Several years ago, my wife and I paid a visit to the Women’s Suffrage Museum in Seneca Falls, N.Y. As soon as we walked in, we saw a map of the New York State train system in 1848. Back then, the train not only went to Seneca Falls, but to most important towns and cities in the area. Seneca Falls was home to some of the suffrage leaders—it was an important east-west railway hub. In 1848, a proper woman could not ride a horse from town to town, or even drive a carriage without an escort. But a woman could travel alone on a train. For the first time in history, women had mobility independent of men. Mobility gave them freedom to meet and organize with other women, to become a group with shared values and a political agenda.
By the time women got the vote in 1920, cars had already begun to compete with public transportation. Now progress has eliminated rail service to western New York. So what’s the problem? For a long time there didn’t seem to be any. We had unlimited ability to manufacture cars, and apparently a limitless supply of oil for gasoline. Business was good.
By the 1960s, we had reconfigured our built environment so that most people had no choice but to use cars for essential travel. It is not practical or efficient now to use public transportation, except for those who live close to major metropolitan areas. Cars even serve as expressions of our social status, and getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage into adulthood.
Under the Testimony of Simplicity, Friends seek to live within our means—not just limiting dollars spent, but limiting material complications in our lives. Under our concern for stewardship of the Earth, we now confront a catastrophe. Cars and trucks worldwide—and especially in the United States—exacerbate global warming and oil scarcity. With corn-based ethanol and transportation expenses driving up the cost of food worldwide, all humanitarian efforts are overwhelmed, and farmers in poor countries are motivated to cut down forests and use marginal lands to produce more food. The result: more greenhouse gases, more global warming, and further degradation of the environment.
To reduce air pollution, global warming, highway gridlock, 42,000 U.S. traffic fatalities a year, and many related problems, a public transportation renaissance should be under way right now in the United States. In some regions (New York City, Portland, Seattle, Miami, and Washington, D.C.) there are signs of progress. And nationally, several organizations and experts—environmentalists, commuters, political leaders, municipalities, and businesses—are calling for something we have never had before: a national transportation policy. The Brookings Institution, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the National Governors Association, National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, and Building America’s Future are among the key groups urgently calling for transformational changes.
Specifics include a focus on the nation’s 100 major metropolitan regions, a national infrastructure bank, and a semi-independent entity like the Federal Reserve that would allocate infrastructure spending.
To greatly increase access to more frequent commuter trains, light rail, and buses; to buy back railroad rights of way and to establish new ones; to build new transportation hubs—all these necessary steps require massive investments of capital and enormous political and popular support.
Yet revitalizing our public transportation systems, locally and even nationally, is not an impossible task. We have historical precedents of projects just as big. The building of the interstate highway system is an apt, if ironic, example. It was a massive effort over many years, involving the coordination of federal, state, and local government with private industry, and a huge investment of public monies. Few would deny that our interstate highway system is, in general, a good thing. We wouldn’t want to give it up.
Another example of large-scale industrial mobilization is the home front effort in World War II. Industries retooled at a level of magnitude and speed never seen before. Business leaders donated their expertise—"Dollar-A-Year Men." The U.S. economy boomed, and the era of Depression and unemployment was ended. Millions—yes, millions—of jobs were created; women and African Americans gained job opportunities they had never had before. Many citizens remember the era with nostalgia.
The interstate highway system and the love affair with the car grew in part out of that booming World War II economy. But now, aggravated by today’s much larger population and suburban sprawl, our automobile addiction has helped create the problems that we must currently address.
Meanwhile, the public transportation infrastructure has been allowed to atrophy. "Cost-conscious" cuts are made in bus and train service. Fares are increased and ridership dwindles. Most trolleys are gone or considered quaint tourist attractions. Even freight train lines have been abandoned—at the same time that more freight than ever before is moving by train.
By revitalizing public transportation alternatives such as light rail, bus service, and trains, we could be getting the best of both worlds: long distance, flexible movement of people and goods over the interstate highways, and quicker and more convenient mobility in the long-haul freight and commuter train markets.
Not to be ignored are the less tangible benefits we could gain: the facilitation of access to one another. Many observers today decry the lack of community and cultural interchange imposed by the loss of sidewalks, front porches, and the neighborhood enterprises that were once the social glue of our communities.
