Over the past 50 years America made massive public investments in its highways—hundreds of billions of dollars in the interstate system alone. And largely because of that investment, cities and suburbs have grown into sprawling, disconnected clusters, largely dependent on the automobile. But America is changing, and it’s time to rethink the way we travel. “We have to change that and give people more options,” says John Robert Smith, president of Reconnecting America, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that advises local leaders on transportation planning.
What’s the problem with car travel? Not to put too fine a point on it, but our current network of roads and more roads (with a piddling number of trains and buses along the margins) is not sustainable. Today, 91 percent of Americans commute to work in a car, usually alone. The daily cost of fuel for cars is a staggering $1 billion-plus. Then there is conservation: All told, American drivers burn roughly one-quarter of the world’s oil. [See also What Government Needs to Do by Jim Oberstar, former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.]
Demographic trends also reflect a country reconsidering its settlement patterns and transportation networks, particularly in light of an expected population increase of more than 100 million new citizens over the next 40 years. Much of the population—from retiring boomers and young people alike—will be closer to city centers where mass transit is available.
Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national urban planning organization in New York City, says when you look ahead a few years, better mass transit will be sorely needed. “We can’t just keep building more highways and creating more sprawl,” Todorovich says.
What is essential for the success of mass transit is not just building the infrastructure itself, but connectivity. Travelers need to get from point A to point B quickly and efficiently. But for mass transit to work well, those same travelers also need to be able to switch easily from a taxi, a bus, a ferry, an airplane, or a train in a matter of a few steps to continue on to point C. In Europe, trolleys and high-speed trains run into the airports and the switch is accomplished in a short escalator ride. It’s seamless, even intuitive.
In America, not so much. “We are 30 to 40 years behind Europe and Asia,” said Smith, who adds that the big push for mass transit will have to come from state, city, and county governments and filter up to the federal level.
Mass transit is very much in the public eye, which is not surprising when one considers rising gas prices, highway congestion, unsustainable suburban sprawl, and an aging population. In 2011, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation, the second-highest annual ridership since 1957.
“For a long time, most transit riders were captive riders. They couldn’t afford a car and had to use the bus,” says Todorovich. “Now we are seeing more people using it as a lifestyle choice.”
Lifestyles matter, too. Many experts see America’s embrace of handheld devices and the desire to be connected electronically as another factor favoring mass transit over driving. Drive a car and you can’t or, at least, shouldn’t text. “If you are on a train or bus, you can stay on your iPad or smartphone,” adds Todorovich. And buses and trains that are Wi-Fi equipped make connecting that much easier.
“It’s said that government exists to provide for people what they cannot provide for themselves. That is the nature of transportation,” Smith says. “The moment you step off your property for a trip to the store or doctor or to go to school, you are on public infrastructure.”
For all the shining examples of local efforts to build intelligent ways to travel, mass transit is in jeopardy. Most federal dollars for transit come from the Highway Trust Fund set up in the 1950s to funnel gas taxes and user fees into highway projects. Beginning in the 1970s, about one-quarter of the fund has been earmarked for mass transit.
The gas tax has not increased since 1993 and remains at 18.3 cents per gallon. Each year, inflation cuts into its spending power. Many states have delayed replacement and maintenance of roadways and bridges, but politicians of both parties have treated the gas tax like the proverbial third rail—touch it and die.
The Obama Administration has proposed more infrastructure spending and a new infrastructure bank to offer low-interest loans and leverage private money. It’s the type of public works initiative that has received bipartisan support in the past, but not this time. Just this spring, the Republican-led U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed cutting mass transit entirely from the trust fund. Other transportation experts have suggested replacing the gas tax with user fees and charging motorists per mile driven.
Full Story: The looming crisis in mass transit
Source: Saturday Evening Post, July/August, 2012