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Public Transit: Where We're Going and How We'll Get There - The YEARS Project

Public Transit: Where We're Going and How We'll Get There

How many times have you heard someone say they “don’t want to go into the city?” Our transit system and the way we think about transportation, in general, is entirely backwards. Fueled by our perceptions of public services, our set-in-stone day-to-day habits, and years of conditioning by the automotive industry, we’ve become entirely focused on getting from point A to point B and not at all focused on how and why we’re getting there. Next time you’re in traffic you’ll have time to think about it. You’ll wonder why we shell out so much for cars, gas, insurance, and repairs. You’ll wonder if your commute is even worth the hours off your life. You’ll wonder if there’s a better alternative…

Unfortunately, there isn’t. At least not yet. If you’re an American living outside the country’s densest urban centers, you’re out of luck without a car. Even in a city, your options can be limited at best and out of order at worst. Transit systems are underfunded and underutilized, leading to slowdowns and even shutdowns. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Mobility isn’t just a privilege, but a necessity. And in this day and age it could arguably be a human right. This isn’t a story of convenience, however. The risks are incredibly obvious. Car emissions make up 27% of carbon pollution in the United States. These numbers are only expected to rise unless we do something and change our habits. To recognize these patterns, we need to understand how they came to be in the first place.


The Past

Public transit is a relatively new idea, at least on the scale we know it today. The only private way to get around before the automobile was to walk or ride a horse & carriage. Increased urbanization and railroad construction paved the way for the first public modes of transportation to become a reality. The turn of the 20th century saw the advent of the streetcar. A convenient way to get around by the standards of the time, but they had to share the road with cars, which were becoming a symbol of status. These streetcars were operated by private companies that quickly lost their solvency. They were bought out by bus and car companies who wanted them off the road. 

The death of the streetcar didn’t mean the end of transit, however. Streetcars were inefficient on the road, but taking transit off the road proved to be effective, hence the birth of the subway. These subways survived but remained reliant on federal funding. This meant that they were unable to expand, or even adequately maintain their existing infrastructure. While the transit system stood still, postwar America was in the baby boom. With a suburban home and unprecedented postwar productivity came the proliferation of the automobile to the middle class. This new demand for commuting infrastructure prompted the creation of the highway system. Cars were no longer relegated to the wealthy, but vehicle ownership still held onto some of its status. Conversely, perceptions of public transportation were deteriorating. Cities were becoming “dangerous.” White flight was in full effect. The infrastructure that remained from the failure of private transit companies was merely maintained as a form of welfare for those who couldn’t afford a car. With this perception, officials saw providing the bare minimum of transit as acceptable. To an extent, the idea of transit being a form of welfare has persisted in debates to this day. 

As the suburbs and their corresponding infrastructure expanded, and transit budgets were continually slashed, the only feasible route for expansion was commuter trains to connect suburbs to the inner city. Commuter trains were a great step beyond the urban/suburban divide that preceded them, but followed a similar pattern of lacking funding and infrastructure for effective utilization. Any transit beyond this fared even worse. Long-range trains were left playing second fiddle to planes and had to share rail space with freight rail. The prospect of high-speed rail in the United States hasn’t come anywhere close to becoming reality as it has in other developed countries such as China or Japan. So what next?



Our country’s economic and cultural centers are cut off from anyone who doesn’t live within their existing transit limits. Commuter trains may be able to bridge the gap, but it’s effectively a bandaid on a stab wound. Anyone who attempts to ride into the city will be beholden to limited schedules and long waits. Those who try to brave the commute will waste countless hours of their lives stuck in traffic and pay a fortune for parking. 

This reliance on cars has an even greater impact on our nation’s culture and sense of community. It has effectively killed the notion of “public space.” Such a space only exists for parking today. Cars act as a private mobile space, an extension of the home, even. They create an insular bubble in which people can maintain their solitude up until the moment they reach their destination. Major cities on the east coast have public spaces because they were developed before the popularization of the car. Today these spaces are looked upon fondly, and almost romanticized. What about public space are we afraid of as a society? Any answers I can come up with leave a bad socio-economic taste in my mouth. The end result is that it’s convenient and that it’s what almost all Americans have known their entire lives.

