Philadelphia’s sisters to the north, Boston and New York, get a lot of criticism for their public transportation systems being awful. New York’s subway seems to constantly be in crisis, and Boston’s T is no better (there are entire blogs, Reddit threads, and YouTube videos dedicated to why it sucks).
In Europe, public transportation actually – get this – isn’t awful. Waiting for a Tube in London usually takes less than five minutes, and the trains move swiftly between stations, dropping you off in a timely manner. Delays happen, but they aren’t the norm. In many cities in the US, this just isn’t the case. And if you live in a rural area, forget it. You’re going to have to drive. For a country as supposedly wealthy as we are, the state of our public transportation is embarrassing. And it has consequences that go beyond being late for work whenever you try to ride the subway.
If you can believe it, our public transportation used to be great. So great, in fact, that lots of people moved from the east coast to the midwest and all the way to California before airplanes were even invented. Even small towns had public transportation in the form of street cars or horse-drawn rail cars.
There are lots of reasons for the decline in public transportation; when automobiles became more affordable, the street cars began to suffer. Things got worse during the Great Depression, when people didn’t have jobs, so they didn’t need to commute.Lots of lines began to close because people simply weren’t able to pay the fares. And then World War II happened. Unemployment plummeted thanks to factories and the war effort. Automobiles also became less practical thanks to rations on rubber and gas. But automobile companies (in particular, General Motors) preferred buses to street cars, so they oversaw the move from street cars to buses by purchasing street car companies and turning them into bus companies instead. The infrastructure needed to support street cars was simply too expensive, and buses were faster, cheaper, and more popular. During the transition, lots of local governments created public subsidized bus companies.
But we can’t blame the issue on the bus. The car – and cities that were built for cars – had even more to do with it. While Europe was building public transportation into their cities, the US was building roads into and between cities. If you have a car, you’re much more mobile than you are if you rely on the bus for your public transport. And that kind of freedom is something that a lot of people find really important. As Adam Gopnik wrote for the New Yorker in 2011, “The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal.”
The Republican party has long supported the automobile industry alongside other stalwarts of personal freedoms (such as owning a gun). They’ve voted for subsidies that helped the automobile industry (like lowering the cost of gas). Which is fine. Cars aren’t evil.
But when everyone in America seems to own a car, one has to consider the impact on the environment, which is astronomical. Cars are a major pollutant – in fact, cars and trucks make up almost one-fifth of all US emissions. They emit 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other gases for each gallon of gas burned, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Like I mentioned before, our cities were built for cars. In the US, many cities have a law about minimum number of parking spaces per building. In Europe, it’s the opposite – they’ve set maximum numbers. The US cities with the fewest cars are New York, Boston, and DC, all of which are older cities that are more difficult to drive in and have not-great but not-horrible public transportation. Cities like Denver or Los Angeles are much more car-friendly because they were made to be that way. But consider driving a car in a place like Amsterdam or Prague, and you’re pretty much screwed.
It goes further than the impact on the environment, or the ease of traveling from, say, Bangor, Maine, to Albany, New York. Harvard did a study on upward mobility where they determined that commuting time is the strongest factor when it comes to escaping poverty. The more time the commute is, the lower the chance is of a low-income family moving up. In fact, “the relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community,” according to Nathaniel Hendren, one of the researchers on the study. There’s a connection between towns and cities with long commutes and high rates of poverty. That’s because, with access to good transportation, people living in poorer neighborhoods can get all around the city, whereas those without good transportation are forced to work in those poorer neighborhoods.
There’s no downside to putting money into public transportation: it’s good for the environment, it increases economic development, it allows upward mobility. Governments in some of the most affluent nations in the world provide public services that include public transportation, which boosts the standards of living and funnels some of the money down the ladder.
The good news is that fewer young people than ever own cars, and more are using public transportation. Some cities are even using street cars again, like Portland, which has experienced a boom in economic development thanks to their street cars, which signal to businesses that they’re modern and savvy. Our infrastructure is, on the whole, improving. But rather than concentrating all of our spending on roads, we should really be focusing more on trains connecting cities, buses, and yes, street cars.