model could improve transit in America sure seems like a more realistic possibility than some kind of underground vacuum tunnel.

Right now, there probably aren't enough American politicians or policymakers who even know about Japan's success story to promote copying at least some of its best qualities over here. Yet when one of the world's largest cities is getting something this important so right, it's way past time that U.S. officials take heed.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.