Friday, October 24, 2008

Transit Policy and why Americans are just wrong...

We now take a break from our regularly scheduled programming of complaining about the people on buses to complaining about the policies that make up the mass transit systems of our great nation.  Really to ask ... What is wrong America?  Why do you lack any sort of foresight?

This morning I was reading the "Dinner Links" over at Greater Greater Washington (which if you have yet to check out - you should, its a great blog) where a post on Salon was referenced.  This post attempts to explain or to understand why at a time when we have a record ridership on transit systems around the country, we are facing budget cuts and service reductions.  I really suggest you check out the article for yourself - here

I think we are in an interesting conundrum as a nation - as gas prices have risen, we have thankfully left the car in the driveway and have begun taking more and more transit.  Yet as our economy collapses around us, the states are left with massive budget shortfalls - and see transit as something they can cut.  I understand the pure economics behind it, but I do not understand why politicians (and most people) do not seem to see the true economics behind cutting transit budgets.  If we cut a transit budget, that means less trains, fewer buses, and more problems - which is exactly the opposite of what we need.  
The Federal Highway Aid Act allows the Federal government to pay 90% of highway construction costs, but where is the Federal Mass-Transportation Aid Act?  There is no question behind the fact that most Americans think they are above mass-transit.  I will admit that up until 6 months ago, the thought of taking a bus never would even enter my mind - now I have integrated them into my life.

My current problem with buses is not the fact that I feel below them - it is that most people don't realize they are there.  When I suggest we bus somewhere instead of taking a cab or walking, people scoff at me.  I can't seem to figure out what it is rooted in, what the American aversion to mass-transit is based in ... where does it come from?  I certainly don't have the answer, but anyone who could enlighten me would be greatly appreciated.  Why is it acceptable to spend so much money on highways, yet it is a huge issue when we spend even a dime on mass-transit?  Highways are good and serve a great purpose - I love road trips, and driving in general - but for intra-city transit, roads just seem unnecessary.  
In my ideal city, cars would travel through underground networks, while the surface was left for pedestrians, buses, and light-rail.  What a beautiful city that would be ...  I like Robert Moses and think he is a great man, though I also agree with Jane Jacobs that the car can destroy neighborhoods -- but I disagree with their car-centric thinking.  Moses cared too much about the car, and Jacobs made it out be our enemy.  The car has a place in society, just not one that supplants mass-transit.

To go off on a final tangent (sorry that I have been all over the place) - I'm going back to the Salon article.  In 1926, Americans took 147 transit trips per capita, per year.  In 1950, it was down to 113 - and by 1956 as families moved to the suburbs and got their cars, the number had dropped to 66.  Just two years ago, in 2006, it was 33.  (Here is the link to the article again, in case you didn't click it earlier)

I fear/wonder what will happen as oil prices continue to plummet.  I can only hope that Americans don't rush back to their cars, and can also hope that layoffs don't cause ridership decreases.  The more people using mass transit, the more people care about it - which in turn will hopefully allow our state representatives, congressmen, senators, and future president to understand that we need serious investment in mass-transit now!

I promise this post is over ... so I will write about this another time, but if you haven't already - check out Transportation for America.  Very important.



Steve S. said...

What will happen as oil prices fall is that OPEC will cut production. I believe the Algerian oil minister crowed that "the era of cheap oil is over". What he doesn't realize is that's good for us and bad for him. We can find other ways to get around, can he find another profitable resource in Algeria?

Tim S said...

Quite true quite true ... although I think there is the temptation of people to see a small price break (down to $3 from $4) and considering using their cars again -- which could be dangerous.