It seems reasonable to suppose that we would have changes in society and culture at least as profound as those of the 19th century. True, automobiles and the interstate highway system already provide excellent access for most of us, but only at an increasingly insupportable cost to the public.
What about cost? Could revitalizing public transportation be cost-effective? Not if we look narrowly at, say, the operating costs of a commuter train line versus its revenues from ridership. However, we must put into the equation the huge price we each pay through government subsidies directly and indirectly to highway construction and maintenance, to the automobile industry, the trucking industry, and to oil companies. By subsidizing highway construction and maintenance, our government rewards highway use and all the attendant problems it causes.
Manufacturing and maintaining many more cars than we want on the roads uses up gargantuan amounts of steel, aluminum, rubber, plastic, and other petroleum based products as well as massive amounts of energy created by fossil fuel consumption. These same materials can be used more efficiently in support of public transportation. A car typically depreciates into a junk heap in a few years; light rail, buses, trains, trackage, and related infrastructure can last 20 years or longer, and add far more value to the economy.
According to the Intelligent Transportation Society, itself a pro-highway lobby group, "traffic congestion costs the American people an estimated $100 billion each year in the form of lost productivity. In 1993, traffic accidents claimed 40,115 lives and injured an additional three million people." The ITS continues: "Vehicle emissions are a major cause of air pollution. Trucks, buses, and automobiles idling in traffic emit tons of pollutants each year and waste billions of gallons of fuel."
Donald Camph, a noted West Coast transportation consultant, says, "Public transportation returns $4 to $5 to the American economy for every $1 invested." Camph also points out: "By reducing congestion, commuter rail saves the truck and freight industry $300 million to $450 million per year."
Add to these factors the enormous health costs from respiratory disease and pollution-caused illnesses directly related to automobile emissions. In fact, driving in the United States is severely underpriced. When one looks at the cost picture in this way, public transportation shows up as a clear winner in the cost-effectiveness contest.
This is not to argue that we can suddenly eliminate cars. But we need a better way to get quickly and conveniently to and from work, the daycare center, and the shopping mall. We need a better mode of transportation for the elderly, people with disabilities, children, teenagers too young to drive, and perhaps most critically, people who are too poor to drive but need to get to their jobs, education, and social services. Our current situation forces the poor into immobility and second-class citizenship.
Change can, and must, be brought about gradually enough to allow U.S. industry to diversify and to create new income streams by doing what they used to do—by building rail passenger cars, trolleys, buses, train stations, dedicated trolley lines and other transportation facilities. Many business opportunities also exist for computerization and other high-tech operations in ticketing, scheduling, safety, communications, and other areas of transportation management.
Congress is well aware of these public transportation problems and opportunities, and in 1991 it began to respond by enacting the Intermodal Surface Transportation Effectiveness Act (ISTEA) to address them. National interest also requires that Congress address the issues of dependence on foreign oil and the continuing balance of payments problem. With our dismal performance on global warming and per-capita consumption of energy and raw materials, U.S. world leadership is continually called into question.
The question is, will the U.S. public, our elected representatives, and corporate stakeholders finally get behind what is clearly in the national interest? If ever there was a time, this is it.
Steps toward Revitalizing Public Transportation
- Focus reform on the nation’s metro regions
- Encourage municipal zoning reform through tax incentives and grants
- Educate public on the benefits of land use policies that lead to transit-oriented development and walkable, bikeable communities
- Design a truly intermodal, high-tech transportation system inclusive of buses, trolleys, trains, trucks, planes, and cars
- Show car makers and other multi-national corporations how diversification in response to transportation reform can lead to benefits from new income streams
- Highlight increased opportunities for service industries and retail businesses related to train, bus, and trolley activity and locations
- Phase in gasoline taxes and user fees commensurate with those in other industrialized nations
- Gradually transfer more highway fees and gasoline tax dollars to mass transit
- Offer tax credit incentives to allow for passenger service on freight rights of way
- Build inter-city high-speed rail on new, modern rights of way separate from freight
- Stress the greater convenience and financial benefits of commuting by public transportation