The impact of transit is significant, and spreads far beyond just carbon emissions. The entire system is harmful. Maybe not in as significant of a way as burning a hole in the ozone layer, but on a smaller, more holistic scale, there are many ways in which it does damage. The dividing up of countless acres of land into roads and highways destroys urban communities. Boston provides a prime example of the eviction of entire neighborhoods of impoverished people in favor of creating highway space. This same pattern applies to wild ecosystems, with road construction forcing animals into more desolate pockets of the wild, which often do not reflect their natural habitats. This development also brings humanity further and further from the state of nature we were born into. The mystique of the open road that is sewn into the illusory fabric of Americana has dissipated, trading the perceived freedom it might’ve once provided for a ball-and-chain of gridlock. Granted, we can spend hours pointing fingers at what we think might’ve killed the American dream, but I respectfully submit our transit system to the list. The nature-destroying sprawl of suburbia may be set in stone, but the way we interact with the insufficient infrastructure it left behind is up to us.



As we’ve examined, the debate between economic incentives to ride transit and the quality of service provided for said price point yields various pros and cons. A sustainable transit system needs to be able to stand on its own two feet and not rely on government support. This system also needs transit quality to match its self-sustaining price, which current systems lack. Europe’s systems can sustain themselves since they have been integrated into the infrastructure, but American systems will need investment from outside sources. Private transit companies were tried in the 20th century and ultimately couldn’t sustain themselves, so it only makes sense to go public. Any transit improvements would need to be funded by the government while still charging pre-improvement fares. Only after the improvements were made would self-sustaining transit rates be justifiable. 

The problem with the American transit system is that the infrastructure, bad as it may be, is already in place. The highways are a part of people’s daily commute. The trains have run on the same routes for ages. We can’t just rip all of it up. We had a chance when we were building cities on cleared, stolen land. Europe capitalized on the destruction of World War II to think big and rebuild beyond the point the continent was at before the war. I’m not saying that we need catastrophic destruction to bring about change, but we’ll need to think creatively about how we change the transit that we already have. Expanding existing lines for commuter and Amtrak trains can connect people who previously only had the option to ride by car. Making these lines run more frequently will also encourage commuting. 

One place where new infrastructure can be built is where it doesn’t already exist. Some of the aforementioned long-range transit options could be replaced or supplemented by something bold and new: high-speed rail. What is already a regular mode of transportation in some parts of the world has hardly left the planning stages in the United States. It’s not for lack of trying. California seriously considered a state-wide high-speed rail system, but Elon Musk offered an alternative in his so-called “hyperloop.” This idea never even came close to fruition, leading me to believe his only intention in proposing it was to derail the proposal for high-speed rail. 

These proposals are costly, but offer the most cutting-edge solution to transportation problems in the country. Amtrak trains generally top out at speeds of 145 mph, and that’s only in the longest and most open stretches of track. High-speed rail operates at speeds so fast it can beat planes to certain locations. Authorities consider high-speed rail to be optimal for trips under 4½ hours. It’s tough to argue that high-speed trains are an equal replacement for plane travel, but it’s effortless to see that they’re a much better way to travel than cars. It’s tough to justify shelling out for a one-hour flight, but a one-hour train ride sounds optimal. This is what high-speed rail could offer. It may not work everywhere, but some of our most traveled routes could see major increases in transit efficiency with the introduction of high-speed rail.

There is great potential for transit in this vast nation, but before any policies can change, minds must change. As we discussed, perceptions have shaped how our transit system came to be. What can be done to change them now? First and foremost, we need to eliminate hierarchy from our minds when considering transit. Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, said it best, “An advanced city is not one where the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” (Peñalosa is far more qualified to speak on this than I am, and you can listen to his TED Talk here) Instead of looking at public transportation as the lowest form of mobility for the lowest class of people, it should be looked at as a PUBLIC good. Something that can be used by everyone. City space and the natural environment we live in are ultimately public as well, and we owe it to each other to minimize private consumption and degradation of said space and environment. 

Cars may be the easiest way to get around, and they’re only becoming more energy efficient in this age of Teslas and Priuses, but let’s not forget that trains are the original electric vehicle. If we all collectively took one step toward having greater consideration for our fellow person, we would not only live in a more empathetic world, but we would also live in a more shared one. We could see a return of public space, good faith interactions between strangers, more efficient use of our planet’s finite resources, and perhaps even a sense of shared identity in a nation divided against itself.